Ambassadors: the secret of the green curtain

Yes, in a brilliant diplomatic move, you decide to commission a portrait that will show who you are, what you stand for, what you think of all this, and what you believe in. There is an artist, a German – what’s his name – oh, yes, Ioannes Holbein. He came to England via the link from Erasmus of Rotterdam to Thomas More (who’s out of favour now), but he somehow has managed to distance himself from his original patrons. While he is not anywhere near Henry himself, he is known to have commissions from courtiers who are close to the king. Given his background with Erasmus, he must be a man of convictions similar to yours, and while doing the portrait, and discussing it, he may give you information that you so much desire!

So, you arrange for Holbein to take the job. You sit down with him and with your bishop friend and you talk about what you want and how this can be achieved.

First things first.

I want the future viewer to understand the portrait was done in England, – you say.

I will use the tile pattern of Westminster Abbey on the floor, offers Holbein. – It is unique and very symbolic – what with the David star, and all – of the end-of-the world concept. The end of the world may not come, but the world as we know it today will surely end.

You chuckle, wondering what does Holbein know that makes him so certain the world is about to change.

– I will separate the background with a green curtain, – continues the artist.

That makes you wonder, but your bishop friend comes to the rescue:

– A green curtain has often been used to separate the worldly and heavenly realms, especially by Italian masters. Take Raphael’s Sistine Chapel!

But why do we need to have something heavenly in the portrait, you think. Holbein explains his idea:

– You want this portrait to reflect your view on this world and its state. The world is torn by the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. You believe there is no need for the conflict. There is common ground, the same ten commandments, the same hymns, though sung in different languages, the same earth for us all. I will show it by placing a variety of props on the table between you and your friend – I have plenty with me that I use in different portraits to reflect the sitter’s interests. I’ll even have a book with Lutheran hymns on the shelf!

This makes you wonder how Holbein got hold of something which is considered heresy in these parts of the world, but then you remember that the artist had to do a lot of portraits of German merchants to make himself noticed by English nobles, and one of the merchants must have smuggled the book into England.

– You also believe the religious conflict is silly, because we have one God, and we are all subjects to his grace. God is watching us, Henry, your king Francis, the Pope – and only God knows how all the mess brewing up right now is going to end. And it is better not to forget that He will be judging each of us, by our thoughts and actions. And to show this, I will use a skull, and a small crucifix.

– Wait, you cry out, I don’t want this portrait to be a simple vanity piece!  

– Oh, no, my lord, it is going to be a very, very different skull. Have you seen the pictures now often shown at the king’s court, when to see what is painted you have to look at it only from a certain angle? This is what I intend to do. You will be able to see the skull only when you look at the portrait from a sharp angle.

And the artist does a quick sketch to show this:

But the main message is going to be hidden behind the painting! – exclaims the artist.

And now is the time to click on Page 4 to find out what is the main secret of this painting.


  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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