Memento Mori

At first glance, this picture may seem a little dull—two old guys in stuffy outfits with stoic expressions. It was painted in 1533 and is a portrait of the French ambassador to England (Jean de Dinteville) and his friend, French ambassador to the Republic of Venice and to the Pope in Rome (Georges de Selve). But what is that weird smear on the bottom of the painting? What do the objects between the two ambassadors represent? A lot, as it turns out.  

The upper shelf of the table between them includes an astronomical globe, a sundial, and other various instruments used to understand the heavens. The lower shelf is concerned with worldly things—a musical instrument, a hymn book, a terrestrial globe, and a book of arithmetic. Critics believe this was to show the vanity of science on one hand and the vanity of earthly power on the other.

The artist, Hans Holbein, painted this during a tense period of rivalry between the Kings of England and France, the Roman Empire, and the Pope, plus the French church was split over the Protestant Reformation. This religious and political strife is reflected symbolically in painting. Notice the crucifix in the upper left corner, half obscured by the green curtain. This symbolized the division of the church. The broken string on the lute represents disharmony caused by the Reformation. The open music book next to the broken lute is a Lutheran hymnal, the cause of the discord. The book of mathematics is open to a page of divisions. Get the idea? The two ambassadors were devout Catholics concerned with threats to the unity of Christianity.

But the painting also contains symbols of life’s brevity. In Dinteville’s hand is an ornate dagger with the ages of the two ambassadors engraved in Latin. Affixed to Dinteville’s hat is a skull medallion. But what this painting is best known for is the anamorphic image of the skull in the foreground—a distorted projection that requires the viewer to view the object from a specific vantage point before image can be recognized. This painting was intended to be hung on a staircase so that when it was viewed from the correct angle, the skull in the bottom quarter of the painting would transform into an undistorted memento mori, an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. (See the undistorted skull below).

By painting this strange symbol of death, is Holbein saying that fancy outfits, powerful titles, and heavenly and earthly knowledge are overshadowed by the inevitability of death?

Being Human connection: Death is a natural part of life, however Christian theology will not accept that there is life and death and nothing else. Death is not what God intended for us and death stands for all that has gone wrong with us. But Christ has set the wrong right by his death. We say, with the Apostle Paul, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). This is not to minimize the pain death leaves for those of us left behind. We grieve, but we grieve as ones who have hope (1 Thess. 4:13). In this painting, the memento mori is distorted. In Christ, the memento mori is defeated.

Praise the Lord!

Featured art: Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533, The National Gallery, London