Holbein's 'The Ambassadors'

The Ambassadors

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger (National Gallery, London) was created in 1533, the year that Elizabeth I was born. A striking life-scale double portrait, it also depicts numerous meticulously rendered objects and includes a rare and much-cited example of anamorphosis. The meaning of the painting and the objects it depicts has been the cause of much debate.

When this double portrait was painted, Jean de Dinteville, Seigneur de Polisy, was ambassador to London from the court of the French king, François I.

The globe (bottom shelf) marks Dinteville's château at Polisy.

His dagger sheath is inscribed in Latin 'aet. svae/29' (meaning aged 29).

Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur, visited Dinteville in London in spring 1533.

He leans on a book inscribed in Latin 'aet. svae/25' (meaning aged 25).

Various elements in the picture are 'vanitas', reminders of mortality. Holbein also explored this theme in his woodcut series 'The Dance of Death'.

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

The hat badge, skull and the broken lute string are all possibly vanitas elements. The crucifix may be a reminder of the Christian promise of resurrection.

Scholarship and luxury: The floor is based on the famous (and mystically symbolic) Cosmati pavement in front of the main altar in Westminster Abbey.

The objects on the two shelves relate to heaven and earth respectively.

The celestial globe shows a map of the heavens. Constellations are shown as signs of the zodiac.

This sundial is an instrument for telling the time and date from the position of the sun.

Expensive oriental rugs like this one were displayed on tables rather than floors.

The quadrant determines the user's geographical position.

This is a sundial in the form of a ten-sided polyhedron. There is a compass inset on the top face.

This complex instrument, a torquetum, is for measuring the position of stars and planets.

The globe shows Dinteville's chateau at Polisy.

A printed mathematical text book illustrating techniques for calculation with decimal numbers. The use of an explicit zero, shown in this example, was an important technical innovation.

A hymn book with German text by Martin Luther, the founder of the Reformation.

The leather case has a lock and key. It contains flutes. One flute appears to be missing.

One of the lute strings is broken.

The distorted image - or anamorphosis - of the skull comes into focus from a point to the right of the picture.