Breaking Down Art History: What’s that thing?

Hans Holbein the Younger was one of the leading artists of the Holy Roman Empire who painted The French Ambassadors using oil and tempera paint. The French Ambassadors depicts Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve standing on either side if a shelf with an array of many different objects, all with meaning behind them. There is a lute with a broken string that symbolizes discord and religious strife. The crucifix that is half hidden behind the curtain encourages the viewer to think about death and the idea of resurrection. One object so strange is one that can’t be correctly seen from a frontal view.

What is that large, dark shape diagonally placed at the bottom of the painting?

If you look at the painting from its side, you will find out that it is a skull. Holbein and many other artists typically put skulls in paintings to symbolize mortality or memento mori (remember that we die).

But why distort it?

According to Tim Brinkhof, the skull is distorted to be kind of hidden in the image — as if death can sneak up on you at any time. The act of distorting an image like this is called an anamorphic image, implying that it is distorted in a way in which it can be viewed from a certain angle.

Besides the odd rendering of the skull, everything else in the image is placed perfectly. The lute and floors are both in perfect perspective, and everything was painted and planned so carefully and meticulously.


KLEINER, F. R. E. D. S. (n.d.). Gardner’s Art through the ages: A concise global history. CENGAGE LEARNING.

Brinkhof, T. (2021, October 2). Optical illusion: Why Hans Holbein hid a creepy skull in “The ambassadors”. Big Think. Retrieved December 9, 2021, from

Published by PrincessGroose

Fine Arts and ECM Major Creative Writing Minor Artist, Friend, Gamer, Island Wanderer, Shark Enthusiast. Protect Our Oceans.

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