Seeing Holbein. The comments made by Berger (1972, p. 90) about Holbein’s impressive painting “The Ambassadors” draw attention to the significance various objects can have. The objects have symbolic meaning for the imposing figures of the two men in the picture…
It has been noted also that a fur-trimmed over-garment like the one pictured “became the typical garment of the scholar” (Emberley, 1997, p. 128). His imposing stance and cool gaze denote power and influence in the world. In contrast, the cleric on the right appears a little more withdrawn. He stands back in the shadows and wears dull robes with the white collar indicating his religious calling. The two men appear to be placed as a contrast to one another, but they are linked by the display of fine objects that both lean upon. These objects are laid out with scientific objects above and artistic instruments below. Berger’s explanations about the connotations of great wealth are helpful in understanding the tremendous change that happened in Western civilization in the sixteenth century. This was a time when the Reformation divided people into Protestants and Catholics, and the two men represent the different sides of this major debate. The rise of the Protestantism in the northern parts of Europe is credited with bringing about the earliest stages of capitalism, and this is what Berger is hinting at with his emphasis on the objects in the painting. Most of the population in Northern Europe was still occupied in agricultural work or small cottage production but this was a time when cities began to expand. ...
Some of the wealthiest individuals “invested their wealth in government obligations” (van Zanden, p. 143). The ambassadors in the picture are French, (Wolf, 2004, p. 71) and they represent two different sources of wealth. Both of them provide services to the government. One of them is busy with new market related activities, and the other brings the old power and influence of the Church. A focus on material goods, rather than spiritual ideas, is a feature of this movement, and this could explain why the man on the left appears to dominate the picture at the expense of the man on the right. Although Holbein lived and worked in London, his painting style reflects the techniques of the Dutch masters of the time. The very detailed depiction of the work of craftsmen such as weavers, embroiderers, carpet makers, goldsmiths and all the rest may well also be an acknowledgement of the great contribution that the medieval guilds had made to the development of society and the creation of wealth. The peasants provided the basic raw materials of production. The trained and certified craftsmen turned the raw materials into the highly prized consumer goods that wealthy people purchased. The emphasis on the detail of their work highlights a new appreciation of luxury, and this is what fuels an endeavor to produce ever better quality, and discover improved techniques. It is noticeable also that some of the objects, apart from being valuable, are also evidence of distant travel. This recalls the great discoveries of distant lands that had been taking place in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. It is as if the two men are displaying all the richness of the globe, in the fine human objects, as well as the riches of heavenly things, indicated by the globes, ...
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