In his amazing book ‘Renaissance Self Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare’, Stephen Greenblatt uses his visual analysis of the mood evoked by Holbein’s famous work ‘The Ambassadors’ for explaining the kind of estrangement that a self made man like Thomas More felt at the hereditary (Machiavellian) court of Henry VIII. ‘The Ambassadors’ was painted in London two years before More’s execution. Jean de Dinteville, seigneur de Polisy and Francis I’s ambassador to the English court, and his friend Georges de Selve, shortly to be bishop of Lavaur, stand at either side of a two shelved table.
They are young, successful men, whose impressively wide ranging interests and accomplishments are elegantly reorder by the objects scattered with careful casualness on the table: celestial and terrestrial globes, sundials, quadrants and other instruments of astronomy and geometry, a lute, a case of flutes, a German book of arithmetic, kept open by a square and an open German hymn book, on whose pages may be seen part of Luther’s translation of the ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ and his ‘Shortened Version of the Ten Commandments’. The hymn book suggests more, of course, than the interest in music that is elsewhere indicated; its presence in the portrait of two important Catholic statesmen may signal the French king’s attempt, by cynically advancing the Lutheran cause in England, to further tension between Henry VIII and the emperor Charles V, or, alternatively, it may mark that moment in European history in which it still seemed possible to cultivated men of good will that the Catholic Church and the Reformers could meet on common ground and resolver their differences. If More had once harboured such a hope, the moment for him was long past.
Dinteville and Selve are depicted in the context of the highest hopes and achievements of their age. The objects on the table between them, set off splendidly by the rich Turkish cloth and the exquisite mosaic pavement, represente a mastery of the Quadrivium, that portion of the Seven Liberal Arts comprising Music, Arithmetic, Geometry and Astronomy. They are thus in possession of the instruments -both literal and symbolic- by which men bring the world into focus, represent it in proper perspective. Indeed, in addition to their significance as emblems of the Liberal Arts, the objets on the table virtually constitute a series of textbooks illustrations for a manual on the art of perspective. The Renaissance invested this art with far more than technical significance, for Neoplatonism in particular, the power to map, mirror or represent the world bore witness to the spark of the divine in man.
The terrestrial and celestial spheres, the sword and the book, the state and the church, Protestantism and Catholicism, the mind as measurer of all things and the mind as unifying force, the arts and the sciences, the power of images and the power of words- all are conjoined then in Holbein’s painting and integrated in a design as intricate as the pavement. And yet slashing across the pavement intruding upon these complex harmonies and disrupting them, is the extraordinary anamorphic representation of the death’s head. Viewed frontally, the skull is an un readable blur in the center foreground of the painting; only from the proper position at the side of the painting is it suddenly revealed.
The death’s head is most obvious a bravura display of Holbein’s virtuosity, elsewhere manifested in his rendering of the complex network of surfaces on the geometrical instruments, but it also bears a more integral relation to the composition as a whole. In a major study of the painting, Mary F.S. Hervey observed that Dinteville’s cap is adorned by a small brooch on which is engraved a silver skull and concluded that the ambassador must have adopted the death’s head as his personal badge or devise. This theory is plausible, but it should not be made to suggest too ornamental a function for elements that, in one’s experience of the painting, are far more disquieting. The skull as a devise is at once a gesture of self adornment and a gesture of self-cancellation. Death may be reduced on Dinteville’s cap to a fashionable piece of jewellery, an enhancement of the self, but this reduction seems as much mocked as confirmed by the large alien presence that has intruded into this supremely civilised world of self human achievement. The anamorphic death’s head draws to itself another discordant element int he painting: the broken string of the lute, an emblematic play upon the very idea of discord. Together these suggest a subtle but powerful countercurrent to the forces of harmony, reconciliation and confident intellectual achievement embodied elsewhere in the picture’s objects and figures. None of these antitypes is immediately visible -the ornamental skull and broken string reveal themselves only to the closest scrutiny, only, that is, if one abandones the large, encompassing view of the painting and approaches the canvas with such myopic closeness that the whole gives way to a mass of individual details. To see the large death’s head requires a still more radical abandonment of what we take to be ‘norma’ vision: we must throw the entire painting out of perspective in order to bring into perspective what our usual mode of perception cannot comprehend.
Death’s presence in Holbein’s painting is at once more elusive and more disturbing that the conventional representations of death in late medieval art. In the familiar transi tombs, for example, the putrescent, worm eaten corpse on the bottom level may be said to mock the figure above, dressed i robes of high office. But the mockery affirms the viewer’s understanding of the relation between life and death, indeed simplifies that understanding. In this sense, the transi tombs, for all their horrible imagery, are clear perception of things, a willingness to contemplate the inevitable future of the flesh without mystification or concealment. We can see the body both in its dignity and its disgrace. In ‘The Ambassadors’, such clear, steady sight is impossible; death is affirmed not in its power to destroy the flesh or as is familiar from late medieval literature, in its power to horrify and cause unbearable pain, but in its uncanny inaccessibility and absence. What is unseen or perceived as only a blur is far more disquieting than what may be faced boldly and directly, particularly when the limitations of vision are grasped as structural, the consequence more of the nature of perception than of the timidity of the perceiver.
The anamorphic skull casts a shadow on the elegant floor -the shadow of the shadow of death, Hervey neatly calls it -and thus demonstrates its substantiality, but the shadow falls in a different direction from those cast by the ambassadors or the objects on the table. Its presence is thus at once affirmed and denied; if it can become visible to us, when we tie up the appropriate position at the angle of the painting, it is manifestly not accesible to the figures in the painting (in the sense that the books and the instruments are assumed to be accessible). To be sure, Dinteville has his silver death’s head brooch, but we feel far more the incommensurability between this ornament and the skull on the floor than their accord. And this incommensurability is confirmed by the fact that we must distort and, in essence, efface the figures in order to see the skull.
That this effacement is moving -that it is felt as a kind of death- is a function of Holbein’s mastery of those representational techniques that pay tribute to the world, that glory the surfaces and textures of things, that celebrate man’s relatedness to the objects of his making. For there is nothing in the painting that is not the product of human fashioning -no flower, no lapdog, no distant landscape glimpsed through an open window. The heavens and the earth are present only as objects of measurement and representation, the objects of the globe maker’s art. It is only when one takes leave of this world -quite literally takes leave by walking away from the front of the canvas- that one can see the single alien object: the skull. The skull expresses the death that the viewer has, in effect, himself brought about by changing his perspective, by withdrawing his gaze from the figures of the painting. For that gaze is, the skull implies, really conferring; without it, the objects so lovingly represented in their seeming substantiality vanish. To move a few feet away from the frontal contemplation of the painting is to efface everything within it, to bring death into the wold.