Friday, 21 June 2013

The Anamorphic Stain of Reality in Holbein's "The Ambassadors"

The Anamorphic Stain of Reality in Holbein's "The Ambassadors"

by J. Albert Barr

"The time is out of joint - O cursed spite,
 That ever I was born to set it right." - William Shakespeare: Hamlet

"All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life." - Karl Marx

In 1533, Hans Holbein the Younger (named thusly, because his father, who was also a renowned painter, is referred to as Hans Holbein the Elder) painted a commissioned double-portrait work that would insure him everlasting fame and admiration, but would also haunt art historians, aficionados, academicians and philosophers to this day. The painting is entitled, "The Ambassadors".

Aside from its astonishing artistry and brilliantly, meticulously rendered details (which he learned from Da Vinci and the Flemish masters, such as Jan van Eyck), a cursory glance at the painting shows a depiction of two wealthy and distinguished 16th century gentlemen posing with an assortment of devices, instruments and books on a couple of shelves (a furniture item known back then in England as a "whatnot"); the top one of which they both lean on from opposite ends.

But upon closer inspection one can perceive an odd-shaped image in the lower foreground of the painting. What is that strange object? Well, in order to make out what it is you have to shift your view laterally, because what you're looking at is, in fact, the most famous use of anamorphosis in the history of painting. When seen from a side view, you will realize that Holbein placed, as a superimposition, an anamorphically-distorted human skull! What appears to be a fairly normal portrait suddenly becomes "denatured" and "uncanny". And given that the distorted object is a human skull, it further unsettles the painting's narrative by rendering it ominous and foreboding.

The two figures posing in the painting are reputed to be Jean de Dinteville (the ornately dressed aristocrat and landowner) on the viewer's left, who actually commissioned the painting from Holbein, and Georges de Selve (the clergyman in the long robe) on the viewer's right. The circumstances that brought these three men together proved to be extraordinary and historically significant.

Hans Holbein was a German-born artist and printmaker who moved to England, from Basel, Switzerland, in 1526 seeking employment after getting a recommendation from renowned Renaissance humanist/theologian, Desiderius Erasmus, whose portrait Holbein famously painted in 1523. Among the well-known commissions incurred by Holbein during his first period in England was a 1527 portrait of Sir Thomas More (then a successful writer and knighted speaker of Parliament whose novel, "Utopia" - from which the title-word he had coined - had been published in 1516; he would play a significant, if tragic, role in the religious upheaval that Holbein would witness and record, if understandably subtly, while working under Henry VIII's embattled court). After returning to Basel for a few years, Holbein chose to resume his career back in England, in 1532, under the considerable patronage of Anne Boleyn (second wife of Henry VIII) and Thomas Cromwell (English lawyer, statesman, and chief minister to the King). By 1535, Holbein would become the portrait painter in the court of King Henry VIII. Holbein's portraits of the royal family - most notably of King Henry VIII himself - and nobles are regarded as the definitive images we have and know of these historical figures.

By 1532, the year of Holbein's return to England, Europe was embroiled in great religious strife and revolution due to a severe division within the Christian Church. This was precipitated by disillusioned German monk and priest, Martin Luther, in 1517, when he famously nailed his highly controversial "Ninety-Five Theses" to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, Germany, in protest to what he believed was corruption in the Roman Catholic Church and its Papacy, thus provoking the Protestant Reformation and the establishment of the Lutheran Church, and later a Calvinist offshoot (which would decidedly develop the notion of the "Protestant Work Ethic", thus alleged to have been responsible for the advent of capitalism, according to fin de siècle sociologist, Max Weber, in his famous 1905 book, "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism"). As a result, many wars and mutual persecutions ensued throughout much of the 16th century in Europe.

Before 1532, the Church of England was under the authority of Rome, but when Henry VIII attempted to get an annulment/divorce from his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1527, because she didn't provide him with a male heir (and he was then courting Anne Boleyn besides), he was denied by Pope Clement VII via Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, whose failure to secure a divorce for Henry resulted in his downfall as Archbishop of York, getting arrested for treason in 1529 after having been stripped of his government office and property initially, and died from illness in late 1530 before any sentence could be carried out. To finally get a divorce for Henry, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer (after his predecessor,William Warham, died), pulled some crafty strings in eliciting an ultimate approval from the Pope, who was unaware of Henry's ulterior motive with the Church of England.When the new Lord Chancellor and chief minister, Thomas More, who was a devout Roman Catholic and resolutely opposed to divorce, stubbornly refused to publicly acknowledge Henry's annulment from Catherine and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, which Thomas Cranmer had announced as legitimate, Henry, with the help of his new chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, and blessing from Cranmer, decided to dramatically remove the Church of England from Rome's, and, thusly, Roman Catholicism's, authority by instituting the 1534 Act of Supremacy legislation, hence making Henry VIII the Supreme Head of the Church of England, which he then converted to Protestantism, which did not oppose divorce. Thomas More was subsequently arrested, tried and convicted for treason. He was sentenced to death and beheaded on July 6, 1535.

And so it was a year before the 1534 Act Of Supremacy that both Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve came to England as ambassadors (hence the title of Holbein's monumental painting) and emissaries for Francis I of France in hopes of talking Henry VIII out of leaving the Roman Catholic Church. While visiting London for this extremely important political mission, de Dinteville commissioned Holbein to paint his portrait along with fellow ambassador and friend, George de Selve. Unfortunately, their diplomatic mission, and likely de Selve's prays, eventually failed.

Under the apparent auspices of the religious circumstances and tense atmosphere in England at the time, Holbein, and likely de Dinteville himself, evidently chose a very significant day to have "The Ambassadors" painted. On the upper shelf of the painting where all the scientific instruments are displayed, one can notice a polyhedral sundial just left of de Selve's right elbow. To the trained eye, one can read the time and date on the sundial. It, in fact, reads April 11, 1533 at approximately 4 p.m. in the afternoon. In other words, it was Good Friday when Holbein painted this unforgettable portrait. What is also quite significant is that that day happened to correspond with the 1500th anniversary of Christ's crucifixion. No doubt the painting is positively rife with pregnant messages and codes! These include the broken string on the lute located on the lower shelf. The lute symbolized harmony, and with a string broken on Holbein's lute, it likely symbolized the breach within the Christian Church. However, also seen on the lower shelf is a book opened to a Lutheran hymn, perhaps symbolizing the desire for a reconciliation between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Aside from the anamorphic skull shown in the lower foreground, perhaps the most significant symbol and message in the painting - again, given that it was Good Friday - is, likely, the most subtle. In the top left hand corner of the painting you can just discern, peaking out from behind the green curtain, a crucifix. It only half appears. What did that particularly mean to Holbein? Was it put there as a reminder of Christ's sacrifice on this specific Good Friday? And that, ultimately, it was that symbol that should be acknowledged more simply by both warring churches instead of how the Church should be governed and conducted? Was it put there to contrast with the material symbols of Renaissance achievement so confidently displayed on the whatnot? Or did it more prominently represent a foreboding of the divisive decision of Henry VIII to cause a severe breach between his kingdom and the Catholic Church, thus rendering only half of the crucifix? It is interesting that the crucifix is located above de Dinteville and to his right, because when one shifts to their right in order to make out the anamorphic skull one can line up de Dinteville's left eye perfectly with the crucifix and geometrically form a horizontal triangle with the elongated line of the skull. At the apex of the triangle one can then draw a straight line that perfectly separates the top shelf of the whatnot with the bottom shelf, thus creating the north/south division of the celestial sky and heavens (represented by the scientific instruments, such as the celestial globe, used to look upward) with the terrestrial ground of the earth (represented by the earth-bound instruments, such as the terrestrial globe). So Holbein's mathematical and geometric precision is executed remarkably well in the painting.

Now having said all that, the most dominate, and ultimately unsettling, image and symbol depicted in "The Ambassadors" in unquestionably the anamorphic skull. Many of the painting's interpreters believe the skull to represent memento mori: "Remember that you are mortal and will die one day". However, not immediately noticeable on de Dinteville's hat is, in fact, a skull! Apparently, memento mori was de Dinteville's own motto! So it would suggest that the anamorphic skull isn't necessarily being used here as a mortality symbol per se, because the rendering of more than one skull seems a bit superfluous within the painting's rich narrative. I believe it represents something much more significant than just a reminder of our own mortality, fragility and transience, though I will agree that the skull still represents something definitely negative, but it's something that actually transcends, or is outside of, the general purview of consciousness.

I've good reason to believe that Holbein's anamorphic skull is the earliest adumbration, or initial sign, of what a few renowned, modernist writers and thinkers (such as T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence) in the early 20th century vaguely alluded to, and what Frank Kermode, in his 1957 book, "The Romantic Image", called "the bifurcation of human consciousness"; the breaking and split in the collective mind and heart of late Renaissance Europe. It's quite astonishing, and literally mind-bending, that Holbein's skull should appear to be an incredible precursor of modernist art in the 20th century with its surrealist, and montage-like, character. It immensely sticks out - unlike anything else during the Renaissance and right up to the Industrial Revolution - like an infinitely disturbing "stain", an intrusive alien-like presence that defies any linguistic economy, an ineffable rip or tear in the very fabric of human consciousness, let alone the narrative field of the painting's more contemporaneous signs. It is, as Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, refers to, a "surplus knowledge" that severely contaminates the gaze and suspends the ostensive meaning of the painting. It ultimately represents a reality that precipitated as a result of the Protestant Reformation and Henry VIII's abuse and exploitation of power, further allowing for Calvinist Protestantism to inaugurate the capitalist economic system through the Protestant Ethic of hard work to acquire material wealth as a way to better one's chances of getting into Heaven. Like a now useless husk, capitalism would eventually discard Protestantism and become a fully secular monetary system devoid of any religious mandates, or any other meaning other than to simply, collectively, and ever expansively, accumulate wealth and material goods for its own sake.                     

Like the late 16th/early 17th century Baroque period of the German "Trauerspiel" (i.e., mourning-play) that would express, allegorically, the growing sense of "mourning" and futility of life drained of all meaning, through the plays of Daniel Caspers von Lohenstein, Andreas Gryphius, the Spaniard, Calderon de la Barca, and most importantly, Shakespeare's 1601 play, "Hamlet" (which according to the 20th century German essayist, Walter Benjamin, in his monumental book, "The Origin of German Tragic Drama" [1928] is the single most significant mourning-play), Holbein's skull projects the harbinger of mourning that would suffuse through Europe over the course of the next 100 years, because of this "bifurcation in human consciousness" that seemingly and slowly drained the world of sustainable meaning. It expressed a new, burgeoning reality that was inexpressible, and incomprehensible to the conscious mind (and I suspect even Holbein's as well), at that ground-zero time in history.

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