The ‘Unusual Character’ of Holbein’s Ambassador

The ‘Unusual Character’ of Holbein’s Ambassador

By Hagi Kenaan

Artibus et Historiae, 23, no.46 (2002)

Introduction: Widely recognized as one of the most intriguing portraits painted during the Renaissance, Holbein’s Ambassadors has not only been the subject of continual scholarly and interpretative attention but, following Lacan and Lyotard, has also become one of the most popular visual icons used, if not abused, in the service of post-structuralist writing. Holbein’s Ambassadors is, indeed, a painting that calls for, if not demands, an interpretation. The artificial setting of the two figures, the surrounding array of emblematic objects, the anamorphic composition that disrupts the placidity of the foreground, together with the half-hidden crucifix in the upper left corner—all seem to suggest the deficiency of a literal treatment of the painting, and call for one or another kind of figurative reading.

In this paper, however, I wish to offer a different approach to the problem of meaning in the painting. I shall argue that the Ambassadors is a painting that involves a secret, but that revelation of this secret cannot be effected by an inquiry founded on the contrast between literal and figurative meaning. Moreover, I shall try to show how the secret of the Ambassadors only discloses itself once we embrace the visuality of the painting rather than attempt to transcend it.

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