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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking


Hans Holbein’s painting of the Ambassadors is weird.

It is in many ways a true product of the Northern Rennaissance. Like contemporary images it is thickly laden with meaning, symbolism and semiotic communication while still being an object of great beauty and high accomplishment.

The objects on the table against which the two men lean are chosen to illustrate their various personal qualities along with the artist’s abilities. Their stance is wide and strong, brash even, while their clothes are expensive velvets, furs, gold pieces and lavish satins. These are the movers and shakers of their day.

The exact meanings, and the names of the sitters, are still debated. They are generally accepted, although not wholly so, to be Jean de Dinteville, a landowner, and Georges de Selve, a bishop. Several of their objects are fundamental to semiotics image. The instruments illustrate their expansionsit intentions, knowledge of science, joy and religious reverence amongst other qualities.

Perspective in painting was still a revolutionary technique at the time, one which the artist has chosen to boast about. The lute is placed at an angle such that the artist can demonstrate his ability to handle extreme fore-shortening. Interestingly, one string is broken showing an unexpected frailty or perhaps discord. There are also recorders, in tribute to Henry VIII – he loved this instrument and wrote Greensleeves on it.

The figure on the left clasps a short dagger indicating a potential bellicosity and reinforcing the fact that he is a agent of a foreign power, in an unfamiliar if not hostile environment. A larger sword nestles, almost concealed by his side while he wears a St George medal, showing a level of fealty to his hosts.

Commentators have chosen to view the work as the battle between the church and secular forces. The figure on the right is a bishop while the figure on the left is a secular diplomat. Conversely, the painting may illustrate that the governance of the Europe at the time lay between these two pillars.

Hans Holbein?

Holbein was a high flying socialite portraitist from a German artistic family. After spending years touring Europe and meeting luminaries of the time, he came to the court of the King of England, Henry VIII. Holbein was a supremely talented draughtsman and painter of faithful portraits. His images are incredible, needing to be seen in the flesh to do them full justice.

The Smear

But we cannot ignore the obvious. The Ambassadors has a massive smear right across it. The smear is actually an anamorphosis; an image that can only be viewed in a particular manner.

Ananmorphic art is art which can only be viewed from a proscribed perspective or through a specific mechanism. Here, we could see the image if we were to lie on the floor before the image and look up across the canvas(?). The image is a skull, a device used in painting as a memento mori to remind the sitter, and viewer, that no matter what heights you climb to, death is the inescapable leveller.

Of course, the painter may not be commenting on his sitters, but saying something about us instead that we must prostrate ourselves before we can see the image.

See more anamorphic art at the New Scientist. Also, bear in mind, anamorphosis can have real world applications beyond trickery in visual culture.

Hans Holbein Biography
The Ambassadors – an introduction to a vast piece
Anamorphic art

This article was posted by on Sunday, December 18th, 2011 at 13:57.
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