Ambassadors, substantial men, with a purpose. You can feel it on them. Jean de Dintville, the man on the left, stands in possession of both dagger and sword, as well as a large portion of self-confidence. The man on the right is quieter, eyelids half-lowered, almost as if he doesn’t want his picture painted. This is Georges de Selve. Dintville is the French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII. Selve is his friend, soon to be consecrated as a bishop, but perhaps he is something more.
Names yes, but who are these men really? They have been dead for more than four hundred years. Did their mission fail? In all probability. Did they even have a shared mission? Perhaps not. “That which is sundered shall not be put together.” The year is 1533, the year Henry broke with Rome and married Ann Boleyn. Holbein the painter is German, but which way does he lean, Catholic or Protestant?
The objects abound, the subject of intense inquiry—celestial and terrestrial globes, a lute, an empty flute case, the interior filled with detail upon detail. Symbolism of empires to come, the exploration and exploitation of the world that does come. Did the artist know all this, know how it would turn out? Puzzles within puzzles, a broken string on the lute, dates, codes perhaps akin to pecavi, “I have sinned (Sind).”
Does the painting reveal all this, or does it hide its true subject? What do the depicted objects say? “Here is our collection of exotic objects. We’re very accomplished, aren’t we? We exist through our possessions.” Symbolic meanings, secreted as sediment beneath this. The artist’s commentary or a coded diplomatic message? If a coded message, who is the intended recipient?
A recent writer has suggested these men were lovers, that this is their intense secret. Who knows, perhaps they were. A double portrait of two men? Friends, or a marriage portrait of sorts? It was Jean de Dintville who commissioned the painting, and took it home to France. Serving the French king, yet superior to royalty—they know something their king does not, their faces reflected through the centuries. For us, the viewer, what do we care of royalty when we have this.
The Skull, as it is known, lies hidden at the corner of the painting, a nodding aside to the cognoscenti, and to every passerby who has it pointed out. The significance is clear.
Steven Fraccaro is the author of the novel Gainsborough's Revenge, and of The Recalcitrant Scrivener, a collection of essays on writing in the age of the web. His short fiction work "Night Language" was published in Otoliths #19. A flash piece from his ongoing work Skeleton Key to the Wind appears in issue #28 of StepAway Magazine.
The Ekphrastic Review
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