The Ambassadors’ Secret

by Mark Calderwood


Better known as The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein’s Double Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve is perhaps the most misinterpreted image of the renaissance. The interpretation of the painting as an allegory of the political and religious tumult of Henry VIII’s schismatic England, that the hapless ambassadors find themselves caught up in, has been universally accepted for over one hundred years.

Yet the idea that this is what the painting is “about”- and therefore that it can be only about that- is a modern assumption, and one that fails to take into account the work’s historical projection into our own very different era. Renaissance people quite simply did not think this way, and did not construct their art, or their interpretations of art, in such a simplistic manner.

Once we bravely cast aside these ingrained preconceptions, we can begin to approach the painting with fresh eyes, from within the social and semiotic context of the early sixteenth century…and doing so, we can appreciate the startling impact of The Ambassadors– intellectual, social, visual and visceral- on its intended audience. With its full interpretive potential restored, the double portrait reveals an unexpectedly intimate dimension to the relationship between the sitters, a revelation that offers a more comprehensive interpretation of this enigmatic work than commonly ascribed public interpretations.

Reading Pictures

The sweeping tide of humanist learning had carved the social landscape of the early sixteenth century into an energetically intellectual and artistically literate culture. The vogue for visual intellectualism saturated courtly society- emblem books such as Alciati’s Emblemata (1531), offering extensive collections of allegorical images on humanist and religious themes drawn from (and in return influencing) the literary and artistic vocabulary, were immensely popular. Everyone “understood” various genres of art the way modern audiences discern cinematic and television and genres, and games with portraits, devising and interpreting elaborate allegories, were a popular pastime among the nobility. “Consumers” of sixteenth-century art were thus well accustomed to discerning and reading multiple layers of meaning in the iconography that surrounded them.

Portraiture and patronage in the sixteenth century were not bounded by modern distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate: in renaissance society, these purposes were not absolute but inseparable. Portraits were luxurious and costly commodities serving as visual self-fashioning, announcing the wealth, refined intellectual tastes and social-political prestige of the owner, as well as conspicuous consumption to enhance social position. At the same time, the sitter’s character and interests, personal ties and self-perceptions were reflected in their depiction, pose, and surrounding symbolic or allegorical attributes. Familiar with this articulation of the private individual in relation to the public realm, contemporary audiences gave equal recognition to the multiple facets of portraiture, looking to clues of patronage and context to support interpretations.

Portraits especially were an intimately personal genre, often treated as direct simulacra and substitutes for the person portrayed in their absence: they were often spoken to, dined with, kissed or even kicked in anger. More than any other, The Ambassadors endows its sitters with a powerfully tactile presence, with the artist taking great pains to capture textures with such realism that the instinctive urge to stroke the fur and velvet of the sitter’s robes, finger the carpet weave and carved instruments, must be consciously fought. That they are painted life-sized, again, anomalous for a portrait of the time, indicates that the men themselves, not merely their world, are the primary focus of the painting.


The Diplomat 

Jean de Dinteville was the unhappy French ambassador to the English court amidst the political and religious turmoil of Henry VIII’s schism and remarriage. He was joined early in 1533 by his close friend, bishop-elect and scholarly diplomat Georges de Selve. The reasons for this visit are unknown, but seem to have been personal rather than political. In a letter to his brother, the oft-melancholy de Dinteville describes de Selve’s visit as “no small pleasure to me”, and suggests “there is no need for the Grand Maitre to hear anything of it.” Although this has often been dramatised as implying secret missions and intrigue, this more probably refers to the unofficial nature of de Selve’s visit, and hints at the Grand Maitre Anne de Montmorency’s disapproval of the ambassadors’ relationship.

De Dinteville is traditionally accepted as the patron of The Ambassadors, an assumption entrenched even before the sitter’s identities were discovered. De Dinteville was identified as “the principal figure” by Alfred Woltmann in 1872- solely on the basis of his eye-catching depiction, and after some debate positively identified by Mary Hervey in 1895.

The main premise for de Dinteville’s patronage is his ownership, established after an inventory label dated 1653, and Hervey’s subsequent reading of the painting as referring primarily to de Dinteville and his diplomatic sphere hinges on that same supposition. But in the case of The Ambassadors, no surviving record confirms its patronage.

Nor does ownership necessarily equate to patronage, as portraits were frequently commissioned by family members or other associates, and an expensive portrait of this nature may well have been beyond de Dinteville’s immediate means in England. While details of his financial position abroad are unknown, renaissance diplomatic practice granted ambassadors only a modest stipend, and de Dinteville was forced to petition his uncle the Grand Maitre of France for funds to meet his expenses for Anne Boleyn’s coronation procession. This extraordinary expenditure would have jeopardised de Dinteville’s liquidity, reducing the likelihood of his placing such a prohibitively expensive commission in 1533. That de Dinteville would commission a painting commemorating an embassy he so loathed and bemoaned, is also unconvincing.

Assuming de Dinteville as the patron does not fit well with either renaissance habits of patronage, nor the discrete layers of meaning encoded into the painting as revealed by John North’s (2002), and Kate Bomford’s (2004) interpretive hypotheses.

The Churchman

A more satisfactory explanation is that Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur, was the patron. Although legally noble and certainly influential in the early sixteenth century, the de Selve family were parlementaire noblesse- new money. The bourgeois judicial and mercantile origins of this socially mobile class prevented their complete acceptance by the French aristocracy; accordingly, social promotion through allegiance and patronage were important considerations for members of such families. The Ambassadors presents de Selve and de Dinteville alike as ideal sixteenth-century statesman, self-confident and self-conscious, demonstrating the cultivated display of social distinction and wealth, humanist erudition and nonchalance expected of the renaissance courtier… as well as the mannered impenetrability and concealment necessary to a diplomat.

More so, the key sight/construction lines of The Ambassadors converge on de Selve’s figure, indicating his importance to the painting itself. These lines are grounded in the religious schema of the painting uncovered by Professor John North (2002), further consistent with clerical patronage. (And, as incumbent of a wealthy bishopric, de Selve certainly possessed the means to commission the work.) In this schema, the doubly-coded iconography refers as much to churchman as to statesman: the self-fashioning functions of The Ambassadors more readily pertain to de Selve than de Dinteville. The latter’s ownership of the painting suggests it was intended by de Selve as a generous gift, which would garner social prestige and create the obligation of favourable future regard from a distinguished family, in addition to being a demonstration of uncommon personal affection. Taking de Selve as the patron better reflects the nature of renaissance patronage, and underscores the personal aspects of the painting.

Displayed in the grand salon of the de Dinteville chateau at Polisy, The Ambassadors was obviously intended for a private audience; specifically, de Dinteville’s family and social circle. Such an audience would easily understand The Ambassadors’ simultaneous modalities; as a prestigious aesthetic decoration, a lavish gift, an extravagant statement of friendship, contemporary sociopolitical commentary, concealed allegorical narratives, etc; and in that domestic setting would logically privilege readings based around the sitters and their relationship. Execution, patronage and setting all bring the grand display to an individual level, making the viewer acutely aware of the persons behind the courtly facade…at the same time they are kept at a distance by the ambassadors’ unrevealing gaze, forcing them to look for meaning in the surrounding iconography.

The Instruments

The Ambassadors’ iconography derives from the symbolist tradition of the northern renaissance. Flemish and German artists refined and expanded the medieval practice of investing everyday objects with multiple secular and spiritual meanings, creating a visual language that was at once utterly realistic and utterly symbolic. Holbein delighted in this kind of play even more than humanist allegory, his characteristic hyper-realism reflected the conviction that the essential “truth deep down things” lay in the immediate appearance of objects and people rather than convention or theory- an attitude that goes to the very heart of Reformation thinking. The personalised iconography in The Ambassadors are ambiguous and subtly subversive of the contemporary visual language, a “writerly” semiotic text which allows multiple interpretations and simultaneous layers of meaning.

Conventional symbolism serves as an easy entry point into the painting’s complex iconography, flagged by inscriptions of the sitters’ ages. De Dinteville’s dagger and the book beneath de Selve’s elbow were commonplace and easily read symbols of temporal and ecclesiastical authority of the time. The men’s clothing enhances their ambassadorial presentation: de Dinteville’s ensemble in fashionable pink and black is a bit of cultural snobbery, reflecting French elegance; it also signals his melancholy and fidelity. De Selve’s equally costly damask robe similarly reveals his social self-promotion. While its mulberry-purple colour and pattern of friar’s knots (symbolic of the Franciscan virtues of the clergy) are appropriate to a religious ambassador of his rank, the motif’s canting reference to François I indicates de Selve’s political obligations to the French crown rather than to Rome as a political appointee. The knots also imply the cordelière (friar’s girdle) design of the collar of the Order of St Michael; the gown’s pattern subtly equates to de Dinteville’s pendant of St Michael, setting de Selve on the same social level as his companion.


Considerable scholarly attention has been given to the scientific and musical instruments arrayed between the two men- indeed, far more than to the sitters themselves. Despite its modern treatment as such, this arrangement is not a still life, even an allegorical one; the concept simply did not exist in 1533. Rather, it is a parergon: a subordinate embellishment to the narrative that is simultaneously in tension with it. The narrative potential of the objects exists alongside as well as within the iconographic program, in a complex relationship which both complements and competes with the painting’s primary figures.

Usually held to represent the quadrivium of a humanist education (astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music), the assembled objects reflect the broader intellectual changes reshaping Europe. The state-of-the-art astronomical instruments indicate a new scientific mode of thought, based in first-hand observation and calculation rather than received doctrine: the Lutheran hymnal indicates the impact of similar approaches to religious thought. Suggesting mathematical and navigational sciences, the terrestrial globe and arithmetic manual indicate the literally expanding horizons afforded by learning. The intellectual acquisitiveness and spatial arrangement of the objects recalls the renaissance cabinet of curiosities, signifying the intellectual reconceptualisation of the sixteenth-century world.

Yet this intellectual flowering took place against a backdrop of political division and sectarian violence that fragmented Europe. The objects contain many allusions to these topical divisions, and it is here that established interpretation has been invested: the lute with its broken string corresponds to Alciati’s emblem of broken treaties and disharmony, the text of Peter Apian’s arithmetic manual Ein Newe unnd wohlgregrundte wunderweysung aller Kauffmans Rechnung (1527) open to the page demonstrating division, the dividers indicate the demarcation line of the Treaty of Tordesillas, commercial politics that literally divides the world, and so forth. The patterned floor in The Ambassadors, resembling the inlaid pavement of Westminster Abbey, is often taken as a specific reference to England’s political-religious situation, and the famed anamorphic skull slashing across the painting’s base prompts readings as an allegory on the vanity of these worldly endeavours, or else as an elaborate memento mori.

Given the primacy of symbolic parerga in Holbein’s other works, such as his portrait of George Gisze, the temptation to assign them the same level of importance in The Ambassadors is powerful- yet reading this way is still teleological and unsatisfactory. Although the “terrestrial” objects would have been understood on one level as sociopolitical commentary, they occupy a subordinate position in the iconography and thus could not have determined or confined its overall interpretation.

Peter North’s recent re-examination demonstrates The Ambassadors’ iconographic is multiply coded, revealing a second strata of interpretation. For example, the celestial globe displays constellations associated with France, but is set to reflect the sky over Rome rather than Paris or London. All the heavenly instruments, whether directly like the cylindrical and polyhedral dials or indirectly through astronomical movements, indicate the specific date of 11th April- Good Friday, 1533. The solar angle of 27 degrees on this date is found throughout the construction and sighting lines of the painting: the principle line of sight passes from the crucifix in the painting’s corner, through several significant points before reaching the viewing point which corrects the anamorphosis of the distorted skull. North’s analysis reveals that The Ambassadors’ composition is saturated with Christian geometry, numerology and cosmography.

The earthly icons further support this second layer of meaning: while Polisy is clearly marked on the terrestrial globe, its centre is Rome. Apian’s examples of mathematical division yield results which are multiples of 27, itself thrice times the Trinity. The dividers recall the medieval image of God as architect of the world; their point on the painting’s central line is interpreted as seeking virtuous equity. The damask curtain behind the men, drawn partly back to reveal the crucified Christ, is likely a traverse, used to screen the ‘holyday closets’ commonly used in sixteenth-century noble worship. The design incorporates carnations, symbolic of the Passion, and the Marian icon of pomegranates, a reference to the unity of the Church. Incorrectly numbered to denote the 19-year Easter cycle, the hymnal displaying Luther’s translations of common Catholic hymns has been interpreted as a call for Christian reconciliation- or Protestant capitulation to Catholic supremacy.

Despite these potent narratives, The Ambassadors remains a portrait that contains allegories, not an allegorical painting; as such, the painting’s primary subject indicates a third layer of meaning. In light of its context and motivation, The Ambassadors is best understood asa representation of the intimate friendship between de Dinteville and de Selve.

Just Friends

Friendship in the sixteenth century was a different and more complex concept than is understood by the term today. Courtly life in France was an exclusively male domain structured around complex webs of patronage and mutually beneficial obligation, in which masculine self-presentation and displays of affection secured social and political advantage. Although the common signs of male affection such as intimate conversation and letters, kissing, or sharing a bed would today be perceived as indicative of homosexuality, in the renaissance these “gifts of the body” functioned as public signs of countenance and favour. Early modern masculinity was evaluated according to its dialogue with an accepted and valorised homoeroticism, whilst paradoxically avoiding the stigma of effeminacy and sodomy. The conventions of courtly love that were popular at Henry VIII’s court, had in much of Europe been eclipsed by the humanist ideal of dyadic male partnerships. The phrase “just friends” would be meaningless in sixteenth-century parlance: there was no relationship more emotional, more intense, or more intimate than friendship.

This depth of feeling is evidenced in the very existence of The Ambassadors. In the sixteenth century, personal tokens were exchanged between friends; gifts that carried intellectual currency such as paintings or literary works indicated inordinate personal esteem. The scholar Erasmus’ dedication of a book to his friend Pieter Gilles is an example of this regard: “friends of the common sort…if they have to face a long separation, they favour frequent exchanges of rings, knives, caps and other tokens of this kind….(but this is) no common gift, for you are no common friend.” The Ambassadors likewise reflects the de Dintevile’s description of de Selve as his “intime amy”. De Selve’s gown of a smart but informal style favoured by the secular clergy is echoed by Dinteville’s pendant of St Michael, worn informally on a simple chain rather than the ceremonial collar, suggesting the “off-duty” relationship of the sitters and corresponding degree of intimacy between them.

The Ambassadors’ composition resonates with the humanist and classical discourse of friendship. The sitters were undoubtedly familiar with this canon, de Selve having translated into French Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. The sitters’ counterpose alludes to the exemplary friendships of antiquity: Hercules and Hylas, Achilles and Patroclus, the biblical David and Jonathan; Cicero and Atticus, the author and addressee respectively of the most influential text on friendship of the renaissance, De Amicitia; and Scipio and Laelius, whose perfect friendship this work venerates.


The vertical symmetry of de Dinteville’s and de Selve’s depiction suggests the classical concept of the friend as the second self, given new popularity in the sixteenth century. An illustration of this maximfound in Francois Demoulins’ moral compendium (c1512) parallels The Ambassadors. Two similar male figures stand apart but inclined toward each other, as are Dinteville and de Selve. They are united by the heart they hold, just as Holbein’s sitters are united by the shelves of instruments between them; the friend as the reflection of the self is compounded by the Antique notion that friends hold everything in common.

Friendship and gender in the sixteenth century was, at best, an ambiguous social rubric. Masculinity in the sixteenth-century courtier depended on the expectation to display the quality of sprezzatura, a nonchalant yet authoritative ease regarding his self-fashioning and social status, and his embodying the graces and prowess of the learned scholar-soldier replacing the medieval knightly class. Effeminacy on the other hand derived not from a man’s predilection for self-display or even engagement in same-sexual acts, but from his transgressing social decorums in displaying “womanish” traits such as irrationality, affectation and sexual submissiveness. Sodomy was associated not with specific sexual acts but with debauchery, sedition, heresy and the generally apocalyptic inversion of the social order…unfortunately, the signs of accepted male intimacy were often indistinguishable from the signs of effeminacy, or worse, sodomy. Even more, male sexuality was couched in terms of hierarchy rather than mutuality, bound up with disparities in social standing and gendered roles, and sexual and romantic relationships between master and servant, or youths and older men were commonly, if tacitly, accepted.

The modern coupling of effeminacy and sodomy with homosexuality ignores the likelihood that “masculine” men engaged in sexual relations within virtuous homosocial friendships. In the sixteenth century, the boundary between proper or improper, platonic or erotic sexuality and relationships was vague and imprecise. Homoplatonic relationships were energised by the same sexual frisson that energises all friendships; it is crucial to understand that in the renaissance concept of friendship this same-sex attraction was differentially acknowledged in fostering masculinity. Although often downplayed in Christian translation, the aforementioned canonical friendships of antiquity all contain an undeniable dimension of same-sex erotic engagement. Their valorisation indicates the vast conceptual distance in the renaissance between a sodomotical discourse, and identification with the rhetoric of classical friendship and its attendant possession of virtue. In fact, the presence of desire between iconic friends serves to amplify their virtue.

The Ambassadors embodies both this virtue and ambiguity. De Dinteville’s and de Selve’s nonchalant stance and self-presentation clearly mark them as social equals, men of rank, learning, and above all masculinity, rather than the comely youths found in the paederastic iconography of contemporary Italian art. The Ambassadors’ unusual depiction of two unrelated sitters in this manner was unprecedented in northern Europe: like still life, friendship paintings were not a concept. Instead, the painting sits firmly within the German tradition of betrothal/marriage portraiture.

In keeping with conventions, de Dinteville and de Selve are characterised as “male” and “female”. De Dinteville’s pose is expansive and active, whereas de Selve’s is circumspect and contemplative; their respectively rosy and more swarthy skin tones also reflect a conventional physiognomy of gender. De Dinteville’s visual connection with the solar calibration of the celestial orb and de Selve’s with the lunar torquetum imparts astrological gender associations.

The use of marital symbolism has been ascribed to the lack of a pictorial language for representing the ties of friendship, although the very few examples of double “friendship” portraits from southern Europe do not display this type of nuptial iconography. This provocative portrayal of the sitters as married partners would be startling to a sixteenth-century audience, but on its own could be justified as metaphorical.

The marriage symbolism does not stop there, however, making it impossible to disregard. The damask pattern of the traverse includes marriage symbols; in addition to the crucifixion, carnations denote marriage in Holbein’s iconography. While not worn by either man, diamond rings are visible in the textile pattern between de Dinteville and de Selve above the celestial globe and the polyhedral sundial, universal symbols of fidelity and matrimony. The skull, commonly found on the reverse of marriage portraits, is here “hidden” on the front. “Veni Sancte Spiritus” displayed in the hymnal evokes the ordination liturgy; by reflecting the sacred marriage to the body of the church, it possibly alludes to another sacred marriage with the body of the friend.

The lute in the sixteenth century was a metaphor for amorous and sexual dalliance, associated in particular with feminine sexuality. In contemporary literature, the lute was able to communicate those feelings that might otherwise lie beyond the ability of the player to disclose. Poets such as Thomas Wyatt and Louise Labé characterise the lute as an outlet for pent emotion, genuinely expressing inexpressible sensibilities. In Labé’s poetry, as in the stricken medieval chansons that preceded it, the lute significantly assumes its voice in the absence of the lover. Just as Apian’s arithmetic manual is The Ambassadors’ mathematical primer for unlocking its religious schema, so the lute is the visual primer for its personal schema. In its multiple associations- from venal sexuality through learning and politics to the divine ordering of the universe, the lute is the linking iconic element between the painting’s levels of meaning.

Corresponding to the lute is its case, puzzlingly ignored by a century of scholarship. In sixteenth-century literature, the lute case represented conflict between the inner person and the outer image. Hidden in the shadows beneath the table, the case becomes simultaneously a single and a double negative, indicating the honesty of personal feeling conveyed in the painting.


Further iconographic nuances may be recaptured by a “queer semiotic” such as proposed by di Addario (1994) and Saslow (1999). A queer reading hinges on the same “politics of knowledge” as all The Ambassadors’ iconography, dependent on symbolism which can be multiply interpreted. The cognoscenti’s subjective viewpoint would discern or invest significance in certain signs, which would seem innocuous to those not in the know. Rather than a revealing clue to the sitter’s personality, as was contemporary convention, the clasped, untitled book under de Selve’s elbow implies a protected secret. De Dinteville’s green-tipped cincture is comparable to the Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man’s green sash, associated with the Florentine homosexual subculture. De Dinteville’s casual grip on his dagger departs from Holbein’s conventionally forceful grip, to be read as a suggestive stroking. De Selve’s mirroring gesture drawing his robe close in seeming concealment actually reveals the visually rhyming lute more fully; that both men’s hands are level with de Dinteville’s codpiece enhances the phallic mutuality of the gestures. The upturned lute case suggests an inversion of social conventions and possibly the nascent concept of “inverted” sexuality rather than a literal indication of specific sexual behaviours; its surrounding shadows further the motif of concealment. The deliberately connected viewing positions of the skull and crucifix points to a relationship delicately balanced between social valorisation and social condemnation.

The prevalence of such signs in a painting representing an already sexually charged friendship strongly suggests a relationship between lovers as well as friends, almost irrespective of its physical expression. The Ambassadors does not hint at a sodomitical discourse: de Dinteville’s and de Selve’s relationship is firmly couched in terms of Classical and Christian virtue. Classical authors conflated the desires of the lover with dyadic friendship, referred to by Plutarch as “erotic friendship”. Plutarch further describes a lover as “a friend inspired by God”- a statement with obvious ramifications to Christian homosocial friendship, and almost certainly known to de Selve if not to both educated men.

Indeed as a churchman and modestly distinguished scholar, de Selve was probably also aware of the Antique and ecclesiastical traditions of marriage-like unions between two men. Although disappearing from the mainstream Latin Christian liturgy, such ceremonies were still technically legitimate in the Catholic tradition in the Middle Ages and underwent a revival in the renaissance. The possibility that The Ambassadors may represent such a tradition of divinely sanctified union is borne out in the marital and Christian significance in the painting’s construction and iconography. That de Dinteville died unmarried in 1555, most unusually for a man with the obligations of his class and position, lends tantalising support to the possibility of an enduring, consecrated bond with de Selve.

In this light, the  the tactile appeal of the superbly worked textures of the painting, together with the visual impact of their life-sized depiction and implied auditory expression in the lute, imbues The Ambassadors’ sitters with a sensory physicality and a presence whose immediacy was unprecedented. The “gift of the body” from the friend becomes the body itself, seeking sympathetic cognition at the same time it lays claim to immortality in the heart.

The final piece of the puzzle is that upon his return to France in 1533, de Selve was appointed as ambassador to Venice, where he stayed for seven years; given the organisation of the French court and diplomatic service, de Selve undoubtedly knew of this appointment well in advance, even before visiting London. The Ambassadors is thus revealed as an unusually intimate parting gift commemorating the sitter’s friendship, and keepsake for de Dinteville of his friend. The icons of political and spiritual discord and division- the arithmetic manual, dividers and terrestrial globe, the missing flute and broken heart-string of the lute – thus poignantly assume meanings of personal division: the very concerns which unite the two men in friendship are also the cause of their separation. Yet by keeping the facsimile of the lover close, the abiding, sanctified fidelity central to renaissance friendship endures in the face of absence or even death. The Ambassadors offers bodily solace in lieu of the presence of the beloved friend; de Selve is tangibly preserved in the memory of his intime ami.

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