10. 'The Ambassadors' - Hans Holbein the Younger
WHERE CAN I SEE IT? National Gallery
I LIKE IT See also 'A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling'
It’s important if you’ve got a lot of stuff to look blasé about it, like it’s no big deal. Jean de Dinterville and Georges de Selve look suitably underwhelmed by all the clobber they’ve accumulated. Of course, it’s all symbolic: these are Renaissance men with a capital ‘R’, no branch of the arts or sciences is unknown to them. Might play the lute; might fiddle with the astrolabe; might model my new coat. Art historians hop from one foot to the other in their eagerness to point out that the grey splodge in the foreground, when viewed in a cylindrical mirror (should you have one to hand) is a skull. Death is in the house, and no amount of worldly knowledge can conquer the Reaper. It’s not that simple, though. The anamorphic skull means we can never see this image as anything other than the creation of man: it literally is a big splodge of paint on the picture. Holbein’s vast skill is a commodity like the rest of these men’s expensively acquired items, while they themselves, mere microns thick, are just symbols of illusory power. Which, you suspect, they’re perfectly happy to be.