PART III

Hans returns to an England in 1532,  as Henry VIII was preparing to repudiate Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, in defiance of the pope.

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, was one of the strongest advocates of the English Reformation – the English church’s break with the papacy in Rome. From the outset it was more of a political affair than a theological dispute. Cromwell helps engineer the annulment of the King’s marriage.

Anne Boleyn played an important role in England’s international position by solidifying an alliance with France. She establishes an excellent rapport with the French ambassador, Gilles de la Pommeraie. Anne and Henry attended a meeting with Francis I of France at Calais in winter 1532, in which Henry hoped to enlist the support of the French king for his intended marriage.

celestial globe, compasses, sundial, cylindrical calendar, level and quadrant (inset) The Ambassadors

Meanwhile, Hans is beginning a series of portrait commissions for the Lutheran merchants of the Hanseatic League, an economic alliance of Northern European merchant guilds. The merchants lived and plied their trade at the Steelyard, a complex of warehouses, offices, and dwellings on the north bank of the Thames.

Hans rents a house on nearby Maiden Lane.

He is also commissioned by gentry and visiting dignitaries. His most famous work from this period is The Ambassadors, painted in1533. It’s a double portrait with life-sized panels of Jean de Dinteville, an ambassador of Francis I of France and Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur.  

The focal point is a meticulously rendered still life, the meaning of which is the cause of much debate. It is also a much-cited example of anamorphosis in painting.

The work incorporates symbols and paradoxes, including an [oversized] anamorphic (distorted) skull. It is unclear why Hans gave it such prominence in this painting. 

One possibility is that this painting represents three levels: the heavens (upper shelf), the living world (lower shelf) and death (signified by the skull). 

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein the Younger 1533

According to scholars, these encode enigmatic references to learning, religion, mortality, and illusion in the tradition of the Northern Renaissance.

Art historians Oskar Bätschmann and Pascal Griener suggest “Sciences and arts, objects of luxury and glory, are measured against the grandeur of Death.”

Martin Luther's hymn, "Come Holy Ghost Our Souls Inspire" inset The Ambassadors

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Concurrently, London prepares for the 31st May 1533  lavish coronation procession of Anne Boleyn from the Royal Palace of the Tower of London to Westminster Hall. Hans is commissioned by the Hanseatic League to design tableau of  Apollo on Mount Parnassus for Gracechurch Street … 

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