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Holbein's The Ambassadors and Renaissance Ideas of Knowledge:
"Gratiae invisibilis visibilia signa"
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It has long been known that the
floor in the painting
is based on the floor in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey, but
no convincing explanation for the inclusion of this detail has
- The original inscription
included in the Westminster Abbey pavement provides a crucial
bit of evidence. Around the central circle originally appeared
the inscription: Spericus
archetypum, globus hic monstrat macrocosmum.
- Even without the inscription, it is likely that Holbein and
his patrons would have understood the pattern as signifying the
- The pattern can be related to macrocosm
diagrams going back to at least the Early Middle Ages.
- This tradition continued into the Renaissance:
- Charles de Bovelles
and Oronce Finé, French contemporaries of the patrons,
included similar diagrams in their texts.
- A very similar floor can be found
in the Sistine Chapel
directly beneath the Creation of Adam. This relationship
between the floor and the painting articulates the central position
of "Man" in Renaissance cosmology.
- The pattern can also be related
to the ceiling of the Stanza
della Segnatura. The opposition of the different elements
in the macrocosm can be related to the contrast in disciplines
included in the Stanza.
- The pattern can also be found underlying the plan of Renaissance
churches like Bramante's
plan for the reconstruction of St. Peter's.
Understanding the floor as signifying
the macrocosm establishes a relationship of the men, as the microcosm,
to the rest of the painting and to the world as a whole, the macrocosm.
- The microcosm/macrocosm concept established for the Renaissance
the central position of
man in creation.
- Man has a unique position participating both in the terrestrial
and super-terrrestrial worlds.
- Due to his central position in creation, human
wisdom is an encyclopedic knowledge of all things. Through
senses man apprehends the physical world and through intellect
man participates in the realm of pure intelligence. Reason plays
a necessary intermediate role between sense and intellect.
- This hierarchy of knowledge beginning with sense followed
by reason and completed by intellectual vision provides a conceptual
framework for understanding the painting.
The painting itself with all its meticulous attention to detail
and careful differentiation between the variety of materials calls
to attention sensible knowledge.
Discursive reason plays a central role between sense and intellect.
- Reason enables the application of order and structure to
sensible experience. Comparably the painting's balanced structure
of the horizontals and verticals bring order to the painting.
- The two shelves of the table which form the dominant horizontals
in the painting serve to contrast the terrestrial realm with
the objects on the lower shelf
including a terrestrial globe
to the celestial realm with the astronomical instruments on the
upper shelf including a celestial
- The two men who form the dominant verticals in the painting
link the terrestrial and celestial realms which recalls the unique
position of man in Renaissance conceptions of creation.
- The men also offer a contrast between the active figure of
Dinteville who holds his attribute of the dagger
on which is inscribed his age to the contemplative figure of
de Selve who rests his arm on a book
on which is inscribed his age.
- The objects on the lower
and upper shelves of the table
can be related to the Quadrivium, the four mathematical sciences
of the Seven Liberal Arts: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
But this is not the traditional Quadrivium of the Medieval university,
but the Quadrivium of the new learning
based on direct experience and with practical applications.
- In using the Quadrivium to study
the world, humans show their likeness to God. For in the creation
of the world God ordered things in "measure,
and number, and weight." Thus in the application of
the Quadrivium to the study of the worlds, humans recreate God's
creation in human thought. In The Ambassadors, the books
and instruments are "the rational entities and artificial
forms" of the human conceptual world created in the likeness
of the world of "real entities and natural forms" that
are the products of God's creation.
The results of human reason, while
gaining positive knowledge, are necessarily limited
and lack precision since they are based on finite senses and
- The understanding of the essential limitation of human thought
helps to explain several details in the painting:
- The different faces of the polyhedral
sundial on the upper shelf are not consistent.
- The lute on the lower shelf has
a broken string.
- Most significantly the anamorphic
skull in the foreground assertively calls to our attention
- Renaissance political theory asserts that the fundamental
purpose of government is to maintain good order, harmony, and
peace, the universal patterns that were believed to underly the
structure of the macrocosm. Human finiteness makes this an unattainable
- The broken lute string recalls
the same motif in Alciati's
Emblematum Liber. There the broken string is
likened to the difficulty in achieving true harmony in political
- The Lutheran Hymnbook has the obvious reference to the religious
discords of the period.
- The Ambassadors should
be seen against the backdrop of the political
and religious discords that were dividing Europe during this
To transcend the limitations of
human reason, one needs to aspire to visio
intellectualis , or intellectual vision. As stated by
Nicholas of Cusa, "[T]his unintelligible reality is encountered
by the loftiest intellect --freed from all images-- when all things
have been transcended."
- Nicholas of Cusa's central concept of the coincidence of
opposites, that in God all oppositions are reconciled, is very
useful in viewing The Ambassadors. The paintings balanced
oppositions of active/contemplative and celestial/terrestrial
are the results of the application of discursive reason to the
world. In God all these oppositions are reconciled.
- Contemplating the skull brings us self-knowledge of our own
limitations. Significantly Dinteville has a brooch with a representation
of a skull on his cap.
- Visio intellectualis is unattainable through human
effort. It is a gift given through faith
in Jesus and Christ's Passion.
- This idea is suggested in the painting by several details:
- Most directly in the half-hidden
crucifix in the upper-left corner of the painting. The choice
of the half-hidden representation suggests the unique nature
of Christ in his two natures. In George de Selve's own words
Christ in His humanity is "visible, passible, [et] mortel,"
while in his divinity he is "invisible, impassible, immortel,
et egal a Dieu son pere."
- Christ's Redemption of humankind through His Passion is also
alluded to by the cylindrical sundial that is significantly set
for April 11 which was Good Friday in 1533.
- The appearance of both a skull and a crucifix in The Ambassadors
recalls images of St. Jerome
in His Study. Jerome was a clear model for the Christian
humanist in the tradition of Erasmus.
- Another allusion can be seen
in the Lutheran Hymnbook on the lower shelf. The two texts shown
in the painting are probably a reference to the Lutheran theme
of the contrast between the Law and the Gospel or Grace.
- Divine Wisdom, true peace, and Justification are only possible
through Christ. This a central theme in the writings of George
- In an oration
apparently prepared for the Diet of Speyer in 1529, de Selve
called for the opposing factions in the conflict between the
Catholic Chruch and the Reformers to "vanquish themselves
in the mirror of Jesus Christ" and come together in the
mystical body of Christ.
- In a discourse
addressed to the Emperor and the French King de Selve called
for a spiritual peace where all are reunited in the body of Christ.
- In another
text, he warned the courtier not to simply serve the master's
appetites but to understand that true peace and security can
only be gained by serving the true master, Jesus Christ.
- The unity of the world in belief in Jesus Christ is echoed
in the excerpt from the hymn Veni
sancte Spiritus included in the Lutheran Hymnbook.
For all its attention to materiality and rational structure, the
true subject matter of The Ambassadors is what is unrepresentable
and unknowable --God. What is represented is a network of signs
that leads us to this true reality hidden in the world of appearances.
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- The Ambassadors can be likened to the Silenus of Alcibiades
in Erasmus' Adages:
- "What is most excellent in any way is always the least
- "...under these veils, great heaven what wonderful wisdom
- "If you crack the nut, you find inside that profound
wisdom, truly divine, a touch of something which is clearly like
- In his The Praise of Folly, Erasmus writes: "...what
at first sight seems to be death, if you view it narrowly may
prove to be life; and so the contrary."
- The painting asks us to see invisibly the invisible truth
which is hidden behind the surface of appearances.