The Skull from Outer Space

John Bossy

  • The Ambassadors’ Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance by John North
    Hambledon, 346 pp, £25.00, January 2002, ISBN 1 85285 330 1

Holbein’s double portrait known as The Ambassadors must have been anatomised any number of times since its emergence into public view at the end of the 19th century, and recently had an exhibition all to itself in the National Gallery; but I doubt if anyone has gone into it so pertinaciously as John North. North is an expert in the history of astronomy and mathematics, so naturally his view of the painting emerges from the jumble, which he does not regard as a jumble, of astronomical and time-telling instruments sitting on top of the carpet-covered table on which the sitters/standers are leaning, one to each side. On a shelf under the tabletop there are musical instruments, a terrestrial globe and open – and legible – books of music and arithmetic. The subjects, who are both in their twenties and snappily dressed, are the noble Jean de Dinteville, ambassador from King Francis I of France to Henry VIII, and his friend, perhaps alter ego, Georges de Selve, who had been given the small see of Lavaur near Toulouse to provide for a career in the royal service. Dinteville was in England from February to November 1533; de Selve, whose mission, if any, is obscure, from about March to May.

Behind the two personages and the table between them is a heavy green curtain, and they and the table are standing on a floor elegantly coloured and patterned in squares and circles enclosed in a continuous decorative band; it looks like a mosaic but has none of the lines on it which Holbein would surely have been delighted to show. The painting would seem a very grand but not unusual portrait of two smart young men of learned and artistic inclinations, were it not for three surprising items. At the front, looking like a guided missile about to hit the floor from somewhere off-right, is a grinning skull in very elongated perspective (‘anamorphic’ is the word) and brightly lit along its own angle, which is a different angle from that of the lighting in the rest of the painting. At the extreme top-left corner Holbein has drawn his green curtain back a fraction, to reveal a small crucifix, showing about half the body of Jesus hanging on the Cross. And he has given the very grand golden lute which sits on the undershelf of the table, and takes up most of it, a broken string. These extras undermine or spook what is otherwise a portrait of two self-satisfied young men in their prime, which had been commissioned and presumably in outline designed by one of them (Dinteville, on the left), and remained in his family for the next 150 years.

North’s interpretation of The Ambassadors starts from the implied presence in it of Henry VIII’s astronomer, Nicolaus Kratzer, a Bavarian. Holbein had done a portrait of him five years before, a portrait that shows him surrounded by a number of the astronomical and time-keeping instruments which reappear, along with a celestial globe, on the ambassadors’ table. Since some of these are pretty recherché, it is proper to conclude that Holbein had borrowed them from Kratzer for his new painting; or, more exactly, since it does not seem that Holbein painted all the segments of this picture at the same time, that he has had them put on a carpeted tabletop, along with his job-lot of examples of earthly skills – music, arithmetic, geography – on the bottom shelf, and done a still life of them which will stand between the two portraits that he has probably just sketched. Taking all the segments of the painting together, North assumes that Kratzer’s astronomical and mathematical talents contributed to, or indeed governed, the painting’s construction. Since one might think that Dinteville would have dismissed Kratzer as a snotty-nosed German, this is a bold speculation. But I pursue it as far as I can.

North’s interpretation comes in three stages. First, we are to draw a line along the axis of the elongated skull, taking us outside the picture frame about a third of the way up the right-hand side. We are then, via a series of points among the jumble of astronomical instruments which North takes to be significant, to find a line joining a point on the line of the skull’s trajectory a little outside the picture frame to the crucifix in the top left-hand corner, or, more exactly, to the eyes of the crucified Jesus. Then, on the basis of various points on this line, we are to construct a hexagram (a Star of David) inside a circle, which patterns the space at the top of the painting between one sitter and the other. Then, we are to observe that a horoscope square (the skeleton of a ‘geniture’, or birth-prediction of someone’s fortune) fits handily over the painting and the hexagram.

There are various reasons for being nervous about this elaborate structure. Some of them arise from North’s methods of exposition: he is not given to much explanation of the descriptive terms he is using, so that much of the time an unlearned reader does not understand what he is saying; and each time he arrives at a conclusion he regards as significant he puts it in italics, which is a bad sign. In particular, I feel nervous about the line down from the crucifix to its point of intersection with the line up from the anamorphic skull: are the points through which it passes – the place on the celestial globe on the table where the sun ought to be but isn’t; Dinteville’s left eye – as telling as he says? Is it not a bit like ley lines? And is this point of intersection the privileged point from which to make sense of the picture as a whole? Or at least of the spooky parts of it?

Well, this is not impossible. Placed at this point, the viewer is looking up (with his spiritual right eye, North suggests) at his Saviour on the Cross; and down, with his carnal left eye, at the skull, his memento mori. I am sure that they are meant to be seen together; but from here? You can certainly see the skull very nicely, sitting on one corner of its chin, and staring up sideways with a leer: what you cannot see at all, as you press your cheek to the wall on which the painting hangs, is Jesus on the Cross. This is no position from which to be meditating on life, death and salvation. A good deal simpler to observe, from a conventional viewing point, that a line perpendicular to the angle of the skull and starting, say, from a point between its eye-sockets, will arrive, more or less, at the Crucified, passing through Dinteville’s codpiece on the way.

This first construction turns out to be shaky, and cannot bear the weight of the hexagram and horoscope which are placed on it. So I ignore all that, and stick to the points where North’s learning has made a difference. The most attractive is his demonstration, with the help of the chronological instruments on the table, that the painting shows the scene at 4 p.m. on 11 April 1533, which was Good Friday. The argument for this which I can understand is that there is a cylindrical, hand-holdable sundial on the table, which is not correctly placed facing the sun, but, if it had been correctly placed, would have registered the time in question.

This may seem flimsy, and the traditional time for Jesus’ death is 3 p.m. not 4; but the crucifix as well as a couple of other elements support the suggestion. The crucifix is emerging from behind the green curtain in much the way that it would emerge at the Good Friday ceremony of Creeping to the Cross, when the priest removes the cloth that has covered it, as all the images in churches have been covered, during Lent. And among the representations of music on the shelf under the table is a Lutheran hymn-book open at Luther’s version of the hymn to the Holy Spirit, ‘Veni Sancte Spiritus’. Holbein, whose representation of the hymn-book page is otherwise immaculate, has omitted from the end of the hymn the alleluias Luther had taken from the Latin version. They were there because the proper time for singing the hymn was Whitsunday, a joyous time; but you do not sing alleluias in Lent, and particularly not on Good Friday.

So let us agree that the date attributed to the painting is Good Friday 1533. It is a plausible date, since both Dinteville and de Selve were in London then, and de Selve was not there for very long. It might have both a private and a public meaning, the two connected. As a personal statement of Dinteville’s, it has a dance-of-death character, which Holbein would have fancied, and Dinteville not objected to. He appears to have been pious in the non-traditional mystical-humanist way of Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples, whom he knew and patronised; so he would have been open (like Thomas Cranmer, whose consecration as Archbishop of Canterbury had taken place on Passion Sunday, 12 days before this Good Friday) to Luther’s doctrine of the single sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, and also to the intervention of the Holy Spirit invoked in the hymn-book on the table and, just possibly, illustrated by the meteor-like arrival of the skull from outer space. A self-directed, undenominational injunction to creep to the Cross would not be inappropriate to Dinteville’s case.

Since he took the painting home and put it up in his château in Burgundy, it may be that the private message was the one that mattered for him. But we can suppose that there was also a public message, since Dinteville certainly and de Selve probably were public figures, representatives of Francis I. Dinteville had arrived in England at a moment of high importance in Anglo-French relations. Henry VIII had finally discarded Queen Catherine, the aunt of the Habsburg Emperor Charles V, and married, still in secret, Anne Boleyn, a former ornament of the French Court and a chic promoter of the evangelical faith. This was excellent news in France, since it foreshadowed a permanent reversal of English alliances in their favour. We do not seem to have Dinteville’s instructions, or any of his official correspondence; but, given the impending retribution from Charles V, the political alternatives were a combination between France, England and the German Protestants, directed against the Pope, or a combination against the Emperor between France, England and the Pope. It seems that Dinteville was sent to England to push the second line, meaning that he had to try to stop Henry VIII from doing anything irremediable against the Pope.

If that was his mission, it was a failure, as would emerge the day after Good Friday when, at the celebrations for the end of Lent, Anne was given public recognition as virtual Queen. Shortly after that, Cranmer declared the new royal marriage legitimate, and Anne was crowned on Whitsunday, 1 June, amid great splendour. Dinteville had asked to go home before that date, but had not been allowed to.

To argue that the painting commemorates a diplomatic fiasco on the part of the sitters must seem absurd; but it may well be that Dinteville disapproved of his instructions, if they were what we suppose. They were no doubt given to him by his King’s hardline Catholic counsellor, Anne de Montmorency; and we can doubt whether Montmorency and Dinteville were at one in English matters. One thing we do know about the mission is that Dinteville did not want Montmorency to know that de Selve had come to be with him in London. He wrote as much to his brother, the French Ambassador in Rome. Why did he not want Montmorency to know? This is a mystery, since we seem to have no evidence. But I make a supposition. If Dinteville wanted his and his friend’s presence in London to be represented by Holbein, he will have known that Holbein was a Lutheran and would interpret the crucifix, the skull and the hymnal in his own sense. This, I suppose, suited Dinteville, who would have wished his embassy to be committed to the Protestant cause. So he is celebrating its failure; whence the broken lute string, with its intimation of a harmony undone.