The Ambassadors – A Lenten Study on Death and Vanity

Hans Holbein the Younger

Vanity Hans Holbein
Holbein – Henry VIII

Recently, I watched a fascinating Amazon Prime documentary on artist Hans Holbein: “Holbein, Eye of the Tudors.”  Hans Holbein was a Swiss artist during the Reformation whose work was impeded by the Iconoclasts — a break-off of Lutheranism that was against all graven images of God.  Basel, Switzerland, where Holbein lived, was a stronghold of the Iconoclasts, so Holbein took an invitation from Erasmus to journey to England.  There, he lived in the house of Sir Thomas More and painted his family.  Eventually, he was invited to work at court.  It is because of Hans Holbein that we know how Henry VIII, many of his wives, Thomas More, and Oliver Cromwell actually looked.

Holbein’s realism was astounding.

Faith and Court

Vanity Painting
Sir Thomas More

We don’t really know too much about Holbein’s religious beliefs through his life, though we know he had them.  He was raised Catholic.

While in Basel, he created beautiful works of art for the churches. The Lutherans, or at least the branch he was exposed to, had not been kind to his livelihood.  The iconoclasts destroyed much of the art in the churches and he struggled to feed his family.

Thomas More introduced him at court, yet he still managed to find favor in the English court.  He won the favor of Anne Boleyn and painted her portrait.  He continued to prosper (not that he made much money) even after so many had fallen out of Henry’s favor (sometimes it was their head falling).  However, there are no records showing that Holbein converted to Anglicanism or that he approved of Henry’s actions.

Honestly, he must have been very gifted in this.  Cromwell sent Holbein was to Germany to paint Anne of Cleves.  Both Oliver Cromwell and British Lutheran Robert Barnes were very eager for Henry to marry Anne and create an alliance between the Anglican Church and the Lutheran one (Smallcaldic League).  Henry decided the painting greatly exaggerated her beauties and did not consummate the marriage.  He accused Cromwell of manipulating him into the alliance and had him beheaded.  He also beheaded Robert Barnes when Barnes landed on English soil.  Somehow, the actual painter managed to keep his head.

vanity painting
A vanity painting..this person loved books, writing, and a gun (I couldn’t find the source)

Vanity Paintings

Vanity paintings were common during Holbein’s time.  They were paintings that included things the person loved or the tools of their trade, with a skull present alongside or on top of those things.  “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”  Death comes for us all in the end.  This person may accomplish so much, but in the end, they will be dust and none of the other things matter. Holbein painted several vanity paintings, but there is one that is his most famous.


 The Ambassadors – The Vanity Painting of Vanity Paintings

Vanity painting - The Ambassadors
Holbein – The Ambassadors


This painting portrays two young French dignitaries to the court of Henry VIII.  The gentleman on the left was a 29-year-old ambassador.  The gentleman on the right was a 25-year-old Catholic bishop.  They were good friends.  It is unusual that both are actually in the painting amongst all of the other objects, but Holbein is making a broader statement than applies to just one man, or even just these two.

Their representation as dignitaries to the court is itself a vanity.  Diplomacy both on behalf of the secular government (Kingdom of the Left) and The Church (Kingdom of the Right) will not last forever. On the shelf behind them rest scientific tools of the age: astronomical globes, a sundial, a quadrant, and a few other items.

On the 2nd shelf, it gets really interesting — there is a globe, and it is round, showing that the flat earth of the Middle Ages is gone.  Next to it, a German hymnal by Martin Luther, and there beside it, a lute.  Martin Luther was a talented lutist.  On the lute, one string is broken.  Painters often use broken instruments to symbolize discord.

Even the floor — the tiles on the floor are like those at Westminster Abbey where English kings are coronated.

On the floor though is a completely bizarre image.  From straight on, it looks white, malformed, and nebulous.  The painting was not meant to be viewed from straight on, though.  Where it was hung, it would first be viewed by someone entering the room from above, to the right. From there, it is clearly a skull, as in other vanity paintings.  All of these things — are vanity.  The dignitaries and their diplomacy, the new things of this world, and the strife that Luther has brought, even kings — all will end. But in this painting, death itself is vanity, too.  It is a distorted image, as if in a mirror — a reflection because it does not last.

In the upper left-hand corner of the painting, one thing presides above all.  It is partially obscured by the curtain. Everything in the painting may draw your attention away from it, but it is there, prevailing over all else.

Christ on the cross.


Vanity Painting Pinterest Graphic




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