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.