Everybody’s seen a Hans Holbein. His portraits of Henry VIII and the Tudor court are some of the most famous works of the Renaissance. But his 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors is not just a painting. It’s a nest of puzzles and codes that hints at a conspiracy to change the course of history…
At first glance, The Ambassadors reflects the glory of the Tudor age, showing two noblemen with an array of musical and scientific instruments, all painted with beautiful photographic precision.
But look closer and you’ll realise that there’s a lot more going on here than just a show of wealth and knowledge.
- The most obvious oddity is the distorted shape in the foreground. You have to look at the painting from low down on the left side or high up on the right to see the shape as an accurate rendering of a human skull (turn your computer/phone to the side and you’ll see what I mean). It’s called anamorphic perspective, an invention of the Early Renaissance, which has since been used by artists to disguise all kinds of furtive images in their work. The skull has been interpreted as a memento mori, a reminder of death.
- In the top left corner you can see Jesus on the cross, half concealed by the green curtain.
- The lute on the bottom shelf has a broken string, a symbol of discord and disharmony.
- One of the flutes is missing from the case, reinforcing the discord symbolism.
- The mathematical textbook begins with the word “divide”.
- The hymnal next to it is in Martin Luther’s translation.
The Anne Boleyn conspiracy
At the beginning of the 1530s, Catherine of Aragon had been unable to give Henry VIII a son and heir, and Henry had become determined to marry his latest mistress Anne Boleyn. At the same time, the Protestant Reformation was in full throttle across Europe, sparked by Martin Luther’s criticisms of the Catholic Church and his calls for reform.
And while Henry VIII was a devout Catholic who despised Luther and considered him a heretic, the King was surrounded by a close-knit cabal of secret Protestant supporters who wanted to end the Pope’s dominion over England.
The two men in The Ambassadors are Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII, on the left, and Georges de Selve, a French bishop and diplomat, on the right. It’s believed that de Dinteville and de Selve were part of this cabal of Protestant supporters, and that they were secretly engineering Henry VIII’s split with the Church of Rome and Anne Boleyn’s rise to power. The cabal is said to have included Anne herself, Henry’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, Bishop of Hereford Edward Foxe, and of course, Hans Holbein.
Holbein himself was a man of many secrets. He is widely believed to have acted as a spy for Thomas Cromwell and that some of his portrait work was so he could question subjects and gather intelligence.
Henry, meanwhile, was concerned solely with marrying Anne and having a son, and because he was Catholic, divorce was out of the question. Instead he tried to seek an annulment. But an annulment required the Pope’s permission and the Pope refused to give it.
It’s believed that the conspirators saw Henry’s succession problem as an opportunity to free England from Rome’s control. When Anne fell pregnant, they moved quickly. They presented Henry with an anonymously authored book entitled Collectanea satis copiosa. Cunningly spun together by Thomas Cramner and Edward Foxe, the book used the Bible and historical texts to demonstrate that emperors could rule their own church under God, and that historically England was an empire, which made Henry an emperor. It’s been argued that some of the ‘evidence’ was forged to perpetuate this line of reasoning.
Meanwhile, Thomas Cromwell arranged for a Venetian biblical scholar, Francesco Giorgio, to come to England. Giorgio advised Henry that a close reading of Leviticus allowed an annulment because Catherine of Aragon had failed to produce a son. The cabal also arranged for astrologers to confirm that the child Anne was carrying was a boy.
These actions helped convince Henry to go ahead and sever his ties with Rome and the Pope. Cromwell pushed through an Act of Parliament giving Henry complete authority over the Church of England. Henry married Anne in a secret ceremony in January 1533 to ensure that the child she was carrying would be legitimate, and formerly annulled his marriage to Catherine in May of that year. Anne was crowned queen shortly after.
And now that the Church of England was no longer under the Pope’s control, the door was open for Protestantism to enter the country.
Do the clues in The Ambassadors hint at the Anne Boleyn conspiracy?
Holbein’s The Ambassadors may be evidence that he, de Dinteville and de Selve were complicit in a plot to put Anne on the throne and bring Protestantism to England. The Lutheran hymn book is probably the most telling sign, indicating at the very least sympathy with the Protestant cause. The snapped lute string, missing flute, the presence of the word ‘divide’, and the half-hidden crucifix could all be referring to religious division and Henry’s break with Rome.
It remains unclear why Holbein gave the distorted skull such prominence in the painting, but perhaps it was to indicate that no human could escape death, no matter their wealth or finery, including de Dinteville and de Selve. Death is inevitable for us all. The message of Martin Luther’s Reformation was largely to do with humbling all-powerful, egotistical popes who ruled without accountability and horded an enormous wealth. Perhaps Holbein was echoing this by placing an enormous skull in front of two rich and important men.
The Ambassadors is full of other clues and codes that experts are still discovering, interpreting and debating today. Since there is no contemporary record of the painting and nothing to tell us of Holbein’s intentions or to confirm conclusively that he was part of a pro-Reformation conspiracy, all we can do is wonder and speculate.
Next week: Nicholas Cage is a vampire