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  • The Ambassadors' Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance
  • David Topper
The Ambassadors' Secret: Holbein and the World of the Renaissance by John North. Hambledon and London, London, U.K., and New York, U.S.A., 2002. 346 pp., illus. ISBN 1-85285-330-1.

I am skeptical of many things, one being the apparently endless proliferation of articles and books by authors supposedly discovering secret geometrical patterns in art—pictures, sculpture and architecture (especially popular is the Golden Section). It seems to me that almost any given number of geometrical forms and patterns can be "found" in most images. So it was with some apprehension that I opened this book. Yet, in any case, I had to read it because Holbein's painting has been part of a research project of mine and I try to read virtually everything written on it, and as well I have great respect for John North's work in the history of science (especially, on astronomy).

The book is a tour-de-force of scholarship on seemingly everything about the picture and its interpretation. Commencing with the life of Holbein and the sitters, then moving to Holbein's relationship with possible intellectual collaborators at the English court, with even an exposition on the ambassadors' style of dress—the book is so engaging that I was quickly hooked. So by page 73, when North raises the matter of patterns in pictures ("Art historians are rightly suspicious of those who superimpose lines on paintings"), I was, despite my qualms, already drawn in enough at least to listen willingly to his argument. His case for proceeding with the search for an underlying geometry seemed reasonable, being based on a refutation of a critique of such procedures: North asserts that a weak argument against such procedures "is that since it is possible to superimpose composition-lines on a painting in many different ways none can be acceptable." The refuted critique is (of course) my critique. North is right: there may, indeed, be a secret underlying form—if, importantly, the artist intended one, and if we can still find it.

North's exposition is the most thorough analysis of Holbein's painting to date. He explains and interprets in detail the nature and meaning of every object and form in the picture: all of the astronomical instruments and other secular objects, the religious artifacts and their symbolism, the geometrical patterns on the floor, and (perhaps the most widely studied feature) the anamorphic skull slicing diagonally across the bottom foreground. North deduces that the painting is meant to be dated 11 April 1533 (Good Friday) at 4:00 P.M. He then interprets the picture in light of this date and the crucifixion story. He finds, for example, two key lines of sight. Others who have analyzed the anamorphic skull have shown that it is properly viewed from a point to the right of the picture, below the mid-point, and slightly off the picture frame. North shows that the angle from this point to the skull is 27° below a horizontal, but he also discloses another line, 27° above the horizontal and terminating on the cross partially hidden on the curtain on the upper left corner. The angle of the sun on the day and time of the painting was 27° above the horizon. Indubitably, that 3 X 3 X 3 = 27 recalls the Christian Trinity. Jesus died at age 33, so the painting was to be dated 1500 years after the crucifixion. North also finds two hexagrams and a horoscope square in the picture that contain the number 27. He even finds a connection (too good to be accidental) to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. "What at first sight is no more than a series of tricks played on the senses turns out in the end to be a solemn religious statement. [End Page 76] It is as though Holbein is telling us to correct our moral judgment by reference to Christ's, in the way that we correct the distortion of the skull" (p. 265). Even a confirmed skeptic such as myself was converted; in this case at least, I believe that a scholar...


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