An ambassador is a diplomatic delegation, who is dispatched to a foreign country by the order of the highest authority. The English word “ambassador” is from the Latin word “Ambactus,” which means a servant or a vassal. “The Ambassadors” by German artist Hans Holbein is a masterpiece that depicts ambassadors in the 16th century and the times. Holbein served as a court painter to England’s Henry Vlll. He drew “The Ambassadors” to mark French ambassadors’ visit to London in 1533. Two men are standing in this huge painting that is over 2 meters in both width and height. They are standing across a high table, on which valuables rest, with a green curtain in the background. The man on the left, who is in an expensive fur coat, is Jean de Dinteville, 29-year-old French ambassador to the court of Henry Vlll. The other man on the right is Georges de Selve, 25-year-old friend of Jean and a bishop who later became a French ambassador.
A polyhedral sundial and astronomical instruments are put on top of a Turkish carpet on the upper shelf of the table and a terrestrial globe, a hymnbook, and a lute with a broken string are on the lower shelf. These objects are symbols of knowledge, gentility, art, and religion. In particular, the fact that a string on the lute is broken suggests that there is a conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism and between scholars and the clergy since the instrument is supposed to be a symbol of harmony. A religious conflict was escalating in Europe at the time after the Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther, and confidence in knowledge was weakening due to the development of science. In other words, the men in the painting are on a difficult mission to stop England from separating from the Roman Catholic Church. The most notable symbol in the painting, however, is the distorted skull placed in the bottom center. It is a symbol of memento mori, which is a reminder of the inevitability of death.
By drawing an image of death with the portrait of ambassadors, who have power, knowledge, and gentility, Holbein sends a message that no one, even a king’s servant or a king himself, cannot escape death. It carries a lesson that wealth, power, or success is only transient and that one should lead a peaceful and humble life.