The shockingly modern skull

Hanging out in the National Gallery, where all the cool kids are, I came across an art anomaly. The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger is a fairly standard portrait of two men. However look closer, and you see that it features a crazy slanted skull in the foreground.

It is designed so that when you stand on the right hand side of the painting and look across it, you see a perfectly formed skull.

To me it looks like Hans had an early edition of Photoshop (very early, it was painted in 1533 so maybe CS-20?) and got bored in the middle of transforming the layer.

I don’t doubt that artists of the time made studies on angles. But I love that Holbein managed to try it out in a  commissioned painting. I would have loved to hear that conversation:

Men in fur coats: So what are you going to paint in front of us?

Holbein: I was thinking a skull.

Men in fur coats: A skull? Really?

Holbein: Yes it represents mortality, and the chicks dig it.

Men in fur coats: Well I guess that is ok, a different perspective is always good.

Holbein: Perspective, yes. I do like perspective…

1 Comment

  1. November 10, 2012 / 9:56 am

    The funny thing is that the portrait was anything but standard at the time ) It was intended for the family of the guy standing to the left. The guy was a french ambassador on an impossible mission to London with an open date of return. So, he had to leave some moral guidance for his kids without frightening them. The scull was his family symbol, but he did not want it to be realistic because in that case it would be just a standard symbol of vanity. So, Holbein came up with this idea of a scull that would be visible only when looking from the side of the painting. There is more meaning behind the scull, actually, linking it to the cross behind the green curtain (look up the shoulder of the French ambassador), but that’s a different tale )