1533 Hans Holbein 'The Ambassadors'

1533 Hans Holbein 'The Ambassadors'

Most definitely the COOLEST historical artifact that exists today. 

This is Hans Holbein's 'The Ambassadors'. It hangs amongst other priceless artifacts at the National Gallery in London, England. 

If you love a good mystery, then you're going to love everything about this rare double portrait. It is filled with mysterious objects placed in both plain sight and hidden throughout the painting. It even contains the worlds best-known example of anamorphosis which is where the viewer needs to be standing in a very specific spot to see the hidden image. How cool?! Did you see the skull? 

The Ambassadors is a 1533 painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. The two dapper dudes featured are Jean de Dinteville (left) and Georges de Selve. Jean was a French Ambassador to London and George a French bishop, both highly prestigious roles if you can't already tell by their fit. It was speculated that Anne Boleyn, then Queen of England, might have commissioned the portrait as a gift for Jean de Dinteville. 

The famous 7ft by 7ft portrait has garnered much debate for centuries because of the subject matters within particularly the meticulously rendered objects on the top and bottom shelves - including the carpet with the S (we will come back to that later). These worldly objects weren't randomly placed to fill up space but instead each had a very specific symbolic meaning.


Han Holbein The Ambassadors The S Thing

Two globes (one terrestrial and one celestial), a Shepard's dial, a quadrant, a torquetum and a polyhedral sundial - all scientific instruments at the time that represented the two men as worldly and knowledgeable. Each with their own hidden symbolism. 

Tartaria enthusiasts will note, when zoomed in, the bottom globe contains a very detailed map including Tartaria. Does this add another clue to the timeline of the Tartaria realm? 


Han Holbein The Ambassadors The S Thing Cosmati Pavement Westminster Abbey London


There's also another very cool discovery with the elaborate and detailed pavement the two men stand on. It has been identified as the Cosmati Pavement, a sacred stone pavement that sits inside Westminster Abbey, a royal church in London, England. It is the place where Anne Boylen, second wife of Henry VIII, had been crowned and more recently, the Prince Harry and Meghan were married.


Han Holbein The Ambassadors The S Thing Anamorphic Skull
Han Holbein The Ambassadors The S Thing Anamorphic Skull


The most striking and puzzling piece to this painting is the skull positioned at the middle bottom. It looks like it is stretched out across the painting at a totally different perspective. This is called anamorphosis. If you were to visit the painting in London, you will need to stand in front of the painting towards the bottom left and look towards your left to see the skull at the correct perspective. A very mysterious piece added to an already intricately detailed painting. A Renaissance version of a mic drop from Hans Holbein. 


Han Holbein The Ambassadors The S Thing Holbei Carpet


OK OK but let's get to the S carpet! Positioned across on the top shelf and showing extraordinary craftsmanship and beauty, 'Holbein's Carpet' as it was later named, shows Jean de Dinteville came from an elite European home. They say these types of Anatolian carpets were estimated to cost as much as a painting or sculpture at the time. Expensive. 

On the carpet in the middle we see a sideways S thing. It's a nice, clean pointy S.  It's not part of any motif instead it is on it's own. You will notice that although it's positioned in the middle of the painting and shown prominently, the S in not in the middle of the carpet itself. It seems as part of a smaller border on the top half of the carpet and not repeated elsewhere. 

But why is the S there and why is it so prominent? 

Some think it may stand for Selve (George De..) whilst others think it is just a part of the detailed pattern work. Whatever it is, it is very obvious that Hans Holbein was extremely meticulous and thoughtful with his brush strokes. It would be hard to believe that it didn't have significant meaning to the story being told by Holbein here. Could it be a hidden symbol or hieroglyphic? Was this a secret code used by painters? 

We've turned to a few historians close to the Renaissance period but turned up empty in finding answers to it's meaning. We will continue to investigate and welcome and theories or findings. 

One thing for certain is that The Ambassadors are shrouded in mystery and intrigue. We continue to ask - do they hold the clue to finding the origin and meaning the S thing? 


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