Memento Mori I (The Ambassadors)

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The Ambassadors-Hans Holbein The Younger 1533
Memento Mori (Latin: Remember you will die) was a popular theme in Renaissance Art in the 16th and 17th Centuries. A Memento Mori would serve as a visual reminder of the brevity of life, the vanity of worldly pomp and the  emptiness of fleeting pleasures and thus an injunction to contemplate the eternal verities of the Afterlife. The richly symbolic items found in these paintings and in the overlapping still-life genre Vanitas are skulls, time-pieces, flowers, rotting fruit, musical instruments, bubbles, candles and smoke.

Hans Holbein the Younger’s brilliantly accomplished dual portrait of Jean Dinterville, French Ambassador to the court of King Henry VIII and Georges De Selve, Bishop of Lavaur and French Ambassador to the Emperor and the Holy See is surely his masterpiece. Entire books have been written about the political, religious and scientific symbolism of the various items on the table between the two men, however the most remarkable feature for the purposes of this post is the spectacular anamorphic skull that floats in the foreground. The painting is on display at the National Gallery in London and viewers have to approach from the right for the distortion to be corrected. There are several competing theories as to why Holbein gave the skull such prominence and is distorted in such a manner if seen straight on. My opinion is that the skull serves it’s traditional function as a Memento Mori, for even such supremely self assured and worldly gentleman as the Ambassadors must one day die, no matter how much you may obscure the fact.

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Detail of the Anamorphic Skull -The Ambassadors
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53 thoughts on “Memento Mori I (The Ambassadors)

  1. Absolutely fabulous painting, and the bit about the distortion is brilliant. That definitely makes it Cake. No doubt you’ve seen this in person. Is it amazing when you approach it from the right? I would settle for all the goodies on the table. Thank you Mr. Cake, wonderful. ~ Miss Cranes

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    1. It is a brilliant painting and it amazing seeing the distortion corrected. This is the first in a projected series on memento mori’s and vanitas. I have always been fascinated by those wonderful Flemish still lifes.The technique in the skull is superb.Glad you enjoyed. I try to not be a one trick pony.

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      1. Ah wonderful, looking forward to the mystery of the next post. No, say it’s not so, we can’t dismiss the Dutch, can we? As a child, and I’m sure you’re not surprised, I was immersed in years of museums, which I loved, point being I could sit for hours looking at a still life. I particularly like the ones painted on copper panels. Unlike Francesca, I was not sent off on my own with only a pencil and a notebook. Very fond memories.

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      2. Funny your should mention that Mr. Cake, I think about her often. Perhaps there are certain artist that we’re drawn to and have a deep understanding of their work/intent. I would love to see you do another post on her.

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      3. I will, I never forget any artist who wanders into Cakeland and gets my attention. My mind works in a zig zaggy way though, one thing suggests another and before you know I’m doing something else. But the return to Francesca is inevitable.

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      4. You have so much ground to cover, how incredible is that? And how about “Mr. Cake’s Coffee Table Book” with all the famous and infamous artists exposed!

        You do have a long list of projects going! I hope Francesca is somewhere near the top of that list.

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      5. She is, I think my angel post about her is one of my favourites, my other favourite is at the chateau la coste. Well tempting fate is top priority, then some more memento moris, then another De Sade post, and maybe a post on Hand Bellmer and then on his girlfriend Unica Zurn. Oh and I should really do a book one.

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      6. Yes, that’s a lovely post. I’ve never been able to find a huge amount of information on her, at least nothing from her. I would love to read through some of her school books. She would paste a lot of photos in her math books and such, with thoughts written below.

        See how busy you are, do you like it like that?

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      7. Actually yes. I think I write better quickly and without too much planning. Get an idea, think about it and then write it down as quickly as possible. The more I plan the less it flows. Especially poetry, that probably explains the uneven quality of my poems, though I think that when they are good they are very good.

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      8. Thank you very much Miss Cranes I try. I enjoy the research aspect though I should probably be a little more thorough. Plus it is nice change writing factually as opposed to always writing fiction and or poetry.

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    1. At the bottom is the skull without the distortion. Tomorrow I will send you a list of the items in the table, for now notice how the heavenly items are on the top shelf and the terrestrial items are on the bottom. Note how one ambassador is political and the other a bishop (though that was a political appointee back in the day), hence the world and heaven and down below is the skull.

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      1. Oh I see. Are all the things on top used to navigate with the stars? Besides the symbolism it is just an exquisitely executed painting. Thing how long it took just to do the green curtain with that pattern. Wow!

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  2. What a lot to take in! I can see why analysis is needed and much pondering. The distorted skull is ‘wow’ incredible – to paint it like that. This is quite the change from your usual art post. Although I see why its still ‘what Cake likes’ with all the symbols. A Memento Mori for even the most prominent of men.

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  3. It is indeed a wonderful painting, with lots of theories applied to it. One of my favorites. A stair case leading from left to right, as you approached the painting from where it was originally hung put the skull into focus: that’s one theory. The application of technique to location is key to some paintings.

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      1. Maybe I should join you in verse on that series … death plays such a huge part in Golden Age Spanish poetry (16th -17th centuries, aka Early Modern, though I prefer the tame ‘Golden Age). Death and love after death were two key themes in Quevedo. Alas, the difficulties of translation are paramount: one loses so much. It’s a lot easier to transmute art!

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