Waldemar Januszczak looks at the life and work of Henry VIII's court painter, Hans Holbein, who witnessed and recorded the most notorious era in English history.
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So, this must go there...
This must be...there.
And this will be the last one, here.
Who do you think that is?
I'll give you a clue -
it's a famous English king.
So, who is it?
Come on! No googling.
Who is this stern and bony monarch?
Now, you smart people out there,
the ones who come here to the National Portrait Gallery,
you got it straightaway, I know.
The giveaway, of course, is the nose.
The way it's flattened.
There's something walrusy about it.
But some of you didn't get it, right?
And the reason you didn't recognise immediately that this is Henry VIII,
is because this isn't the Henry
we've all got up here in our imaginations.
The Henry who had six wives, who took on the Pope,
who destroyed the monasteries.
That Henry didn't look like this - he looked...
Now, that's what you call Henry VIII.
Look at the way he stands,
like a Tudor gunslinger at Ye OK Corral.
The mighty torso, the sheer width of the man.
This is a king who could change history.
That's the Henry who lives up here in our thoughts.
Henry the Terrible, the widest king in Christendom.
And he is the creation of a particularly important artist -
an artist who I would argue didn't just record British history -
he actually changed it.
He was a funny little man, a German from Bavaria,
a genius who looked like a farmer -
called Johannes, or Hans, Holbein.
This is Holbein's great gift to the world.
The iconic image of Henry VIII,
which everyone recognises.
And Holbein didn't stop there.
How do we know what Sir Thomas More,
that conscious-full man for all seasons,
who stood up to Henry, looked like?
Because of Holbein.
How do we know what Henry's unfortunate queens looked like?
Because of Holbein.
And how do we know what Thomas Cromwell,
Henry's go-to man for destroying the monasteries,
really looked like?
Because of Holbein.
Holbein didn't just describe Tudor England -
he gave it an extraordinarily active presence,
made it feel REAL.
And by making Tudor England immortal, he changed history.
Because a slab of history we could envisage so clearly
will always trump all those other slabs of history
we can't envisage at all.
Why are we so obsessed with Henry VIII and his damned wives?
Because of Holbein.
Holbein was from here -
Augsburg in Bavaria,
where he was born in 1497.
His father was a painter, and a really good one -
Hans Holbein the Elder.
He painted religious pictures.
This is one of his.
He designed stained glass, as well.
So, his son, trained by his father,
would have imbibed all of these profound Catholic moods from birth.
Here at the museum in Augsburg
they've got one of Holbein the Elder's finest pictures.
This is the Basilica of St Paul, as it's called,
an altarpiece which tells St Paul's story.
he's having his head cut off on the orders of the emperor, Nero.
Apparently, the head bounced three times when it hit the ground,
causing three miraculous fountains
to spurt from the earth.
But what I really want to show you is this scene on the left.
Because that old man, there, with the straggly beard,
that's actually Holbein the Elder,
and below him are his two sons -
Ambrosius, the older one, with the curly hair,
and next to him, little Hans Holbein,
future painter of Henry VIII.
So, the dad trains the son to be a painter.
And when the son is 17, he comes here, to Basel,
in modern Switzerland.
Basel was famous for its printing - the European capital of books.
And that must have been what brought the young Holbein here -
he was looking for work as a book illustrator.
Basel's greatest printer was a man called Johann Froben.
Froben was both a publisher and a scholar,
so he was adventurous and informed -
and Holbein was soon working for him.
Froben produced lots of important books,
but he's particularly well known for publishing the work
of that celebrated Dutch naysayer Erasmus of Rotterdam.
And, yes, Holbein painted Erasmus, too,
tucked up for winter in his study, busily writing.
Erasmus actually came to Basel specifically to work with Froben,
and it was Froben who published the best edition
of Erasmus's most celebrated work,
a hilarious send-up of the modern world
called In Praise Of Folly.
Just about everyone gets a kicking in In Praise Of Folly.
Young people... CHILD LAUGHS
..women... WOMAN GIGGLES
..gamblers... DICE RATTLE
..but Erasmus comes down particularly hard on the clergy...
and the friars.
Holbein was just 17 when he got hold of a copy of In Praise Of Folly,
and in the margins, he drew all these funny little drawings.
It's like something a naughty schoolboy might do -
draw all over a famous book.
This chap here is walking along the road, when he sees a beautiful woman.
And he's so busy staring at her,
he steps into a basket of eggs.
And this is a monk who's taken the vow of poverty,
so he can only touch money with this weird money-touching implement.
However, with his other hand, he can touch whatever he wants.
As you can see.
It's impressively rude.
How can a 17-year-old boy know this much already about sex, greed,
The Holbein who emerges here is an instinctive subversive -
a mickey-taker who sides with Erasmus to poke fun at the world around him.
So, a good question is, where did it all go?
Did Holbein suppress all this precocious knowledge of the dark
workings of men,
or did it sometimes poke out and reveal itself?
When you're as talented as this,
and you've got this much speed and inventiveness in your fingers,
people quickly notice,
so Holbein was soon busy.
The thing he was really good at was religious painting.
This is the dead Christ that the young Holbein painted
for the base of a Basel altarpiece.
It's a coruscating piece of religious realism.
But he could do Catholic fluffiness as well.
Like this gorgeous Madonna and child, standing in a niche in Darmstadt.
Look at the brilliant foreshortening of Jesus' hand.
Leonardo himself would have been proud of that.
So, it was all going spiffingly.
His religious art was in demand, the book trade was keeping him busy,
when along came Martin Luther and his Protestant Reformation.
Suddenly, everything changed.
In a Lutheran world, there was no longer much demand
for Catholic Madonnas standing ornately in golden niches.
The printing industry, too, began to flounder.
Who should it publish?
The Protestants...or the Catholics?
With the publishing world caught in this dangerous crossfire,
and the religious commissions drying up,
Holbein needed to find work somewhere else.
And that's where Erasmus made himself useful.
Erasmus had actually written In Praise Of Folly in England.
He'd spent several years there, teaching at Oxford and Cambridge.
And in 1526, Holbein, armed with a letter of introduction from Erasmus,
set off looking for work...
When he gets here to England, he's in his late 20s,
so, he's still a young artist,
but already very experienced.
The unexpected thing, though,
about Holbein's arrival
in Henry VIII's England
is that the one thing he didn't have much experience of
was painting portraits.
In Basel, Holbein had been known chiefly as a religious artist.
He'd painted one or two portraits, yes, and they were really good...
but they were exceptions in his output.
England, though, had never had much of an appetite
for Madonnas and Christs.
That kind of thing was best left to the Italians.
In England, the art form that was most esteemed,
and which seemed most in tune with the national psyche,
The staircases of England were lined with ancestors
showing off their bloodlines.
To succeed in England, Holbein needed to change tack.
Erasmus had given him
an introduction to one of the most influential men at the court -
writer, statesman, theologian
and, as it later transpired, Catholic martyr,
Sir Thomas More.
Holbein seems to have spent most of his first year in England
living in More's house in Chelsea.
He was working on this -
a hugely ambitious group portrait of More and his very large family.
Unfortunately, this is a copy...
and not a very good one.
The original was destroyed by a fire in the 18th century.
All that's left of the real Holbein
is a stack of these astonishingly vivid drawings.
Oh, and there is something else, of course.
Holbein's great portrait of More,
which they have here at the Frick Collection, New York.
More was the man who famously stood up to Henry,
who refused to accept the king as the new head of the church.
So, Henry had him beheaded.
Now, I was brought up believing that Sir Thomas More
was a man of great principle.
That's why the Catholic Church made him a saint in 1935.
But, more recently, a different Thomas More has been proposed to us.
In today's histories,
he's often presented as a demented, religious bigot -
a cruel slayer of the heretics.
That's what modern novelists and playwrights have been making of More.
But it's not what Holbein makes of him.
And Holbein was there.
I know it's a cliche, and it's been said a thousand times,
but you really do feel he's standing there before you.
One of the most resolute presences in British art.
Just look at the details - the way the velvet has been painted,
or his perfectly-observed skin tones,
or that utterly convincing five o'clock shadow.
This sense of actuality is new.
Not just in British art, but anywhere.
These first English portraits of Holbein's
make Doctor Whos of us all.
Tardis-ing us back in time to meet a Tudor cast
that feels astonishingly present.
Just there, right in front of us.
BICYCLE BELL RINGS
Holbein's first visit to England lasted just two years,
before the fates conspired to bring him home to Basel.
He was busy enough - that wasn't the issue.
But as a citizen of Basel,
he could only leave the city for a short time,
or he'd lose his citizenship.
So, in 1528 he had to come back.
It was probably now that he painted his wife and children.
He'd had to leave them behind when he left for England.
And, as you can see, he's made them into a holy family, hasn't he?
A suffering Madonna and her infants,
dreading what lies ahead.
Basel in 1528 was not a nice place to be
if you were a painter or a Catholic.
Holbein had seen the Protestant revolution arriving in Basel -
it was one of the reasons he'd left for England.
But in the time he was gone, it had all gotten so much worse.
Basel officially became a Protestant city
To celebrate... WEAPONS CLASH
..gangs of rabid iconoclasts
rampaged through the churches
looking for Madonnas to trample
and Christs to smash.
On the 9th of February, 1529,
a gang of some 200 angry Lutherans broke into here,
and began attacking the art.
And they didn't stop until all this "superstitious idolatry",
as they saw it, was destroyed.
There's no official record of Holbein's own religious views.
Not surprisingly, he kept them to himself.
But he was born a Catholic, in very Catholic Bavaria.
And my hunch, based on the odd visual clue here and there,
is that he never crossed over fully
to the Lutheran side.
What's definite is that work was now hard to come by.
The iconoclasts had seen to that.
In a world without images, there was no longer much need for a painter.
Holbein didn't leave immediately.
There was his wife and children to worry about.
But, in 1532, having put his affairs in order, he left Basel again
and set off once more for England.
And this time he'd be working not just in royal circles,
but for the king himself.
And what a king he was.
Holbein came to England because he was following the money,
as artists do.
Getting away from Basel, getting away from the iconoclasts,
he came here looking for prosperity and peace.
Instead, he found Henry VIII.
And for him to be here while Henry beheaded his wives,
took on the Pope, brutally enforced his new religion,
is so damn fortunate
it almost feels preordained.
Holbein didn't begin working for the king
as soon as he returned to London.
His first patrons actually came from here.
It's changed a bit, of course, but in Tudor times,
this was a very important location for Holbein,
because where I'm standing now was the centre of a huge urban
complex called the German Steelyard.
The Steelyard wasn't a steelyard -
it was a city within a city.
A kind of German Hong Kong,
created by German merchants for the purposes of international trade.
It had been here since 1320, growing bigger and bigger,
and the German merchants in here - they didn't pay any tolls,
They were privileged foreigners,
and inside this walled community of theirs,
they had warehouses, shops, offices, taverns.
So, this was a home from home for Holbein.
And when he returned to England in 1532,
the rich German merchants of the Steelyard were his fist customers.
This handsome young chap, who now hangs in Windsor Castle,
is Derich Born from Cologne,
who supplied the court of Henry VIII with military equipment for the Army.
In Holbein's time, just like today,
if you wanted precision, quality
and "Vorsprung durch Technik",
you bought German.
The paintings that Holbein made of the merchants of the German Steelyard
seemed to speak a different language than his other English pictures.
It's as if some of that different mind-set,
that had poked out in In Praise Of Folly,
pokes out here, as well.
This exceptionally fine fellow is Georg Giese,
a merchant from Danzig.
He's sitting in his office in the German Steelyard
surrounded by the accoutrements of his trade.
His pens, his documents,
the box in which he keeps his money.
All these details which had been described
so perfectly by Holbein have other meanings.
Secret little messages that have been smuggled into the picture.
In particular, notice the beautiful Venetian vase
with its fragile pink carnations.
How skilfully Holbein has painted the shifting reflections in the glass -
and how precariously the vase is balanced
on the edge of the table.
Whenever you see something...
..on the edge of a table in art, it always means the same thing.
"Isn't life precarious?"
It's the same with the money box.
How easily Georg Giese's stash of cash
could topple and fall.
The precarious vase, the lovely reflections
are all brilliant Holbeinian reminders of the shortness of life.
Just like the reflections in the glass,
all this can disappear in an instant.
It's a message that's always relevant.
But it was particularly relevant
in the shifting, fracturing England of Henry VIII.
Holbein obviously didn't know what he was letting himself in for
in Henry VIII's England.
Had he known, he would surely have turned tail and returned home.
You know, between the age of five and 11,
I used to walk down this road pretty much every day of my life.
We lived up there in Caversham, in Reading,
and this was my way to school.
Every day for six years.
And not once in that time did I ever consider
the significance of this road.
My school was down here, down the alley.
I used to love walking down here.
The school was a Catholic primary school run by nuns
called St Anne's.
A nice, friendly, ordinary school
next door to a church.
The church was also called St Anne's,
and back then, I didn't know what had actually happened here
in Holbein's time.
But I do now.
St Anne's, Caversham had a famous statue in it.
She was called Our Lady of Caversham,
and she was said to have miraculous powers.
The shrine of Our Lady of Caversham
was one of the most visited locations in Tudor England.
Pilgrims would travel hundreds of miles to pray to her for help.
One of them was the rightful queen of England, Catherine of Aragon,
who came here to Caversham on the 17th of July, 1532,
to pray for her husband, Henry VIII.
It was the Queen's final plea to her God,
begging him to intervene and stop Henry from divorcing her
and marrying Anne Boleyn.
Of course, it didn't work.
Henry went ahead with his divorce.
He married Anne Boleyn
and made himself the supreme head of a new English church.
And a few years later, he took his revenge on Our Lady of Caversham.
On the 14th of September, 1538,
a gang of government agents arrived at St Anne's
and closed down the famous shrine.
Our Lady of Caversham was bundled into a cart and taken to London.
The gold and the silver in which the statue was covered
was stripped off and sent to the king,
and the actual wooden statue -
well, that was burned.
The man who organised all this destruction,
and who jotted off a quick note to his agents
to congratulate them on a job well done,
was, of course, Cromwell.
I bet you were wondering when we'd get to him.
Now, when I was at school,
Cromwell was recognised by everyone as a terrible man -
Henry VIII's enforcer,
the destroyer of the monasteries.
In recent years, though, there's been this big reassessment,
and the modern image of him,
the one you find today in plays and books,
is of a decent and brilliant man
who's trapped in a difficult situation.
Cromwell, we're now told,
was an early civil servant
who channelled power away from the monarchy,
and who invented the modern bureaucratic state.
These days, we're encouraged to see Thomas Cromwell as a good guy.
But in this film, I'm not going to do that -
for two important reasons.
This is one of them.
What Cromwell did to Our Lady of Caversham,
the ruination he visited upon England's artistic past,
And the second reason for not whitewashing Thomas Cromwell
Holbein's portrait of him.
Just look at him.
What a hard and charmless presence.
Those piggy eyes, that blank expression.
Cromwell is surely the least attractive sitter
in the whole of Holbein's art.
This was painted at the outset of Cromwell's campaign
against the monasteries, in 1533.
It shows him in his office with his quills and his documents,
inventing the modern bureaucratic state.
According to various conspiratorial whispers doing the rounds,
Cromwell actually used Holbein
to spy on the German community in the Steelyard.
That's how Holbein ended up working for the English court.
It's certainly true that Cromwell had spies everywhere.
But is Holbein really thanking him for his assistance
in this grim portrayal?
Was he really the good guy?
And was Thomas More, over here,
really the bad guy?
Fortunately, because of Holbein, who was actually there,
who knew them both,
who happened to be the greatest portraitist of his times,
here at the Frick Collection in New York,
we are in a perfect position to decide.
So, who is the goody here,
and who's the baddie?
Where Holbein stands on the matter is surely pretty obvious.
Holbein officially entered the service of the king in 1535.
He was paid £30 per year -
which, even in those days,
wasn't very much.
And since this was the court of Henry VIII,
there were, immediately, problems.
Holbein's first supporter in England, Sir Thomas More,
had risen to the rank of Lord Chancellor,
but he refused to accept the king's new position
as head of the church, so Henry had him beheaded.
MUSIC: The Old Year Now Away Is Fled
Poor Holbein had no choice, really,
but to disassociate himself from his first supporter.
He needed a new patron, and at some point,
probably with the connivance of Cromwell, he managed to get...
..on the good side ...
..of Anne Boleyn.
How did he do that?
With his art, of course.
There's a drawing in the Basel Museum
of a magnificent gold table fountain he designed
for the king's new wife.
It would have been covered in pearls and rubies,
and the water would have flowed from the breasts of the women below.
So, he wasn't just the court portraitist -
to earn his £30 a year, Holbein had lots of duties at the court.
He designed the royal jewellery and the royal pendants,
the royal cutlery and the royal daggers.
He even designed the royal fireplace.
But his chief duty, the one we all know him for today,
was to invent a look for Henry VIII that was instantly recognisable.
Henry needed portraits of himself to hand out to passing dignitaries,
people he was trying to impress.
So, this wasn't portraiture as a record of how he actually looked -
this was portraiture as a weapon of propaganda.
Holbein painted Henry on various occasions.
Henry VIII, the extra-wide monarch,
ruler of all he surveys.
They're splendid, of course - jewel-like and perfect...
..but they're not exactly revealing, are they?
This is the most celebrated of them -
Henry in the classic Henry pose.
And this is actually a cartoon, or preparatory drawing,
for a life-sized mural
that Holbein painted in Whitehall Palace.
There's a copy of it in Hampton Court -
Henry and his parents welcoming visitors to his Privy chamber.
Imagine walking into a room and being confronted by this lot -
The actual painting, the Holbein mural,
was destroyed by a fire in the 17th century.
There's just this drawing left.
But one thing you do get from this is a sense of scale.
Look how big the king is.
Holbein was no longer in the business of telling the truth.
Instead, he's invented a Henry VIII
so imposing and wide
that no-one dared argue with him.
It was a task accomplished in the Mao Tse-tung manner,
with constant repetition,
and huge exaggerations of scale.
By the time the Whitehall mural was painted in 1537,
Anne Boleyn had had the Henry treatment.
Accused, on trumped-up charges,
of incest, adultery and witchcraft,
she was beheaded on the 19th of May, 1536...
while Cromwell watched from the wings.
The next day, Henry was betrothed to one of her maids-in-waiting -
the pale and placid Jane Seymour.
Jane Seymour would actually be standing about here
in the Whitehall mural, in the bit that's missing.
Don't worry, we know exactly what she looked like,
because Holbein has also left us a portrait of her.
It's a lovely thing, and hangs now in Vienna,
in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
But here, too, there's a distance,
a lack of touchable humanity.
A beautiful queen in beautiful clothes,
she's like one of those precious pendants
that Holbein designed for the court.
A human jewel.
Jane Seymour didn't last long - just one year.
Having given birth to the male heir that Henry craved so desperately,
she died, tragically,
from complications brought on by the royal birth.
The son she bore,
the future Edward VI,
was also painted by Holbein,
in this fiercely frontal image.
He's got Henry's cheeks, that's for sure.
But his real face is hiding in the middle.
With the death of Jane Seymour,
that was three wives down and three to go for Henry.
But having run out of maids-in-waiting at court,
he widened the search for wife number four by assembling a new list
of the best European princesses.
Poor Holbein found himself involved intimately in this hunt
when he was sent across the Channel to paint portraits
of Henry's prospective brides...
..so the king could choose the prettiest.
Welcome to the Hans Holbein Dating Agency.
The first princess, Christina of Denmark,
was just 16 when Henry approached her.
Christina was famously beautiful.
Just how beautiful you can see immediately
from Holbein's superb full-length portrait of her.
Although she was so young, Christina was already a widow,
having been married briefly to the Duke of Mantua.
That's why she's wearing black in Holbein's towering likeness.
Apparently, Holbein had just one sitting with Christina in Brussels,
which lasted three hours.
The drawing he produced in those three hours,
with those lightning-fast fingers of his,
was all he needed to paint this.
It's his finest and most ambitious female portrait.
Henry wanted immediately to marry Christina of Denmark -
But Christina was lucky.
She turned him down.
So, Holbein was sent back across the Channel
to search further for prospective brides.
And this time, it was a French princess, Anne of Cleves,
who needed to be examined.
Interestingly, Anne of Cleves was painted on paper -
presumably so the picture could be rolled up more easily
and taken back to England.
And it was painted with egg tempera,
which dries much more quickly than oil paints.
So, this was done in a hurry.
It's a peculiar picture.
Look how she stares straight out at us.
You can't look natural, staring like that.
Holbein's art was beginning to stiffen.
The king didn't mind.
He liked Holbein's portrait of Anne so much he married her.
But the marriage was a famous disaster.
When Henry saw what she really looked like in the flesh,
rather than in Holbein's portrait of her,
he found her...
and this is his word, not mine,
So, the marriage was never consummated, and quickly annulled.
But at least Anne of Cleves got out of it alive.
Not everyone was as fortunate.
Cromwell, who'd sent Holbein to Europe to paint Anne,
was blamed for the mistake,
and a few weeks after the wedding,
he was accused of treason and beheaded.
Holbein had fetched up in a historical nightmare.
This is Catherine Howard, wife number five.
She lasted just over a year before Henry got crazily jealous again,
and she, too, was beheaded.
As for wife number six, Catherine Parr,
there is no Holbein portrait of her,
so we have no idea what she looked like.
So, that's, "One generation goeth, and another generation cometh,
"and the earth abideth for ever."
Holbein's most famous painting, in the National Gallery in London,
is usually called The Ambassadors.
But that's just its modern name.
It's only been called that since the end of the 19th century.
A more revealing and more accurate name would be something like
Don't Worry, It'll Soon Be Over.
The Ambassadors shows two of Holbein's most suave sitters.
He is Jean de Dinteville,
French ambassador to the court of Henry VIII.
And this is his French friend, Georges de Selve,
Bishop of Lavaur.
These two commissioned the picture,
and now they're standing there leaning casually on this shelf, here,
packed with all these symbols.
Interestingly, very relevantly, we know exactly how old they are,
because Holbein's put it in the picture.
Over here, on de Dinteville's dagger, it says, "Aet suae 29",
"He is 29" in Latin.
And up here, on this book on which de Selve is leaning,
"Aetatis suae 25", "He is 25".
So, an ambassador who's 29 and a bishop who's 25.
Now, that's young, isn't it?
So, that goes there...
'Lots of complex meanings have been proposed for The Ambassadors.
'Trying to understand the picture has become a mini industry.'
Most of the mystery has centred on this thing here,
the famous Holbein skull,
which is distorted so heavily you can only see it from the side,
from over here, and from pretty high up.
Why the skull is distorted is pretty obvious,
as I'll be showing you in a moment.
Why it's in the picture, what it's doing here,
is more than obvious.
It's completely unmissable.
Here, I'll show you.
And you also need to notice that crucifix
hidden behind the curtain at the top,
because that is the most important symbol in the picture.
This is by Harmen Steenwyck - painted much later,
but as you can see, it's got another skull in it -
and this messy heap of objects, just like The Ambassadors.
It's what's called a "vanitas" picture.
Vanitases appeared in Northern Renaissance art in the 15th century.
This word "vanitas" comes from here - from the Bible,
and the Book of Ecclesiastes.
There's a wonderful doomy passage right at the beginning
which goes, in Latin, "Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas."
"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
This, though, isn't about vanity in the modern sense -
all those TV presenters looking at themselves in the mirror -
this is biblical vanity,
where nothing lasts for ever.
So, what this picture's doing is reminding us all
of the ultimate uselessness of life.
And all this stuff in here, the flute, the books,
that beautiful Japanese sword,
all that is here today, gone tomorrow.
Because what awaits us all, where we're all heading,
You can see the same meaning in another famous
picture at the National Gallery
by Frans Hals.
In the Frans Hals, a young man is looking at a skull
because that's his future.
However young you are, this is where it'll end.
So, back at the Holbein...
..all this stuff here, the things on the shelves,
are like the objects piled up in the Steenwyck.
Earthly goodies - wonderful while you're here,
useless when you're not.
The top shelf is packed with scientific instruments
for working out the time.
"The sun riseth", says Ecclesiastes, doomily,
"and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he ariseth."
So, all these beautiful instruments for working out the time,
all this knowledge, is basically useless.
Just a heap of stuff.
The bottom shelf, meanwhile, is full of earthly pleasures,
things we enjoy.
A lute for playing music,
this bag of flutes over here,
and look - a book of hymns...
by Martin Luther.
And this is where the picture gets sneaky.
Look again at that lute.
Look really carefully.
One of the strings is broken.
And, traditionally, a broken string is a symbol of discord.
Something's gone wrong.
What's gone wrong is Luther.
It's no accident that the Lutheran hymn book
is directly below the lute with the broken string.
That is a deliberate piece of vanitas symbolism.
Remember, when this picture was painted in 1533,
no-one was sure yet
that the Protestant revolution was going to succeed.
How could they have known that? It hadn't happened yet.
So, what a lot of people would have assumed,
particularly a Catholic bishop
and a French Catholic ambassador,
is that Luther's revolt was just a flash in the pan.
That is where the skull comes in.
The skull, right at the front of the picture,
is so big it trumps everything else.
Compared with this big skull,
this little bit of discord, here, is nothing.
So, why is this skull so distorted?
That's where it gets clever.
This is Boy Bitten By A Lizard, by Caravaggio.
So, it's another young man,
and the lizard is biting him,
because the lizard in art is traditionally a symbol of old age.
And to amplify that meaning, that life is short - very short -
Caravaggio's also included this beautiful reflection in the vase.
like youth itself,
will only last a moment.
It's another vanitas symbol.
So, in the Holbein...
..the skull is like the reflection.
It can only be seen for a moment, and only...
..if you're over here.
I reckon this must have been hanging in a room
that you entered from the side, from over here,
and when you looked over, you saw the skull,
and that was a shock.
But then, when you saw the picture from the front,
the skull wasn't there any more.
It was gone,
because the skull - death itself -
is just another vanity.
Like the Lutheran hymn book, like the broken string,
like the lifetimes of the bishop and the ambassador,
death means nothing in the end -
it's just another illusion.
All that really matters -
and I told you the crucifix was important -
is the eternal truth hidden behind the curtain.
In this great and sneaky masterpiece,
Holbein is reminding us that the world of Henry VIII...
WEAPONS CLASH ..all that discord, all that death,
is just like everything else -
here today, gone tomorrow.
Holbein himself didn't last long.
He died in 1543, from what they called "the sweating sickness" -
He was 45.
He left behind some of the greatest portraiture of the Renaissance.
A Tudor cast so vivid you can feel their breath on your cheek.
If Holbein hadn't fetched up in England when he did,
I'm absolutely certain
that we wouldn't be as obsessed with the Tudors as we are.
By making the age of Henry VIII so damn tangible,
Holbein forced it into our thoughts for ever.
But, you know, when I flick through this,
that marvellous folly book he drew when he was a boy,
I can't help wondering
how much more there could have been.
When you remember the coruscating realism of his religious art,
or the pathos and sadness he found in the face of his own wife...
..when you consider the devious complexity of The Ambassadors...
..that's a lot of might-have-beens.
It wasn't just Anne Boleyn...
or Anne of Cleves...
or Sir Thomas More...
whose misfortune it was to encounter Henry the Terrible.
That was Holbein's misfortune, too.
As Henry VIII's court painter, Hans Holbein witnessed and recorded the most notorious era in English history. He painted most of the major characters of the age and created the famous image of the king himself that everyone still recognises today. But who really was Holbein? Where did he come from? And what were the dark and unsettling secrets hidden in his art? Waldemar Januszczak looks at the life and work of an artist who became famous for bringing the Tudor age to life, but who could have been so many other things.