The Ambassadors

This picture memorialises two wealthy, educated and powerful young men. On the left is Jean de Dinteville, aged 29, French ambassador to England in 1533. To the right stands his friend, Georges de Selve, aged 25, bishop of Lavaur, who acted on several occasions as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See.

The picture is in a tradition showing learned men with books and instruments. The objects on the upper shelf include a celestial globe, a portable sundial and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time. Among the objects on the lower shelf is a lute, a case of flutes, a hymn book, a book of arithmetic and a terrestrial globe.

Certain details could be interpreted as references to contemporary religious divisions. The broken lute string, for example, may signify religious discord, while the Lutheran hymn book may be a plea for Christian harmony.

In the foreground is the distorted image of a skull, a symbol of mortality. When seen from a point to the right of the picture the distortion is corrected.

In conversation
Professor Philip Steadman and Louise Govier discuss 'The Ambassadors'
3 mins 5 secs

Voiceover: The National Gallery Podcast.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Anamorphic art is a term unfamiliar to many, a type of optical illusion, such images tend to be hidden and unique by their very nature. Unless you look at a piece of anamorphic art from exactly the right angle, you won’t see the intended image which is often only visible to one person at a time. I spoke to Professor Philip Steadman, an expert in perspective, and podcast regular, Louise Govier, to find out more, and began by asking Louise to point out the most famous anamorphic illusion in the Gallery, the mysterious white smudge at the bottom of [Hans] Holbein’s masterpiece, 'The Ambassadors'.

Louise Govier: Yes, it’s in the skull in the foreground of the painting. I’ve sat in front of this painting with all sorts of groups of people, school children, and asked them what this weird object is, stretched out, white object in the front. And often they say, oh it’s a feather, it’s a baguette, I’m not sure, and you have to wait for one person to be sitting at the right-hand side of the painting who suddenly says, oh, it’s a skull. It’s a distortion that allows you to work out what it is when you just stand in the right place, it seems to pop into position.

Miranda Hinkley: And in fact there’s a clue as to where you have to stand, because if you look at the floor in front of the painting, there’s a very worn patch over to the right, and if we now go and stand in exactly that spot, then it all begins to make sense.

Louise Govier: Yes, absolutely. Now I’m standing right in the place where you should be, it looks recognisably like a skull, sometimes a bit more three-dimensional than others, but you can really see that it is meant to be a reminder of death. Of course this is an amazing, very lavish portrait, and if you follow the line up from the skull towards the top left-hand corner of the painting, you realise the tiny thing peeking out is a crucifix. It’s a reminder that these two men are aware of their mortality and of the fact that salvation lies through God, Christ and the afterlife.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, we’re also joined by Philip Steadman, who’s an expert on perspective in art and architecture. Philip, is it significant that we’re stood off to the right, would this effect also work if we were on the other side?

Philip Steadman: No, there’s got to be a particular viewpoint from which you look at it, like all perspectives, but with anamorphic perspectives it’s particularly important that you go to the viewpoint. In most pictures in perspective, they’re quite forgiving, you can look at them from many points of view, but anamorphic perspective is a very distorted kind, and it only looks correct when you get round to wherever the viewpoint is.

Miranda Hinkley: You’ve been listening to an extract from the National Gallery podcast. You can subscribe to the monthly show by visiting /podcasts.

Key facts

Artist dates
1497/8 - 1543
Full title
Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors')
Date made
Medium and support
Oil on oak
207 x 209.5 cm
Inscription summary
Signed; Dated and inscribed
Acquisition credit
Bought, 1890
Inventory number
Location in Gallery