Another great favourite painting of mine is “The Ambassadors,” by Hans Holbein the Younger, court painter to Henry VIII, also in the National Gallery in London. This is a large painting, in oil and tempera on oak, depicting two young men in their twenties, the French Ambassador Jean de Dinteville, and his friend Georges de Selve, who was Bishop of Lavaur, and also sometime ambassador to the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the Republic of Venice, and the Holy See. These surprisingly young men, both in their twenties, were extremely powerful and wealthy for their youth, and are depicted wearing rich garments, and surrounded by objects which denote their learning and accomplishments: scientific and astronomical instruments including celestial globes and portable sundials, books, and a lute with a broken string. Most of these objects are laid on a Turkey rug, and behind the richly-dressed figures hangs a green curtain. The whole painting gives an impression of richness, and depth, which I have tried to capture in my album pages.
One of the most remarkable features of this painting is the curious slanting object in the foreground, which could not possibly have been there in real life. This is an anamorphic projection of a skull; if the viewer stands to the extreme right of the painting and looks across the panel, this object becomes foreshortened and is clearly seen to be a skull. Possibly Holbein painted it in this peculiar fashion, hidden but in plain view, to suggest that a reminder of death is always present in the midst of power and opulence, the skull being a symbol of mortality.
The picture is absolutely stuffed with symbolism! I have not attempted to pick out every symbol. In Tudor times, people could read symbols as easily as we read words, and everybody would have understood the meaning of the objects Holbein chose to place in this portrait.
This picture was made at a time of great religious and political upheaval, and it is possible that these two ambassadors were active in Henry VIII’s court at the time of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and his rejection of the Roman Catholic Church. On the lower level of the table is a lute with a broken string, which symbolises the lack of religious harmony in the land; in front is a Lutheran hymnal which may symbolise religious harmony – there is a conflict here. There are many symbols in the painting which point to it being Good Friday, when the church remembers the crucifixion of Christ.
So much for the details and history of the painting – now on to my album pages.
Here is a selection of images, paper and card to be used for the pages. In the end I did not use all the images because there wasn’t room.
The first thing I did was to take some green card and cut it to the size of my Cuttlebug folder, and embossed two sheets. I did not use both, but now have one in reserve – I may use part of this on the album cover when the time comes. Unfortunately as the page took shape, this became almost completely covered but it’s there if you look carefully! I applied Bundled Sage Distress Stain in vertical streaks onto the embossed card.
Then I applied Forest Moss Distress Stain to darken it further.
Finally I very gently rubbed my Walnut Stain Distress Ink pad over the embossed surface to pick up the design. This card then resembled the rich green curtain hanging behind the figures in the painting.
Then I began to prepare the pages, by painting different colours chosen to co-ordinate with the Holbein picture, beginning with Cadmium Red.
I then added black, working in from the outside.
To dull down the red slightly, I applied some Alizarin Crimson, and then added some green.
I then took the embossing folder I’d used for the card, and applied some gesso to it, spreading it out with my brayer.
I used this to stamp onto my pages, not applying more gesso between stampings, but continuing with what was still on it, to give a graduated effect.
Although I liked the swirling pattern, it was much too bright, so I made a glaze with some Payne’s Grey acrylic paint and some acrylic polymer, and brushed this over the gesso to dull it down a bit. I liked this much better.
This completed the background on the pages. These are the colours I used.
I then began to apply the images that I’d printed, and the embossed card. Unfortunately I placed the portrait itself slightly too far over to the left, and it obscured too much of the green card once the journaling was in place.
I had printed various detailed images of some of the objects in the picture, and cut these out and applied them. The skull I applied to two thicknesses of card, all adhered with regular matt gel medium, curving it round my finger as I worked, and then I cut the card around the image and set it aside to dry.
I printed the journaling pieces on the computer, using a Tudor-style font, and cut them out. I distressed the edges using my Tim Holtz distressing tool, and applied some Antique Linen Distress Ink using an Inkylicious Ink Duster. Then I screwed them up, flattened them out again, and applied some Vintage Photo Distress Ink by rubbing the ink pad very gently over the surface to pick out the creases, and rubbed the edges of the pieces along the surface of the pad.
These journaling pieces were then stuck down using regular matt gel medium.
To frame the main portrait, I laid down a length of black gros-grain ribbon, sticking it down with regular matt gel medium, and attached two decorative brads at the corners which were not covered with journaling.
The final touch was to attach the skull using Pinflair glue to maintain its curved shape, and to paint the border in black and white acrylic paints.
Here is the finished double-page spread.
This is the left-hand page, with the symbols and journaling.
This photo shows a detail of the skull.
The right-hand page, with the title and main image, and journaling describing the painting.
Detail of the right-hand page, showing some of the journaling, the Turkey rug image and the border.
I think you will agree that this is a fascinating painting, full of mystery and interest. I love its richness and depth, colour and texture, and its history, a little window into a very colourful period of English history, a time of great turmoil but also of great learning and art, with the birth of the modern age. I hope a have created a rich tribute!