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

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.

The Art Collection of Dorothy & Herbert Vogel

How an ordinary couple amassed one of the greatest art collections in history

Dorothy and Herbert Vogel began collecting art in the 1960s. Herb was a mail sorter at the post office and Dorothy was a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. With a passion for art they decided to live on Dorothy’s salary and use Herb’s salary (never more than $23,000 a year) to collect art. They lived frugally in a rent-controlled two room apartment in Manhattan, all the while amassing a collection of art that amounted to thousands of pieces.

Their collection is primarily modern, minimalist and conceptual art. They acquired many pieces from then lesser-known artists such as when they acquired pieces from Christo & Jeanne-Claude in exchange for taking care of the artists’ cat Gladys while they were away installing Valley Curtain in the early 1970s. The Vogels befriended many of the artists they bought from and gradually became known collectors in the art world. Chuck Close called “the mascots of the art world.” Their collection became a who’s who of modern art.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel
Some of their collection in their apartment, later in a gallery
the Vogels with Christo & Jeanne-Claude

Ultimately the Vogels collection amounted to 4,782 pieces, all crammed inside their NYC apartment with the couple, their cats, and their turtles. Dorothy insisted that they did not store work in their oven, but otherwise every other space seemed to contain art. After decades in the making they decided it was time to unload their collection and invite the public to experience it so in 1992 they donated the entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.. They chose the National Gallery because the museum is free to the public and never sells pieces in its collection. Similarly, the Vogels never sold any of the art in their collection, a collection conservatively estimated to be valued in the millions. In 2008 they worked with the National Gallery and ran a program where they donated 50 pieces to a museum in each of the 50 states. The 2008 documentary Herb & Dorothy documents their world famous collection, the collection of two working class art fans who loved art for art’s sake.

Moses’s Horns

Moses spent a period of time in art with horns because of a mistranslation.

During the Middle Ages, and into the Renaissance, Moses was frequently depicted in art as having horns on his head, including in a statue in Rome by Michelangelo. This was all because of a mistranslation from the Hebrew text.

The mistranslation said that Moses came down from Mount Sinai and his face was “horned from the conversation of the Lord” but should have been translated as his face was “shining/radiant from conversation of the Lord”.

So the paintings & sculptures of Moses with mutant horns should have just been Moses with a rosy glow.

A collection of Moses depicted with horns from over the centuries.

More on “Less is more”

The idiom “Less is more” is by German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. “Less is more” was at the core of his design philosophy.

“Less is more” is about simplicity. It’s that keeping things to the absolute essentials is more effective than including extraneous additional elements.

Mies

Ludiwg Mies van der Rohe was born in Germany in 1886. His architectural career started by apprenticing at various design firms but it was in Berlin in the early 20th century that he gained greater exposure to the new progressive ideas of the age. This gained even more momentum after World War I. People in the Weimar Republic were living in a world of increasing industrialization, fast-paced metropolises, and greater reasons to turn away from traditional views. The old constructs of thinking were from a bygone era that weren’t compatible with the modern industrialized world. It was in this environment that Modernism was born.

Modernism embraced new ways of thinking. As people struggled to find their place in a world broken by the old regime, modernism explored new ways forward. It found it’s way into design, art, literature, philosophy, music, and other fields as experimental new ways that were alternatives/rejections to the rules of the past.

Modernism was at the center of Mies’ architectural thinking and he quickly became a leader in this new school of thought. While serving as the third and final head of the famed Bauhaus design school, Mies realized the political climate in Germany was becoming increasingly hostile and emigrated to the USA in 1937, eventually settling in Chicago. It was in Chicago that he worked the rest of his life creating some of his masterpieces in modernist thought such as the Farnsworth House.

Less is more

His entire approach to architecture stripped designs down to the absolute essentials; removing classical architectural decorative ornamentation entirely. It was from this design philosophy that “Less is more” was born. It was a utilitarian approach where a design is more powerful the less you add. Basically a design is better the less stuff you add to it. Keep it simple.

Ornamentation served no functional purpose so it was omitted. It took Louis Sullivan’s idea that “form follows function” to the extreme. A building’s visual style should take a backseat to its purpose.

While celebrated as a design visionary and as a father of modernism, Mies’ aphorism of “Less is more”  has taken on a life of its own where it is arguably more famous than he is.