Wednesday, 20 April 2011

When the world hung together

I spent an afternoon in the National Gallery yesterday, in the C16th section. The painting that caught my eye was 'The Ambassadors' by Hans Holbein, a 1533 depiction of two French diplomats. Holbein gives an indication of both of their ages (25 and 29 - pretty young for official envoys by our standards). The one on the left is Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador, the one on the right Georges de Selve, a young French bishop. Between them lie an assortment of items, a lute, some astronomical instruments, some books, and the strange shape of the foot of the painting is a distorted skull, only visible in proportion when viewed from the right hand side of the canvas.

What struck me about the painting was its sense of harmony and honesty. It is a scene of youth, health and vigour, two men at the top of their game, confident, strong and at ease with the world. One is a politician, one a churchman, in a world where religion and politics can live alongside one another as equally important aspects of life. The scientific instruments lying next to a Christian hymnbook, lute and pipes point a world where science, music and prayer are not mutually exclusive and suspicious of each other, but live quite comfortably side by side. It is also a world where it is possible to celebrate youth and energy, fine clothes and colour, while at the same time include reminders of death and mortality. The broken string on the lute and the cryptic death's head skull (even if you have to look closely and obliquely to see them) are both signs of a culture that could quite happily embrace the realities of both life and death without trying to erase one or the other.

It is beautifully composed, all in balance and proportion, luxuriously painted, and gives you a nostalgic sense of a world where things hung together - science, art, theology, politics - and a world where death and life, youth and age were not hidden from each other. The sixteenth century was of course far from a harmonious age, yet underneath the disputes of the Reformation (and these two men are of course Catholic diplomats in a court fast breaking away from the papacy in 1533) this pre-modern world had an underlying harmony and unity based around its Christian view of the world that our fragmented and pluralistic world can only wistfully imagine.

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