This artwork takes its inspiration from the masterpiece of Hans Holbein the Younger in the 17th century – The Ambassadors, held by the National Gallery in London. The work explores the idea of mortality – more specifically your own awareness of your own mortality. This synthesis of painting and sculpture takes the concept of “Aperture Synthesis” from Astronomy and metaphorically applies the technique to Holbein’s work, offering an alternative perspective on the same heavenly bodies.
A Short History Lesson
Holbein was one of the most accomplished portraitists of the 16th century. He spent two periods of his life in England (1526-8 and 1532-43), portraying the nobility of the Tudor court. Holbein’s famous portrait of Henry VIII (London, National Portrait Gallery) dates from the second of these periods. ‘The Ambassadors’, also from this period, depicts two visitors to the court of Henry VIII. ‘Christina of Denmark’ is a portrait of a potential wife for the king.
Holbein was born in Augsburg in southern Germany in the winter of 1497-8. He was taught by his father, Hans Holbein the Elder. He became a member of the Basel artists’ guild in 1519. He travelled a great deal, and is recorded in Lucerne, northern Italy and France. In these years he produced woodcuts and fresco designs as well as panel paintings. With the spread of the Reformation in Northern Europe the demand for religious images declined and artists sought alternative work. Holbein first travelled to England in 1526 with a recommendation to Thomas More from the scholar Erasmus. In 1532 he settled in England, dying of the plague in London in 1543.
THE ANAMORPHIC SKULL
The most notable and famous of Holbein’s symbols in the work is the distorted skull which is placed in the bottom center of the composition. The skull, rendered in anamorphic perspective, another invention of the Early Renaissance, is meant to be a visual puzzle as the viewer must approach the painting nearly from high on the right side, or low on the left side, to see the form as an accurate rendering of a human skull. While the skull is evidently intended as a vanitas or memento mori, it is unclear why Holbein gave it such prominence in this painting. One possibility is that this painting represents three levels: the heavens (as portrayed by the astrolabe and other objects on the upper shelf), the living world (as evidenced by books and a musical instrument on the lower shelf), and death (signified by the skull). It has also been hypothesised that the painting is meant to hang in a stairwell, so that persons walking up the stairs and passing the painting on their left would be startled by the appearance of the skull. Artists often incorporated skulls as a reminder of mortality, or at the very least, death.
A Short Astronomy Lesson: Superimposing Spectrums
The base concept for this work is derived from a technique used widely in astronomy called Aperture Synthesis. Specialized instruments observe light far beyond the ranges visible to the naked eye. Different wavelength of light convey almost-mystical information about components of the sun’s surface and atmosphere.
This artwork called “Ambassadors in Other Wavelenghts” develops on that idea. As a metaphor it is the very message and imagery explored by Holbein… the same afterlife… only viewed at different wavelengths to give a deeper understanding.
In the image below you will see 13 different images of the sun, each taken in a different wavelength band.
SDO views the sun in 13 different ways, using two different on-board instruments.
Credits: NASA/SDO/Goddard Space Flight Center
Hans Holbein the Younger (Inspiration), Graham Walker (Engineering), CDG (Engineering), Metro Imaging (Imaging), Estelle Lovatt (Inspiration)