Blog Article

Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’ and International Politics

By Deniz Solmaz:

The Ambassadors and International Politics

The Ambassadors is a full-length double portrait of two French Diplomats, Jean de Dinteville (29), and Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur (25), painted in London in 1533. The two ambassadors are shown obviously confident of their importance. Jean de Dinteville, is the French ambassador to England and his friend, the Bishop of Lavaur, acted on several occasions as ambassador to the Venetian Republic and the Holy See (Wyld, 1998; The Art Book, 2010). The two sitters are shown on either side of shelves laden with a variety of objects: globes, astronomical and scientific devices, books, and musical instruments, all of which symbolize their learning and power. The sundial sets the scene precisely at 10:30 AM on 11 April.

Holbein shows that all this magnificence and arrogance must end in the grave, however, by adding to the sitters’ splendid richness symbols of death: the broken string on the lute and the distorted skull yawning before them which can be fully seen only if standing to the right of the picture. The background is a green damask curtain, turned back at the top left corner to reveal a silver crucifix at the very edge of the panel. The two men stand on a floor inlaid with an elaborate geometrical design. In the lower left corner in the shadowed part of the floor is the artist’s signature in Latin: Joannes Holbein Pingebat, and the date, 1533.

Without a doubt, Holbein’s work contains many mysteries, tricks and symbols, much like any event in international politics does. Therefore, in this analysis, an analogy will be used, the work of art will be seen as an analogue and international politics as a target. For mapping this cognitive process of transferring assumptions, it is necessary to start with drawing a simple, coherent, consistent and accessible theoretical framework for IR with respect to actors, order, method, and language.

The process of determination of the actors is about the disclosing of agents who use force either to preserve the ruling paradigm or to change it. That is to say, the actors who really matter for any analysis must either have capacity to keep the status quo or to cause a paradigm shift. Therefore the status quo or paradigm is the remarkable point on which the researcher should focus in order to evaluate the actors’ role and significance. However, actors are rarely if ever opposed in a binary, zero-sum game, which means, agential capacities of these two actor types are incommensurable to each other, with the exception of continuity of sovereignty of political unities. The problematic point in this two-level analysis of actors stems from their context of discovery. Both of the actor types are not taken for granted, on the contrary, they are in a circulation in which countering the one who aims to change the paradigm would become the ruling one who aims to preserve this new paradigm.

Keeping aside the context of discovery, the context of justification is related to explanatory power of the order in international politics per se. Order refers to the consistency of particular positions of actors vis-à-vis each other, which points to the circulation model of the two level actors. Another aspect of the order is its formal integrity, that is, order consists of micro orders. Although micro orders are subjected to change in the course of time, any change in their constitutional forms is not competent enough to change the order. In order to change the paradigm which is the base for order, a revolution is needed with its principles, like in the case of the Peace of Westphalia.

The argument that the performing of the agential capacities of the actors in a particular order requires particular methods is an illusion. Primary interests of the actors are executed via order itself. Therefore order has already concealed the interests of the actors. There is a mutually assured benefit which enables us to name the international order as ‘order with benefit’. Apart from order itself, the other ways and tactics to gain profit are ad hoc, that is, actors always have control over the hardened assumptions of the order. Hence, while a possible new order will seem as a shift in the problématique, during the hegemony of that order it disguises the scientific research programme in which ruling actors argue that growth of knowledge exists.

Lastly, the language of the order has an important influence on the attitudes of the actors within the order. There is more than one true interpretation of the assumptions of the order. In other words, particular stances of the two types of actors enable them to read the virtues of the order differently. In order to perpetuate the order, ruling agents need to provide an exclusive language. The more exclusive the language is, the more its impact on counter-actors spreads.

After mapping transference, it is possible to apply indications to Holbein’s Ambassadors. There are four questions that need to be answered with regards to this work of art before implementing a theoretical framework on it. To enumerate: (1) What is the order? (2) Who are the actors? (3) What are the aims of the actors? (4) What is the power – order – actor relation?

Like any other work of art, Holbein’s painting too offers a particular order. The direction of the shadow of the ambassador Jean Dinteville is quite clear in the picture, and enables us to determine the location of the source of light. This place presents the angle which is the only point where the skull in the picture can be seen. Therefore, one can argue that the order in the picture suggests only one interpretation of the text, that is to say, in order to realize the truth which is the distorted object in the bottom of the picture in this case, one should preserve the position that order proposes. Any other angle cannot allow the observer to recognize the situation in the order.

There are also two shelves in the picture. While the upper shelf is full of objects used for measuring time and understanding the heavens, the objects in the lower shelf are related to affairs of the world. This incommensurability reveals the idea that ruling actors and counter actors in international politics cannot be compared or even contrasted. Thus, the two types of actors will behave differently. Moreover, neither of them is capable of foreseeing the behaviours of the other. Therefore, it is possible to argue neither cooperation nor conflict between two types of actors.

The age of Bishop is written as ‘AETAT/IS SV Æ 25’ on the book in the upper shelf among the other objects that do not belong to our world. Considering that this book belongs to the Bishop, de Selve, it would not be illogical to claim that upper shelf represents the Bishop. On the other side, there is a dagger in Dinteville hands on which his age is written as ‘ÆT. SVÆ 29’. We are not in a position to analyse the power that objects in the upper shelf symbolize, but it is clear that Dinteville’s dagger signifies power. When it is taken into consideration that the position of the source of light which forms the shadow of Dinteville and the angle which enables the observer to recognize the distorted skull are, indeed, the same; then, one can argue that power comes from the angle per se, or in another words, from the dagger. Thus, in every particular order, there are key objects or methods which bring power.



Deniz Solmaz is an MSc student in International Relations at Middle East Technical University in Ankara Turkey. You can follow him on Twitter @denizsolmaz_




The Art Book, 2010, ‘The Art Book’, New York: Phaidon Press Inc.
Wyld, M., 1998, ‘The Restoration History of Holbein’s Ambassadors’, in National Gallery Technical Bulletin, vol. 19, London: National Gallery Publications.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s