I would like to talk about a fascinating experience I had when I visited the National Gallery, London, in 2003. I was practically astonished to see the work of German-Swiss artist Hans Holbein the Younger — an oil painting titled The Ambassadors. It portrays two men along with an anamorphic skull image in front. The person on the left in the painting is Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England, with his brother Georges de Selve, who was Bishop of Lavaur from 1526 (at age 18) to 1540. Holbein made this painting in 1533, when the major shift in politics and religious understanding of Europe had just begun.
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When you look at the painting, 207 cm x 209.5 cm in size, you will notice that so many objects are part of the painting. The meticulous details in which each object is painted reminds us of the technological advancement in the 16th century. There are two globes (one terrestrial and one celestial) and a selection of scientific instruments are placed on the upper portion of the table. The scientific instruments include a shepherd’s dial (a type of sundial), a Quadrant (an instrument used to measure angles up to 90°), a Torquetum (medieval astronomical instrument designed to take and convert measurements made in three sets of coordinates: Horizon, equatorial, and ecliptic) and a Polyhedral sundial. Along with these objects we can also see a book with notations and musical instruments.
The breathtaking details of the tapestry can be seen to cover the entire pictorial space. On the extreme left upper side, you will be able to see a crucified idol of Christ. The most astonishing part of the painting is the anamorphic skull, which is situated in the forefront of the work. When you move around in front of the painting, at one point, you will be able to see the skull in its proper shape and dimension. It is as accurate as rendered by a computer. That’s when you realise the mathematical calculations of that time are very aptly used to create the skull image.
Apart from the details and the stunning colour rendering of the image, this painting also opens up layers of symbolic meanings. Even though there is a suggestive element of religion, the painting emphasises on expeditions, scientific explorations in thinking and mathematical accuracy, to locate oneself outside religious dogmas. It also profoundly indicates the meaninglessness of life by projecting the skull at the forefront.
In short, a painting done in a particular time can reveal a lot of information regarding the cultural, social, political and anthropological perspective of that time and makes a crucial mark for centuries to come.
In this fortnightly series, eminent artists suggest on important artwork that can serve as an introduction for children into the world of art.
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