Ambassadors: the secret of the green curtain

This is a long story of passion, art, and diplomacy I’ve been working on for quite some time. This is why I broke it in micro chapters for convenience, as well as suspense. You won’t be able to hear the story anywhere else. You have no choice, but to read on.

Analysis of an artwork is as much about knowledge of history, as it is about common sense, with the latter being often overlooked. Poor knowledge of history results in misinterpretation (stupid), a lack of common sense leads to overinterpretation (plain crazy). So, armed with history context and common sense we’ll try to discover and explain the last remaining secrets of The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein, a painting that can be found in any book titled “100 (or 500 or 1000) paintings to see before you die”.

Scholars (give them a deep bow, would you please?) have explained the symbolism of almost everything that the eye can find in this painting. There are so many signs and symbols in there, I fear Dan Brown novelising it into another crime of his against history and the English language.

The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein

Almost everything has been explained. But not all.
What are the elements for which explanation is non-existing or shaky?

  1. Find the small crucifix in the upper left corner, right behind the green curtain. Why is it there? Why the green curtain at all? Why not a background more fitting to represent two ambassadors?
  2. The big skull at the bottom that is seen as an ugly blot from the front, but becomes a 3d skull if you look at it from a sharp angle. Why not paint a “normal” skull and be done with this “memento mori”?
  3. Why on earth did Holbein piled up all those objects? The Marxist critic, John Berger, believed it was done to symbolise wealth and the dawn of a new order of things when, colonies and tradesmen will be generating wealth, not titles. Others believe the portrayed characters wanted to show off their IQ with all this stuff. Who’s right?

Hans Holbein never played with objects unless there was some purpose behind it. So, what was his purpose, his grand design behind this painting – given that he couldn’t use any symbolism that would not have been agreed with the sitters first?

I promise to answer these questions, but first you need to imagine yourself a French envoy on a secret mission.

Click on page 2 (below the like and sharing buttons) to begin your transformation into a 16th century equivalent of James Bond!


  1. I haven’t had as much time looking at an artwork since my class in Humanities in college. Good Job!

    1. I wonder why I haven’t thanked you for this comment earlier. I am sorry. This is the kind of comment that is the highest praise and motivation for me to continue writing about art. Thank you!

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