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Holbein's The Ambassadors and Renaissance Ideas of Knowledge:

"Gratiae invisibilis visibilia signa"


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The Argument:

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 been presented.

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 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.

The results of human reason, while gaining positive knowledge, are necessarily limited and lack precision since they are based on finite senses and reason.

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."

Conclusion: 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.

 For a Swedish translation by Weronika Pawlak

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