Renaissance Culture as Depicted by Hans Holbein

Renaissance Culture as Depicted by Hans Holbein

This article is an analysis of a famous painting titled ‘The Ambassadors’ that I created for a recent project. You can view the full painting by clicking here.

The Ambassadors (Holbein, 1533) is a painting from the Renaissance period by Hans Holbein the Younger. In this image, two men, dressed in fashionable clothing of the time, stand in a room on either side of shelf, which has various objects on it. The painting reveals a scene of modest opulence, and the characters are evidently well-to-do. I was intrigued by the range of objects behind them, which seem to indicate their personal interests and passions. The men are evidently standing still, looking forward without expressing much emotion. Yet they appear at home in their environment. I was struck by the detail and clarity of the picture, and the lifelike representation of everything that is represented in it. There is one exception, however, and that is a large object resting on the floor. It almost appears to be a hand-held fan, yet its appearance seems out-of-place and jarring considering the realism of the rest of the picture.

As I researched the life and times of the painter and the painting, the scene became more clear to me. Hans Holbein the Younger was the son of a painter, and he was born in Augsburg, a city in the Holy Roman Empire. Hans became a painter in the style of the Northern Renaissance, that is, the renaissance that occurred in northern Europe – after the Italian Renaissance sluggishly spread north of the Alps.

Learning about the painter helped me to appreciate the painting more. Hans was familiar with Erasmus of Rotterdam, and – perhaps through this connection – was intimately connected with the humanism of the renaissance. Prior to painting this scene, he created many religious works of art. In fact, he lived in the period of the Protestant Reformation, which was a period of intense religious struggle. Part of the religiosity of the times is apparent in his painting: a Lutheran hymn-book sits on one of the shelves, while the man on the right – identified by some as Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur (Hervey, 1900) – appears in clerical robes.

The Renaissance is identified with humanistic thinking, and this sort of thinking is evident in the picture. This is not a scene that shows celestial events of Biblical narrative. Instead, it shows regular human beings, contemporary figures who are surrounded by a contemporary scene. The realistic and minute detail of the painting portray that these details are important – that the here-and-now, the minutiae of modern life, have value.

Yet while this painting demonstrates the humanist emphasis on human beings, it does not in any way seem a contradiction between religion and the present. The hymn book and clerical robes indicate that these well-to-do men, while present in the world, are not solely interested in secular pursuits. Their minds are broad enough to contemplate the metaphysical.

A profound emphasis of the Renaissance was the emphasis on logic, reasoning, empiricism, and understanding of the natural world. This painting portrays that emphasis. The shelf between the two figures is filled with scientific and mathematic devices. Even the globe, which represents Europe in yellow, seems to fix these men in a place and time. Of course, these instruments, and especially the globe, are not what we would consider to be the most accurate. The globe reveals very limited knowledge of the world, although Europe is modestly accurately drawn. The point, however, is not so much that these men have an accurate knowledge of the world, so much as the idea that they are obviously intrigued by the world, and intend to learn as much as possible.

The Enlightenment ideal of the Renaissance man is clearly illustrated here. The Renaissance man is an archetype: a man who has many diverse skills and interests. These men evidently fit that pattern. By their dress, they appear to be wealthy. By the title of the painting, we can assume that they have positions of prestige and honor in their society. The various scientific and mathematical instruments indicate keen minds that seek to understand, analyze, and advantage from the natural world. The lute and hymn-book reveal that they also appreciate the finer arts of the world. Finally, the hymn-book and the clerical attire indicate that they are not fully involved in earthly pursuits. Even philosophy and metaphysical knowledge are valuable to them.

A final object of interest – and one that I want to analyze closely – is the strange, fan-shaped object on the ground. This object, I learned, is actually a human skull, yet it is represented anamorphically. This means that it can only be viewed correctly from a different perspective – i.e., the viewer must turn the picture, distorting the rest of the image, to gain the correct perspective on the skull.

On the one hand, the anamorphic skull is jarringly out-of-place in this picture, which is otherwise extremely realistic. On the other hand, however, it is a vital part of the milieu of the Enlightenment. Why would the painter include a skull? The concept of death and mortality was an important consideration in this culture. In fact, while our society seeks to avoid the concept of death, Renaissance individuals often viewed it as something worth considering. They constantly reminded themselves of death through ‘memento mori,’ or reminders of death and mortality, like the skull. By including the skull, the painter is reminding his viewers that even the temporary success and affluence of the two ambassadors is temporal. Eventually they will be skeletons themselves. The skull reminds us of what is the at the bottom – what the present world is sinking into. It is sinking into death and decay. A new society and order will live after us. In our present realm, death appears uncertain, skewed, and does not make sense. Perhaps the author recognizes that we will not properly understand death, and its relation to our own lives, until we have another perspective on the situation.

Modern audiences can benefit from this work by considering what was valuable to the men portrayed in this scene. They evidently value learning and knowledge – not simply in one field, but in many fields. Do we value these things? This painting also challenges the idea that religion and humanism cannot work together. We often think of humanism in terms of ‘secular humanism,’ that is, humanism that leaves no room for the Divine. These ambassadors evidently think otherwise. It is a striking challenge to the secular humanist.

After researching this image, I appreciate and value it much more. I am already fascinated by the Renaissance and Reformation eras. As soon as I saw the image, I immediately appreciated it. Yet as I learned more about it, I appreciated it even more. In particular, I realize that it is a cultural snapshot. It is more than simply a picture of two men. It hints at what they find valuable and important. The range of objects reveals their diverse interests. In fact, by portraying the ideal Renaissance men, it reveals the goals, aspirations, and dreams of many other individuals in this society. These men were obviously successful. By viewing this picture, others have a visual reminder of what they are striving to be in their pursuit of the Renaissance man archetype. This picture, then, is more than a painting. It is window into Renaissance society.