The Ambassadors

This picture memorialises two wealthy, educated and powerful young men. On the left is Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England in 1533. To the right stands his friend, Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur, who acted on several occasions as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See. The inscription on Dinteville's dagger and the book on which Selve rests his arm indicate that they are in their 29th and 25th years respectively.

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.

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