his almost square painting (2.07 m × 2.10 m) from 1533 shows the two French ambassadors at the English court, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve. Both are powerful men in their 20'ies and are surrounded by books and instruments that symbolise their many interests.
In front, above the floor, a strangely twisted figure is floating. If you go to the National Gallery in London and look at the painting from the right (or if you cheat and use Ulead PhotoImpact) it turns out to be a skull.
nother skull is hiding in the band of Jean de Dinteville's cap (see pictures to the left and right). This is hardly what you would expect to see on an ambassador in full dress!
Why are there two skulls in the picture? One of the more fanciful explanations is that they are Holbein's signature: A picture puzzle for "hollow bone", which in German would be Holbein.
A more realistic suggestion is that one skull may explain the other.(1) In all possibility the painting was commissioned by Jean de Dinteville — at least the painting was owned by the Dinteville family until 1787.
Dinteville's ownership is also revealed in the globe on the table, where Dinteville's "seigneurie", Polisy, has been marked. Today Polisy is a small communality (population 170 in 2012), but on the globe Polisy is almost as big as England (picture to the right).
Dinteville and Holbein must have known each other, since they both lived at the English court. The skull emblem in Dinteville's hat shows his interest in the genre of "memento mori". It is therefore natural to think that Holbein must have shown him his dance of death. While Les Simulachres & historiées wasn't published before 1538, i.e. 5 years after The Ambassadors, the blocks had been cut long before that and Holbein would have owned a copy of the so-called printer's proofs to display.
Holbein's woodcut of The escutcheon of Death, Die wapen deß Thotß (picture to the left), has the same composition as The Ambassadors: Two persons are standing, and between them — at the same height in both works — a large skull has been placed.
The painting has been restored several times. The last time was in 1998.
The National Gallery has published a recommendable description of this process (see the external link). Pages 22-25 are about the skull, where lots of time was spent comparing with anatomically correct skulls in twisted perspectives. Among other challenges, the nose had to be reinvented because there is nothing left of Holbein's original paint in this area.
But the otherwise splendid article is silent when it comes to the oddest alteration: After the restoration, the jaw has been prolonged and now juts out over the edge.