Holbein’s The Ambassadors, painted in 1533, portrays Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve. Dinteville was a French ambassador sent to the English court of Henry VIII by Francis I. Hans Holbein, who served as the king’s official painter, was a German Catholic artist. This painting is one of his greatest works and is known for its significant objects and hidden symbols. Moreover, it reflects the political and religious strife of the time.
The National Gallery in London purchased The Ambassadors in 1890. Holbein combined a German compositional format with Flemish realism and Italian treatment of form in his paintings to create this masterpiece.
In this portrait painting, Dinteville wears French court dress while Selve is dressed as an ecclesiastic with a scarlet soutane. Hidden among the cluttered objects on display are clues about religion, science, art, timekeeping – even death itself – which has led to academic debate over their symbolic connotations.
Overall, Holbein’s The Ambassadors express his mastery of portraiture techniques along with an expression that questions society’s beliefs during 16th-century Europe’s tumultuous socio-political climate through hidden messages within mundane artefacts portrayed in an otherwise ordinary setting.