The Ambassadors, Art History, Eucharistic Tableau, Hans Holbein


Liturgical cloths and hangings have been a ubiquitous part of the Eucharistic experience for Christian churchgoers for much of the Catholic Church's religious history. While often overshadowed or displaced in religious images by the drapery of individual figures, altar cloths and frontals are occasionally featured, as in the Master of the Aachen Altar's images of The Mass of St. Gregory (figs. I and 2). A similar green cloth to those in the St. Gregory images is seen in the background of Hans Holbein the Younger's 1533 portrait of The Ambassadors (fig. 3). Though much has been said about many of the visual elements and objects in chis painting, the lush emerald brocade curtain behind the scene has received surprisingly little attention in the literature. Curtains such as this one were commonly used as backdrops in Renaissance portraiture by Holbein and ochers-indeed, Holbein even used a very similar shade of green for the cloth behind his subjects in his 1526 portrait of Lais of Corinth (fig. 4) and his 1527 portrait of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury (fig. 5). However, the curtain in The Ambassadors has a larger function than simply that of a backdrop. The philosopher Hagi Kenaan has proposed that the green curtain "suggests the presence of a depth beyond itself" and, in conjunction with the anamorphic skull in the foreground of the image, makes this painting one that "is regulated by the principle of concealment .. . [and] hides by showing."