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Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Mystery of the Anamorphic Skull in The Ambassadors: Hollow Bone or Exterminating Angel?


Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (aka The Ambassadors): Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533 (National Gallery, London)

Two poised and confident Renaissance courtiers, a French diplomat and his aristocratic companion, wonderfully captured by the master painter of the English court amid the symbols and trappings of all the intellectual and material accomplishments of an expanding world.

But when one looks for a while, in amidst this splendid celebration of the life of the age, this triumphant embodiment of the gloria mundi. one senses perhaps also a dissonant note, something eerie, something slightly "off', an unsettling element of the vertiginous and the spooky.

It's that odd flattened diagonal shape in the foreground of the picture.

What is it?

The mysterious foreground object is impossible to "read" from a frontal viewing angle. But when one resorts to a sidelong view, stationing oneself at an oblique angle in relation to the right side of the picture plane and looking at the painting "out of the corner of one's eye" as the saying goes, or "sneaking up on it" (cats sometimes look at each other in thus wise, at times when proper cat etiquette seems to forbid gazing straight-on), a recognizable image begins to emerge.

Holbein's painted skull is an anamorphic image.

Anamorphic drawing techniques were well known to Holbein and other artists of the age. Those practised in such techniques were able to produce a kind of drawing presenting a distorted image which appeared in "natural" form under certain conditions, as when viewed from a raking angle or reflected in a convex mirror.

When the anamorphosis in
The Ambassadors
is "corrected", the undistorted image of a skull appears. What could be the meaning of this?


Undistorted image of the anamorphic skull in Holbein's The Ambassadors (with anamorphosis "corrected"): image by Nataraja, 2005

The painting was made to be hung on a staircase in the chateau of the man seen on the left, Jean de Dinteville, ambassador of the French king Francis I to the court of Henry VIII. From below left, upon the stairs, or from the base of the staircase, in de Dinteville's chateau, the "corrected" skull image could probably have been made out easily enough.

Was this built-in reminder of the transitoriness of all worldly things a symbolic message woven by the artist into the work with the knowledge and consent of the man who intended to own and display it?

"The shadow of the shadow of death," as Mary F.S. Hervey so memorably compressed the content of this "hidden" message in her 1900 study of The Ambassadors: not exactly the sort of penumbra of association a courtly young Renaissance prince might have wished to have cast over, for example, a fashionable dinner party, or fancy-dress ball.

Seen as thus ominously enshadowed, must not this apparent paean to the glories of the world and the divinity in man be reinterpreted as a symbolic narrative of a very different sort? One, that is, in which the death's head, a figure of the concealed presence within this scene of Time as the Exterminating Angel, not unlike the presence of the mysterious dark shape that haunts the disturbing 1946 Robert Siodmak cinematic psychological thriller The Spiral Staircase, or, for that matter, the constant not-quite-visible presence of death within life, is always going to be lying in wait there, lurking at the bottom of the stairs?

Or could the anamorphic skull merely have been Holbein's "little surprise"?

The painter's name means "hollow bone" (hohle Bein
) in German.

Was the painter simply creating a private ironic play, embedded within his work's complex internal play of signals, upon his own name?

Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (aka The Ambassadors), detail: Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533 (National Gallery, London)


Julia said...

And what they say about the crucifix at the left angle?

TC said...


There are all sorts of play and trickery going on in this painting, I think, but the crucifix seems to be the one bit I've missed.

(I don't know that "they" have found it, either...)

There are celestial and terrestrial globes, sundials, quadrants and other instruments of astronomy and geometry, a lute, a case of flutes, and an open German hymn book, on whose pages may be seen Luther's translation of the "Veni Creator Spiritus" and his "Shortened Version of the Ten Commandments".

Mary F.S. Hervey pointed out that the ambassador Dinteville's cap is adorned with a small brooch on which is engraved a silver skull (she concluded from this that the ambassador had adopted the skull as his personal "device").

Another element of discord in the painting is the broken string of the lute.

If there is a crucifix in the painting it must be concealed. Of course the hidden crucifix would be the ultimate trick.

If it is there, my guess would be that is hidden under the ample robes of George de Selve, the fellow on the right, who was evidently the pious one of the pair. He would, shortly after this painting was done, become the bishop of Lavaur.

But the painting was being done in England, where "papists" were in very bad odour at this time.

So flaunting crucifixes would have been a no-no.

Julia said...

The crucifix is behind the curtain and behind Dinteville's head.
Would it be seen as a papist symbol? I'd like to know it...

I'm sure that specialists could say we're too obvious, but it doesn't matter, we're talking among friends at a hospitable blog... So let me point out also that the medallion worn by the ambassador Dinteville represents Saint Michael killing the dragon, a scene many times related to Jesus's defeat over death.
The wiki image allows zooming the picture.

Julia said...

I realize now that I didn't finished my argument or line of thought. What I wanted to suggest was this question:
Could it be possible that the painting may be alluding to the idea that Death is defeated by knowledge, science and art? Death will always be there, haunting and chasing us but there is a force deep in men soul, mind and life that could in one or the other way be even more powerful than death. This idea wouldn't be alien to those years of the XVI's century, I believe.

TC said...

Well blow me down, as Artur might say, it does look as though the stolid German Protestant Holbein may indeed have secreted a wee blanched crucified Christ into the upper left corner of the work, the ghost behind the arras as it were -- which would make the painter a very cheeky fellow indeed. We recall that the year after Holbein created this work, another of Henry's favoured men, the Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More, who evidently had a few crucifixes or the equivalent stashed in his curtains or wardrobes or drawers, was ordered off to the Tower, and a year after that to the scaffold. Playing around with religion and its images, in the Tudor court, was playing with fire.

At any rate, I think it's true that the way the anamorphic death's head slashes across the painting effectively burns a hole in the scene, creating a disquieting internal rupture, penetrating into and polluting or corrupting or infecting the equally powerful image of life and human worldly achievement -- which is after all the ostensible as well as the immediately locatable subject.

So in the process the location thus becomes shaky, an unstable non-place, not at all the secure and impregnable stage of the court and the world. The skull is the "wild card" that re-casts the scene in a light of estrangement, undermining and subverting the literal or realistic subject-matter "message".

But then, Julia, yours would be the more positive counter-reading: that the subtle shadow of death is acknowledged but at the same time banished by the superior power and authority of living presence that radiates from the proud and confident young gentleman, possessors and proprietors of a world they may with reasonable certainty say belongs not to Death, but to them.

Julia said...

"proprietors of a world they may with reasonable certainty say belongs not to Death, but to them"

Or to God. A God that by dying at the crux, defeated death... The ultimate paradox.
Holbein was a very good friend to Erasmus and as far as I know he presented the Philosophy of Christ as the most important philosophy and way of life.

Anonymous said...

Tom and Julia: Thank you both for the most uplifting and entertaining moments I've had all day.

Julia said...

curtis, what a nice thing to say!
Thank you :-)

How are you today, Tom?
I hope we can continue our discussion. I was thinking that that the date of the painting is really important. 1533 is a transition period, isn't it? By that time Edward VIII had not yet broke up with Rome.
Are you sure the crucifix could be seen by then just as a papist symbol?

Julia said...

I'm sorry, of course I meant Henry VIII
I usually confuse in Spanish Edward (Eduardo) & Henry (Enrique)

TC said...


I've been thinking the past two nights about this same question. In the years 1530 to 1534 Henry was involved in a series of cankering disputes against the Papal authority whose extension into the affairs of his realm he had begun to chafe against and was in the process of formally repudiating through a series of measures that culminated in the Oath of Supremacy of 1534, which required that his subjects swear their allegiance to the autonomous authority of the English King as the head of the English Church. It was Thomas More's refusal to swear this oath that led directly to his execution. When we remember that it was at this court, in London, in 1533, in the midst of these ominous danger signals for those who were perceived by Henry as standing in the way of his historical designs, that the work in question was undertaken, it becomes difficult to imagine that Holbein -- who of course was painting for his livelihood and not to advance any sort of subversive programme -- would have risked the wrath of his principal patron by attempting any sort of suspicious iconographic high-jinks, in it.

But this is still a matter that encourages speculation and imagination.

Holbein had been working in Basle, where the religious controversies of the Reformation were swirling (and where, indeed, the zeal of his support for the reforms of Zwingli had been brought into question), and returned in 1532 to England, where he found that the balance of power had swung away from the humanist circle around Thomas More, in which he had been previously employed. Distancing himself then from More as the political/religious situation changed, he turned instead for protection to the circles of the King's principal adviser Thomas Cromwell, and the King's mistress, Anne Boleyn. And that of course was not a circle in which the display of the props and symbols of the Roman faith would have been much encouraged.

But at the end of the day, the considerable ambiguity on the subject of religion reflected in Holbein's private conduct and (particularly, for this is what concerns us) in the internal symbolism of his art, and above all in his masterpiece The Ambassadors, remains a matter of some mystery, and no little interest to some of us, to this day.

Julia said...

Thank you, Tom, for giving so much thought to that question.
These were definitely complicated times. The end of an era of optimism where many clever men thought that peace was possible: just a matter of education. A difficult and in many ways sad time, but very interesting .

So... you are sure that the crucifix was saw as a symbol of papists, aren't you? It's a very tricky painting, indeed!

Changing the subject: I just read this in a blog I like very much. While I was reading the first lines I thought of you, and then your name appeared at the end!!

TC said...


Well, now you have me lost in the time-tunnel with this matter of the crucifix.

Luther's general objection to all the "Roman" votive objects naturally included the crucifix, and so in Lutheran churches, and other northern European churches of the Reformation, the empty cross replaced the crucifix in most public services.

In England, however, the Reformation bore the personal stamp of the particular Tudor monarchs, and so the English Church, then and later, seems to have followed no rational or consistent pattern of ecclesiastical policy on the use of cult objects.

It had long been the custom in the Roman Catholic Church, for example, to have a crucifix carried by the priest before the corpse in funeral processions. But in the time of Henry VIII's son and successor Edward VI, A.D. 1548, there was passed a statute that forbade the use of the crucifix and images in church service; this was revived in Elizabeth's reign, though later Elizabeth did reintroduce the crucifix in some services, and in her private chapel as well.

I think this reflects the fact that ecclesiastical politics must often bow in the long run to traditional custom.

History makes less and less sense to me the longer it (and I) continue; and of no area of history is this more true than the history of religion.

It seems the English are still trying to sort out these matters as well, if this article is any indication:

Church of England school bans crucifix but permits wearing of Sikh jewelry.



"Golpes de lluvia en Las Ventanas. Y Su Voz golpeándo mis pulmones, llenos Ahora, Ahora Vacíos. dulcemente triste, feliz dulcemente. Dímelo tú, Tom, ¿Crees Que voy buen camino?"

Ese blog es coincidencia muy curiosa, porque esta tarde las circunstancias atmosféricas aquí son muy similares: Golpes de lluvia en Las Ventanas. Está lloviendo y hace mucho frío y ventoso. Me gustaría poder decir más sobre el buen camino.

Sería excelente que en Buenos Aires con ustedes esta noche!

Julia said...

"History makes less and less sense to me the longer it (and I) continue; and of no area of history is this more true than the history of religion."

I agree with you, but I don't really know why it stills haunted me. I can't say I'm a religious person, I was rise as a catholic, but I don't practice now (long ago). Sorry, I have to continue in Spanish... creo que lo que me fascina de las disputas religiosas, en sentido filosófico y teológico (no en cuanto a la violencia física, por supuesto) es que me hacen pensar en qué es lo realmente importante de la religión y la fe. No logro aceptar las doctrinas de sólo una iglesia (católica, luterana, evangélica, etc. para hablar sólo de las cristianas. Porque, al ver cómo fue la historia y las circunstancias que llevaron a asumir como verdades unas ideas y descartar otras como equivocadas o malignas, muchas de esas cosas pierden sentido. Pero a veces me permiten pensar en qué es lo esencial en el mensaje religioso y cristiano en particular. Y qué hay de bueno para mí en cada una de las respuestas que la historia dio. Últimamente creo que Erasmo sería mi mejor maestro de religión. Y él intentó siempre mantenerse neutral en las rupturas de su época.

Sorry for this long chatty-chat in Spanish.
The blog I sent you is of a woman in Spain. Here, in the South, the climate is very nice. Spring every where. Te envío un poco de nuestra primavera, espero que llegue a destino de una u otra forma.
Un beso y que tengas buen día.

TC said...


Aquí en el norte que es miserable hoy en día - la lluvia, el frío, la oscuridad, la lluvia más.

Pero me alegro de pensar en el brillo y el calor de los días en que se encuentre.

Yo, también, se crió en la fe católica. (Mi madre era muy devota, al igual que toda su familia ... de Irlanda, por supuesto.)

Uno nunca llega a estas cosas. (One never gets over it!)

Maravilloso Erasmus, que va a tener una sonrisa en el otro mundo, al oírle decir estas cosas!

Julia said...

Yes, one never gets over it! But that's ok: I don't really want to get over religion. Is just I don't feel comfortable with ONE dogma. A philosophy, as the Erasmus's "Christ's Philosophy", this is what I prefer. Searching and guessing, and try to feel calm and comfortable even though you don't get complete answers.

TC said...


Yes, I too believe a philosophy might well do better than a religion as a lamp to help us see a bit further on into the darkness which surrounds us.

(Then again, a flashlight, or "torch" as they call that useful device in some places, might also help, or better still, a ray or two of sunshine... perhaps you could lend us one or two of those latter, as this time of year you may have a few to spare!)

On the "Christ issue": I have been reconsidering that in the past few years, mainly as a result of thinking about the Christ figure in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. The Russian tv version of the novel (in ten episodes, directed by Vladimir Bortko) has been issued as a series of DVDs, which we borrowed from the local library (just ahead of its being torn down, as it happened). I suppose every significant historical figure undergoes repeated sea-changes as later attitudes and events proceed. But what really interested me was the relation between Christ and Pontius Pilate, as staged in the Bulgakov story. The tensions in that relationship "humanized" the tale in an interesting way that might well have interested Erasmus. At any rate, it helped me to get over blaming Christianity on Christ.

(Christianity, in this country, of late, is at times difficult to keep from confusing with a multi-purpose weapons system.)

Also, Pontius Pilate, in the teleplay, is given a very fine dog -- with which, at the conclusion, to walk off at the side of Christ into the stars.

TC said...

Julia, I have discovered that the whole of the Bortko series is online, both at Youtube and at Google video. From the first episode, one may move on to the second, etc.

This is the Google version:

The Master and Margarita, Episode One

The characters of Christ and Pontius Pilate first appear at about eighteen minutes into that initial episode. They then reappear intermittently, with the climactic scene, as I have described it above, coming at the very end of the play.

(As I say, it's the two characters' interaction which was the great interest in the film version, for me.)

Julia said...

Thank you, Tom! We just saw the first episode, and we'll see the next ones soon. Is wonderful, I have to read the novel.
Now, sun is calling us. Some warm wind, lots of light & hot sun are being delivered right now to rainy California (directly to your home)

TC said...

Thank you very much, and I will be expecting those gentle warm winds and uplifting lights, Julia.

(Perhaps their heralds are the massive thunderclouds even now gathering overhead, ready to break loose at any moment...)

Arda Gül said...

This painting fascinates me so much. Would love to see the original one day.

mitchell mercer said...

The omnipotence paradox is a family of semantic paradoxes that explores what is meant by 'omnipotence'. If an omnipotent being is able to perform any action, then it should be able to create a task that it is unable to perform. Hence, this being cannot perform all actions (i.e. it is not omnipotent), a logical contradiction. The most well-known version of the omnipotence paradox is the so-called paradox of the stone: "Could an omnipotent being create a stone so heavy that even they could not lift it?"[1] This phrasing of the omnipotence paradox is vulnerable to objections based on the physical nature of gravity, such as how the weight of an object depends on what the local gravitational field is. Alternative statements of the paradox that do not involve such difficulties include "If given the axioms of Riemannian geometry, can an omnipotent being create a triangle whose angles do not add up to more than 180 degrees?" and "Can God create a prison so secure that he cannot escape from it?"

The omnipotence paradox is medieval, dating at least to the 12th century. It was addressed by Averroës (1126–1198) and later by Thomas Aquinas.[2] Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (before 532) has a predecessor version of the paradox, asking whether it is possible for God to "deny himself"

Arhi Kuittinen Finnsanity said...

Can't you see freemason's symbols, The Square and Compasses.