Leonardo’s Skull and the Complex Symbolism of Holbein’s “Ambassadors”

Christopher W. Tyler, Ph.D., D.Sc.


The depiction of memento mori such as skulls was a niche artistic trend symbolizing the contemplation of mortality that can be traced back to the privations of the Black Death in the 1340s, but became popular in the mid-16th century. Nevertheless, the anamorphism of the floating skull in Hans Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ of 1533, though much discussed as a clandestine wedding commemoration, has never been satisfactorily explained in its historical context as a diplomatic gift to the French ambassadors to the court of Henry VIII who were in the process of negotiations with the Pope for his divorce. Consideration of Holbein’s youthful trips to Italy and France suggest that he may have been substantially influenced by exposure to Leonardo da Vinci’s works, and that the skull may have been an explicit reference to Leonardo’s anamorphic demonstrations for the French court at Amboise, and hence a homage to the cultural interests of the French ambassadors of the notable Dinteville family for whom the painting was destined. This hypothesis is supported by iconographic analysis of works by Holbein and Leonardo’s followers in the School of Fontainebleau in combination with literary references to its implicit symbolism.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.22158/jrph.v4n1p36


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