Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein

Hans Holbein the younger painted this in 1533. Among other things, it is a double portrait of two real people, one of them a wealthy landowner and the other a bishop. Putting two men from such weighty occupations into a frame together automatically begs interpretive questions. The plot is also thickened considerably when one peruses the shelves behind the gentlemen and the various objects they contain. It is a beautiful little still life all it's own, comprised mostly of instruments for astronomical calculation, and then on the lower shelf, books and a lute with a broken string. There is much debate over whether the relationship between the two men and the various objects symbolizes any kind of mutuality, or perhaps religious strife instead. At any rate, the most notable element of the painting by far is the famous anamorphic skull that sits, jarringly I might add, at the feet of the two men. Two of the many popular motifs during the Renaissance were Anamorphic perspective imagery and Vanitas. Vanitas is essentially any symbology that contemplates on the transient nature of earthly life and vanity. Skulls have always been and will always be the apex of death-contemplation imagery. So to have a skull in a painting like this isn't so startling on it's own. But this is a seriously anamorphic skull! To viewers unfamiliar with the concept, it comes across as an ugly smear only until viewed at an extreme angle from the side. Some people contend that Holbein intended for this work to be hung on the side wall in a stairwell, so that people ascending the stairs would see the skull before any of the other imagery became plain. Either way it's quite a beautiful and mysterious piece of work. But here is the really cool part: John Coulthart's blog recently informed me that this painting can now be viewed in the new Google Art Project gallery. This is quite a project, they are taking huge scans of famous paintings from everywhere so that you can check them out in a digital gallery. Why this is cool: Clearly, seeing The Ambassadors in person is a treat because you get to wait in the long line to take turns looking at the image from the side. However, with all the people and security hounding over you, you can barely spend any time at all closely scrutinizing the astonishing, hyper-real detail in the work itself. The guards won't even let you get all that close. Not all of the art in the Google project is as SUPER SUPER high res as The Ambassadors, but if you would like to look at the details of the skull and the still life close up- and I mean really, really, really close up- then CHECK IT OUT:

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