the Dharmapalas

The scary wrathful Buddhist deities that are, contrary to their appearance, forces for good who are on your side.

Before Buddhism spread to Tibet, Bon was the area’s dominant shamanistic religion. As Buddhism moved into Tibet during the 7th to 10th centuries, elements of Bon were incorporated into the religion making Tibetan Buddhism different than other forms.

Part of what makes Tibetan Buddhism different from other types is the story of how Padmasambhava, the 8th century Indian Buddhist mystic who helped bring Buddhism to to Tibet, tamed the local evil spirits & demons. While the exact number of spirits he tamed varies depending on the kind of Buddhism and regional differences, there are at least eight generally agreed upon divine creatures he turned into protectors of Buddhism. These are the Dharmapalas.

the Hateful Eight

Like things out of a horror movie, or a heavy metal album cover, the dharmapalas are typically horrific, fanged, wild-eyed, monstrous creatures. With black, blue or sometimes red skin they are frequently adorned with human skulls. In Tibetan art they are seen in flaming aureoles, visualizations of the energy they emanate. However, despite their appearances, the “Eight Terrible Ones” are on your side. Like monsters with hearts of gold (more or less), the dharmapalas are compassionate defenders of Buddhism and the dharma. Their hideous looks are to drive away evil spirits (not to drive us away).

While each dharmapala is different they all tend to look fearsome and terrifying.
a detail of a Palden Lhamo illustration
A close-up detail of Palden Lhamo, looking more than a little unhappy, with her crown of skulls and a cape of human skin.

Buddhism teaches us that we can’t solve other people’s spiritual problems for them, nor is someone about to solve our problems for us. There is no omnipotent being that’s going to deus ex machina-style swoop in and “save” people. That said, it doesn’t mean we can’t give help or get help. To overcome fear & suffering each one of us must look within ourselves, we must cultivate the potential within ourselves, but external help can show us the way. The dharmapalas remove inner & external obstacles that may be preventing us from achieving spiritual realizations. They don’t walk the path for us, but they help clear the way and help us from ourselves – they have your back in your quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Added info: in general the origins of the dharmapalas vary, as do their personal backstories, but one particularly interesting story is that of Palden Lhamo. The only female dharmapala, Palden Lhamo (“Glorious Goddess”) is the wrathful manifestation of the more peaceful Saraswati / Tara. She was a female demigod married to an evil king. After her attempts to reform her husband failed, and her realization that their son would be the destroyer of Buddhism, she killed her son. What followed is one of the most metal stories ever created.

She ate her son’s flesh, drank his blood using his skull as a cup, and made a horse saddle from his skin. She rides her mule side-saddle across an ocean of blood. After she died she was reborn in the hellish region of Naraka which she fought her way out of, stealing a sword and a bag of diseases along the way. Eventually she was convinced to protect the dharma, and to protect wisdom, which she does to this day. She’s the protector of Buddhist governments including the Tibetan government in exile.

The Elegant Skull

The political cartoon that became a Mexican memento mori.

In 1910, towards the end of General Porfirio Díaz’s rule of Mexico, the country was unknowingly on the verge of civil war. The Porfiriato period enriched a minority elite ruling class (as well as foreign investors), while the majority of Mexicans remained poor rural laborers. In this time of social and economic unrest José Guadalupe Posada used satire for political change.

Calaveras & Memento Mori

José Guadalupe Posada was a 19th and 20th century pro-revolutionary Mexican illustrator & political cartoonist. He produced historical, religious, and satirical illustrations but he’s best remembered for his calaveras (“skulls”) work.

Posada’s calaveras work used skeletons to satirize Mexican society.

Posada’s calaveras are illustrations of Mexican life featuring skeletons in place of living people. They are frequently lively, smiling, skeletons engaged in normal activities. By using skeletons Posada used the idea of memento mori (as well as to some degree Danse Macabre) to remind his audience that, rich or poor, people from all walks of life will die and that there’s a comedic futility to many of the preoccupations of daily life. His most memorable calaveras were his satirizations of the wealthy class, the most famous of which is La Calavera Catrina (“the Elegant Skull”).

La Catrina is Posada’s most famous calavera.

La Catrina is a female skeleton in an elaborate flowery hat. She’s Posada’s commentary on the upper class women of the time who turned their backs on their Mexican heritage in favor of European fashions. She is also reminiscent of Santa Muerte (“Saint Death”), the pre-Catholic deity of death who has a long tradition in Mexican culture.

Over the years La Catrina has become an iconic part of Mexican culture. She is the central figure in Diego Rivera’s 1947 mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon at Alameda Central Park”). Today she is seen in the art and costumes of Día de Muertos festivities.

Trader Joe's taco sauce
Posada’s work can be found in a variety of places today, in this case on spicy taco sauce from Trader Joe’s.

Goya’s Black Paintings

The literally & figuratively dark paintings that Francisco de Goya created as he withdrew from the world.

Francisco de Goya was an 18th and 19th century Spanish painter who rose from a rural beginning to become the primary painter for the Spanish royal court. Unfortunately the turbulent events of early 19th century Spain, and his own personal problems, soured Goya’s worldview. The invasion of Spain by France during the Peninsular War, and the bloodshed that came with it, deeply affected Goya. His Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War) series of prints are a dark departure from his bright and hopeful paintings of Spanish courtly life. The Disasters of War depict acts of violence, famine, the corrupt Catholic church, and despair across 82 prints. They also serve as an insight into Goya’s darkening view of humanity.

As Francisco Goya’s worldview darkened, so too did his art.

Fade to Black

Even with the end of the Peninsular War in 1814 the political troubles in Spain continued. The return of the tyrannical Ferdinand VII as king, who rejected forward-thinking Enlightenment ideas, was a step backwards. This was combined with the return of the Catholic church’s Inquisition as a means of controlling the people, which the occupying French had abolished. Goya’s personal life had worsened as well. He was 73 years old, his wife had died, an undiagnosed infection had left him mostly (or completely) deaf, he was under investigation for having worked with for the occupying French forces, and his finances were running out.

Goya’s 1800 painting Charles IV of Spain and His Family reflects the success and stability that being a painter for the Spanish royal family had given him.
Painted 20 or so years later, Two Old Ones Eating Soup from Goya’s Black Paintings period is a world away from his previous, more optimistic, work.

The Black Paintings

Goya withdrew from the world. He was pessimistic, alone, and feared his worsening health. He moved to a farmhouse outside Madrid. From 1819 to 1823 he worked in isolation on what has become known as the Black Paintings. Unlike his previous work, these paintings weren’t commissioned by wealthy patrons or intended to appeal to an audience. These 14 paintings were created for Goya himself, serving both as an outlet and as an exploration – they were pure art. He painted them directly on the walls of the house (which were later removed and transferred to canvas after his death).

Just a few of Goya’s Black Paintings. Themes of violence, madness, and fear run throughout the series.

The Black Paintings are dark in both subject matter and color. They explore themes of loss, hopelessness, madness, fear, and ignorance. Because they were created in isolation we can only guess as to Goya’s thoughts and intentions. He never revealed any possible titles for the paintings so the names we use today were created after his lifetime. All of the paintings are special in their own right but a few stand out.

Saturn Devouring His Son features the Roman Titan Saturn (or the Greek equivalent Cronus) trying to avoid the prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him. Unlike the 1636 painting of Saturn by Peter Paul Rubens, Goya’s Saturn is wild, savage, with blood oozing out of the headless partially eaten child.

Goya’s version of Saturn devouring his son (left) is far more wild, horrifying, and gruesome than Peter Paul Rubens’s version.

Witches’ Sabbath (or The Great He-Goat) features Satan, in the form of a goat-man, sitting before a gathering of witches. Goya had painted this subject matter before in 1789’s Witches’ Sabbath, which actually has more grisly details but lacks the raw emotion of the Black Painting version.

Witches’ Sabbath (The Great He-Goat) is not the first time Goya painted the subject matter of Satan as a goat-man holding court before a coven of witches.
Goya depicted witches and goats numerous times. His 1789 painting Witches’ Sabbath has even more gruesome imagery than the later Black Painting of Witches’ Sabbath, but the later has more raw emotion.

Romanticism to Modernism

As the world changed so did Goya’s style, bridging the gap from the old to the new. Today he is considered the last of the Old Masters and one of the first modern painters. The Black Paintings, as well as some of his other works, were influential in the Expressionist and Surrealist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

After the farmhouse Goya moved to France in 1824, where he died in 1828. Today his Black Paintings are in a room of their own, isolated, at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Viking Helmets & Wagner

Viking warriors didn’t wear helmets with horns or wings on them.

There’s no evidence that Viking warriors wore helmets with horns or wings. There are actually very few Viking helmets of any kind in existence and none have been found with horns or wings. Medieval sources show Vikings more commonly wearing simple headgear (perhaps made of leather or iron) while others have nothing on their heads at all. Vikings who wore metal helmets were probably in the minority and all of those helmets were fairly plain.

The Gjermundbu helmet is one of the few Viking helmets in existence. Medieval sources show Vikings wearing simple head coverings or nothing at all. Winged or horned helmets were never used in battle.

South of Scandinavia, Germanic and Celtic tribes did have religious headpieces with horns, antlers, wings, etc. but these were purely ceremonial and never worn in battle. To wear a helmet with large decorative extensions in combat would be impractical.

The paintings of August Malmström and the stage productions of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle set the standard for what we think Viking warriors looked like.

Artistic License

Fast-forward to the early 19th century, the Romanticism movement produced works that turned away from classical Greek & Roman influences and embraced medieval history from other European cultures further north (such as the Germanic and Celtic cultures). Within Romanticism was the Viking Revival in which the Swedish painter August Malmström is believed to have been one of the first to paint Viking warriors with wings on their helmets. In the spirit of the Mark Twain quote, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” there are a variety of historical inaccuracies in Malmström’s paintings and the winged helmets are a big one … but they make for some great paintings. The fact that winged headpieces were purely ceremonial and probably Celtic (and not Viking), seems to have been lost on Malmström.

But perhaps the most influential source of this myth is the composer Richard Wagner. Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a German 4 opera cycle by Wagner which tells the tale of a mythical past, a magic ring, and the fall of the Nordic / Germanic gods. For the first Bayreuth production in 1876 Wagner’s costume designer Carl Emil Doepler added wings to the helmets of the female Valkyries (which inspired this feline Brünnhilde) and horns to the helmet of the minor character Hunding, husband of Sieglinde.

What’s Opera, Doc?

Over time the Valkyries’ wings were replaced with horns, giving us the idea of a female opera singer with a horned helmet. This spread across pop culture most notably in the comic strip Hägar the Horrible, the Minnesota Vikings football team logo, Julianne Moore’s character in the Gutterballs dream sequence from The Big Lebowski, and the legendary 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc? which pulls from several Wagner operas and features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in winged/horned Wagnerian costumes.

A scene from the 1957 Wagner inspired Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc?.

Drop in to see what condition your condition is in with the Wagner inspired Gutterballs dream sequence from The Big Lebowski.

Salvation Mountain

An outsider art environment in the California desert created as a testament to love.

Sitting in the dusty beige desert of southern California is a vibrant candy-colored art project known as Salvation Mountain. Created by Leonard Knight over a 27 year period it’s a 50ft tall 150ft wide monument to God. The mountain is constructed of bales of hay coated with adobe as well as tires, car parts, logs, and whatever else he could find. Covering it all is an estimated 100,000 gallons of paint (which was donated by supporters over the years).

Salvation Mountain is an example of outsider art – art made by an artist outside of the mainstream art world. Knight was a self-taught marginalized artist (but he never considered himself an artist). He was also a visionary artist in the sense that he had a spiritual / religious imperative. Knight was compelled to create Salvation Mountain (a name applied by others) as a testament to God’s love.

God is Love

Begun in 1984, Knight’s construction process was to work on a section, move to new areas, and return to old ones. The high-heat and dry desert conditions means that parts of the mountain are always in need of repairs. The mountain has an estimated 10-15 coats of paint on it, which adds to the structural stability. As for the subject matter there are numerous biblical passages & prayers painted on the mountain (John 3:16 and the Sinner’s Prayer), as well as painted biblical references such as the large Sea of Galilee at the base of the mountain. There are also trees and flowers found all around. While Knight was a nondenominational evangelical Christian, the mountain’s main message is agnostic of any particular faith which is that “God is Love.” This simple message is found all around the mountain.

A bale of hay that is waiting to be coated in adobe clay and painted. Given the conditions of the desert parts of Salvation Mountain are always in need of repairs.
There are multiple painted vehicles at Salvation Mountain, including the truck Knight lived in.

In 2000 Salvation Mountain was deemed a National Folk Art Site. Knight died / “went to meet his Mentor” in 2014. Today the mountain is cared for by the Salvation Mountain, Inc. nonprofit organization. The mountain continues to be a popular tourist draw.

“Dont overcomplicate love, lets just keep it simple.”

Leonard Knight

This 2013 video from Vice features Knight discussing his mountain and his message.

House Numbers & Chinoiserie

The style of common American house numbers was influenced by Chinese design.

There is a fairly ubiquitous design style to the address numbers on American houses. While there are some variations to the design it’s essentially a brush script typeface.

The earliest example of this typeface is the 1927 H. W. Knight & Son catalog of letters & numbers, a catalog of physical type to be used in signage, monuments, headstones, etc. Described as simply “Door Numbers” with no comment on the design, the catalog offers two different styles of numbers with the other being more of a traditional serif typeface. It’s the brush script set of numbers though that we see most frequently, but why?

A collection of houses with variations of the typeface found in the Knight & Son catalog.

Chinoiserie

From the late 17th through the 18th century there was a European fascination with things from the East and in particular China. Europeans emulated the Chinese decorative style and incorporated it into their own work. “Chinoiserie” is essentially French for “Chinese style” and came to encapsulate this orientalist movement of European produced creations that were designed in a (sometimes loose interpretation of) Chinese style. In the 19th century there was a Chinoiserie revival which lasted into the 1920s. The Art Deco movement was strongly influenced by designs from China (just look at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). Which brings us back to H. W. Knight & Son in 1927.

Some examples of Chinoiserie and how the Chinese design style influenced the Rococo style of the 18th century.
The Chinoiserie revival of the 19th century extended into the Art Deco of the 1920s.

The design of the H.W. Knight house numbers was influenced by the Art Deco Chinoiserie style of the day. Looking at traditional Chinese calligraphy as well as more modern Chinese inspired fonts it’s easy to draw a connection between these house numbers and Chinese designs. In 2006 Hoefler&Co. created the font Bayside which is a new font inspired by the H. W. Knight & Son typeface.

Drawing on the script numbers from the the 1927 H. W. Knight & Son catalog, Hoefler&Co. created the font Bayside.

Egyptian Mummies: From Medicine to Paint

For hundreds of years Europeans used ground up Egyptian mummies as medicine and paint pigment.

The Arabic word mūmiyā (which later became “mummia”) was the name for the black sticky asphalt material that came out of the ground used as a sealant, an adhesive, and as medicine around the ancient world. Pliny the Elder and others wrote about the medicinal uses for mummia which became a bit of a cure-all for a range of ailments.

Unfortunately mummia the petroleum product looked like another black substance that was a byproduct of the Egyptian embalming process. As such the word “mummia” came to mean both the petroleum product AND the byproduct of Egyptian mummification, which was then even further confused as meaning an entire mummified body. This is how we got the word “mummy”. Unfortunately this series of mistakes also led to hundreds of years of cannibalism.

Cannibal Medicine

Since the petroleum based mummia was used both externally as a salve as well as ingested internally, the Egyptian mummy version of mummia became used in the same ways. The 11th century physician Constantinus Africanus even described mummia as a “spice” found in the sepulchers of the dead. Soon the human version replaced the petroleum version and people began to crumble & grind human corpses for medicine.

With the Crusades, Europeans learned of mummia and its medicinal possibilities. This significantly increased European demand for Egyptian mummies and by the 15th-16th centuries there was a thriving trade in mummies. Thousands of bodies were being exhumed and shipped to Europe to be turned into medicines. In 1586 English merchant John Sanderson shipped 600 pounds of mummies to London to sell at various apothecaries. This was fueled in part by orientalism, that Egyptian mummies had some sort of exotic ancient knowledge or power.

Europeans would consume portions of Egyptian corpses for help with general pain, ulcers, inflammation, epilepsy, cough, difficult labor, etc. – none of which worked, or if they worked it wasn’t the mummy that was the active ingredient. The practice was so common Shakespeare included mummy as an ingredient in the witches’ potion in Macbeth. Demand was so high that by the 17th century some mummy dealers were producing counterfeit mummies. Newly deceased people, animals, or prisoners who had been purposefully starved & executed, were put through a process to simulate ancient Egyptian mummies.

After a few hundred years of medicinal cannibalism Europeans began to express doubt as to the practice’s efficacy (and ethicality). The 16th century herbalist Leonhard Fuchs felt foreign mummies were acceptable but local ones were wrong. While doubts arose during the Renaissance in the 16th century it took until the 18th century age of Enlightenment for the practice to fall out of fashion. As consuming mummies slowly ended Egyptian mummies took on a new role: paint pigment.

The Egyptian Widow by Lourens Alma Tadema is an 1872 painting of Egyptian life potentially painted using mummy brown paint.
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix is another painting that’s theorized to contain mummy brown.

Mummy Brown

Around the end of the 16th century artists began using ground up Egyptian mummies (mixed with other materials) to produce mummy brown, a shade of brown pigment. Apothecaries that were grinding up mummies for medicine began to grind them up for paint as well. As a paint it was good for shadows, flesh tones, and glazing. Artists Benjamin West, Martin Drolling, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Burne-Jones, Eugène Delacroix, and others all painted with mummy brown.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that mummy brown began to fall out of favor. That said as recently as 1926 C Roberson & Co. still sold mummy brown made with ground up Egyptian corpses. As mummy brown died out so too did hundreds of years of large-scale desecration of deceased Egyptians, using human beings for medicines and paints.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Before museums existed, people had cabinets/rooms to display their collected treasures.

There was a time when museums did not exist. The role of collecting, preserving, and displaying the art, artifacts, and wonders of the world belonged largely to individuals. As far back as the 4th century BCE Greeks were collecting exotic treasures from the East. More than just trading in commodities, the Greeks collected the art and textiles from these far away cultures. Roman emperor Augustus decorated his homes not just with art but with rare objects and bones of giant animals. Over the centuries, as cultures explored & traded with increasingly distant lands, the trends in what was collectible grew & changed. By the 16th and 17th centuries wealthy European collectors had amassed enough objects that they created special cabinets and/or rooms to show-off their collections. They created cabinets of curiosities.

Ole Worm’s Museum Wormianum is one of the most famous cabinets of curiosities.
Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale is another famous wunderkabinett.

Wunderkabinett

From the German for art (kunst) or marvels (wunder) and cabinet (kabinett) or room (kammer), these cabinets & rooms were places where Renaissance scholars, merchants, royalty, and others could store their collections. Collecting was very fashionable in 17th century Europe and these cabinets were dedicated spaces to displaying all manner of objects. Like the contemporaneous maps of the world, some of these spaces were designed for show while others were more utilitarian.

A collection of cabinets and rooms displaying all manner of curiosities.

Some collectors had thousands of specimens. The objects in these cabinets were thoughtfully categorized and organized, each piece contributing to the larger whole. Collecting was a way to bring order to the world, to exert some level of control over something that is uncontrollable. What was stored & displayed in these cabinets depended on the collector, but broad categories of objects included:

  • Fine art
  • Applied art (scientific instruments, anthropological objects, etc.)
  • Natural materials (fossils, shells, rocks, etc.)
  • Historical objects

These categories, as well as these collections, served as the precursors to our modern museums. The Amerbach Cabinet was a collection of art, books, coins, etc. that was assembled by various members of the Amerbach family. It was eventually co-purchased by the city of Basel & the University Basel and became the Kunstmuseum Basel in 1661, the first public museum in the world. Francesco I de’ Medici had his studiolo, a 26 x 10 foot room of curiosities that is part of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Other Medici possessions served as the start of the Uffizi Gallery. Elias Ashmole, who amassed his fortune & collection through sometimes questionable means, gifted his collection to the University of Oxford which became the Ashmolean Museum in 1683.

Throughout the 18th century an increasing number of private collections were converted into public museums, some of which still exist today but all of which helped define what museums have become.

Added info: In 1784 Charles Wilson Peale’s collection became the Philadelphia Museum which was the United States’ first museum (and also the first to display a mastodon skeleton).

Sunday B. Morning

The recreations of Andy Warhol’s work that started officially & amicably, but are now unauthorized copies of copies.

Andy Warhol worked in a variety of mediums throughout his career, but his most famous works are his silkscreen prints. His prints of Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s Soup cans, Mao Zedong, Elvis and others changed pop culture and today sell for millions of dollars. While he produced some of these works himself he eventually created The Factory, his aptly titled Manhattan studio where an assortment of interesting characters would produce his prints for him. Like a Pop art orchestra Warhol served as the conductor, directing his assistants as they played their parts in making his art.

The 1967 collection of prints made by the Factory are referred to as the “Factory Additions” and are authentic Warhols. Authenticity begins to get murkier in 1970 when Warhol started a collaboration with two anonymous Belgian artists. Andy Warhol’s use of repetition in his art was part of a larger criticism & statement about consumerism, pop culture celebrity, and disposable mass produced goods. He took this to a new level when he gave the negatives & the color codes for several of his most famous prints to these new Belgian partners so they could start printing his work. These prints would be new editions of the work his Factory had already done for him. These secondary prints became known as the Sunday B. Morning prints.

Flowers, Mao, and Marilyn are all Warhol works that Sunday B. Morning creates prints of.

A copy of a copy?

What started as an amicable collaboration ended with Warhol regretting the decision and the 1970 prints were labeled “unauthorized”. The Sunday B. Morning duo produced 250 prints of several Warhol works which, while not exactly by Warhol, were produced from his own negatives to his specifications so they became valuable pieces in the art market. Warhol’s lack of direct involvement broadly categorizes this work into what is referred to as “After Warhol.” Despite his disapproval, when Warhol would encounter one of these prints he would sometimes sign the back with “This is not by me. Andy Warhol” which only added to the value.

To add to the confusion another series of prints were created by Sunday B. Morning in 1985. Then, after Warhol died in 1987, a company (rather than the original duo) calling themselves Sunday B. Morning have been continuously producing prints. After the original 1970 series the silkscreens used to make the prints were locked away and the current Sunday B. Morning prints are copies of the 1970 prints … which were, in a way, copies of the original Factory Addition prints.

Black or Blue: Which one am I looking at?

Discerning an original Warhol Factory Addition print, from a 1970 Sunday B. Morning, from a later day Sunday B. Morning, from a forgery can be difficult. An original Warhol is almost guaranteed to be in a museum or the home of a wealthy collector so it’s unlikely you’ll find one on eBay. His original prints were frequently signed by him in various ways on the back (interestingly, his earlier 1950s work was also signed with his name, but was sometimes written by his mom Julia Warhola).

Following the original Factory series, the second series of this work (the initial series by Sunday B. Morning in 1970) have a black ink stamp on the back that says “published by Sunday B. Morning”. These prints have a second black ink stamp that says “fill in your own signature”, which is where Warhol would sometimes semi-ironically sign that the print was not by him.

The third series from 1985 have a rubber stamp signature of Andy Warhol’s name on the back, which became known as the European Artist’s Proof Editions. Finally the modern day prints are stamped on the back with “fill in your own signature” and “published by Sunday B. Morning” but in blue ink, and are referred to as the Blue Ink series.

Two samples of the stamps found on the back of the Sunday B. Morning Blue Ink later day series of prints.

Assigning monetary value to any of these depends on a lot of factors, but basically the original 1967 Warhol Factory Addition prints are the most valuable (into the hundreds of thousands of dollars) and the later day Sunday B. Morning Blue Ink prints are the least valuable (worth a few hundred dollars). Of the Sunday B. Morning prints, the 1970 series is the most respected and the most highly valued.

The Ambassadors & Anamorphosis

The illusion hidden in the middle of an art masterpiece

In 1526 German painter Hans Holbein the Younger went to England in search of work. Eventually he found a client in Anne Boleyn (wife number 2 of Henry the VIII, and mother of Elizabeth I). By 1535 he was the King’s painter, creating portraits and documenting courtly life. It was through this life at court that he came to paint one of his most famous works, the double portrait of French ambassador Jean de Dinteville and French bishop Georges de Selve titled The Ambassadors.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein

Painted in 1533, The Ambassadors is a meticulously detailed masterpiece of Renaissance art. At the time it was painted, Henry VIII was separating the English Church from the Catholic Church of Rome, and these two ambassadors were most likely trying to resolve this political & religious turmoil. Filled with symbolism and hidden messages, the painting is more than just a double portrait. Between the two men is a table crowded with objects. On the top shelf are instruments to study the skies and on the lower shelf are items associated with the Earth and human activity. The lute with a broken string, the book of mathematics opened to division, and the hymn book are all references to the political & religious discord taking place at the time.

It’s what’s below the bottom shelf that makes this painting especially famous. With the top shelf representing the heavens, the bottom shelf representing life, then what is this thing below that? When viewed head-on it is a long diagonally shaped blob that looks out of place in this very life-like painting. However, when viewed by standing at the edge of the painting’s frame (or tilting your device), through a distortion of space, it is revealed to be a skull. The skull as a reminder of death completes the three levels of the center of the painting with the heavens, life, and finally death. It is also interesting that death exists amongst life but can’t be seen properly. It can only be viewed when you can no longer view the rest of the painting (when you can no longer view life).

Through anamorphosis the warped image in the center of the painting is revealed to be a skull when viewed from the right perspective.

Anamorphosis

The skull at the center of The Ambassadors is one of the most famous examples of anamorphosis. In anamorphosis an image can only be properly seen from a certain point of view, or with the aid of a special device (such as a mirrored cylinder), or sometimes both. It’s an illusion where you start not understanding and then move into understanding. Unlike normal optical illusions or trope l’oeil which can be understood (albeit mind bendingly) at face value, anamorphosis can only be understood when viewed the right way.

It’s a neat optical trick that has been used in various ways for millennia. The technique goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, but it really came into being in the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci included an early example in the illusion known known as Leonardo’s Eye. It was also used at times with tromp l’oeil to create more elaborate church ceilings. This was the case when Andrea Pozzo painted a “dome” on the ceiling of Saint Ignatius’s in Rome because the church builders were not allowed to construct an actual dome. So if you stand in the right spot the illusion of looking up into a dome is excellent, but from any other angle the illusion breaks down.

Saint Ignatius’s in Rome has a fake dome done through anamorphosis and trope l’oeil.
Anamorphic street art for Twin Peaks
Leon Keer’s anamorphic street art of Pac-Man
Thomas Quinn’s anamorphic type art.

Today we find anamorphosis in fun street art. Sidewalks become filled with precarious holes or cliff faces that confuse our sense of space. Artist Jonty Hurwitz creates anamorphic sculptures including a three dimensional version of the skull from Holbein’s The Ambassadors. In practical usage we experience anamorphosis most frequently while driving. Words written in the road are elongated but look correct from the vantage point of a seated driver. Similarly emergency vehicles such as ambulances frequently have words written backwards, but when seen from a driver’s mirror they read correctly.

Jonty Hurwitz’s anamorphic 3-D skull version of The Ambassadors
Jonty Hurwitz’s anamorphic 3-D frog that is revealed using a mirrored cylinder

Added bonus: There is a great video by The National Gallery in London where Deputy Director and Director of Public Engagement Susan Foister discusses The Ambassadors and some of its hidden messages.

Identity Crisis by Michael Murphy uses anamorphosis for political commentary.