How to Read a Painting: Two Works from the National Gallery, London

We’re often told that art is meant to be very important, but we’re seldom told exactly why. A good artwork pins down the core of what is significant, while a bad one (which could be very visually appealing) does not hit us the same way – it lets the essence of the significant slip away, and is no better than a souvenir. But this only half the story; there’s also the viewer! A casual viewer in a hurry to see as many artworks as possible in a short time may have let the message of a masterpiece slip away. He or she sees the surface of a painting, admires the technical skill the artist used to render a landscape or a portrait, but little else. The atmosphere, the personality, and the morals of the work all go unnoticed. When it comes to appreciating great works of art, the devil is truly in the details. To demonstrate this, I choose two masterpieces of the Renaissance period, both of which are on display at the National Gallery in London. Both works were created in the 16th century.

The first masterpiece is “The Ambassadors”, a large painting by the great German Renaissance painter, Hans Holbein the Younger (1498-1534).

Hans Holbein the Younger, “The Ambassadors”, 1533. Oil on canvas, 207 x 210 cm. National Gallery, London.

This painting was commissioned by Jean de Dinteville (the flamboyantly dressed man on the left). Dinteville visited the court of King Henry VIII in 1533 when he met with the German-born painter who was working in London. Holbein painted this picture during a particularly tense period marked by rivalries between the Kings of England and France, the Roman Emperor, and the Pope. The French church at the time was also split over the question of the Reformation.

The painting is unusually large and elaborate for this period. More important than size, however, is the richness of its religious and political symbolism. Can you identify what they are?

Start with the upper shelf of the central cupboard, which displays objects related to the heavens. On the lower shelf sits a lute that has a broken string, evoking religious strife during the Reformation. A crucifix is half-obscured by a green curtain in the top left-hand corner of the painting, symbolizing division within the church.

That’s not all. The most intriguing symbol is that of a skull, tucked in an anamorphic area on the carpet and thus hidden from frontal view. As visitors to the National Gallery will discover, the skull reveals itself only if they move around the painting’s side. With this little visual trick, Holbein confronts us with the futility of earthly power and wealth. Both are doomed to fail and crumble. Death will be the common destination, whatever our station in life was.

Learn more about “The Ambassador” by watching this video

Our second painting also deals with the subject of human mortality, and it is by the French-speaking Belgian painter, Jan Gossaert (1478-1532).

“An Elderly Couple” by Jan Gossaert, c. 1520, oil on canvas, 48 x 69 cm. National Gallery, London.

The painting is a portrait of an elderly couple. Each face shows, in slightly different ways, the weight of they life they have led. They do no look particularly happy, either with themselves or with each other, but neither do they look disenchanted or depressed. If we stop looking any further, the painting seems almost boring, devoid of any interesting ideas.

Details of “An Elderly Couple”

But look closer at the man’s cap. Pinned on his cap is a small gold badge (see details), which depicts in relief, an overly erotic image of a much younger couple. Now the picture gets interesting; the badge is like a memory, a flashback of what the elderly couple must have been at the very start of their relationship. And this is the message Gossaert wants to bring across to his viewers: his painting is to be looked at not in old age, but in youth, when there is still time to prepare oneself or the distant future.

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