north's thesis on holbein's 'the ambassadors'


FROM: THE SUNDAY TIMES (LONDON), SUNDAY JANUARY 13 2002 "Is this coded secret of the ambassadors?"

Tom Robbins


The riddle of one of Britain's most prized and enigmatic paintings may have been solved by a retired academic who says it holds a secret religious code missed by art experts.

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger,which shows two envoys visiting Henry VIII's court, separated by a distorted skull, has long intrigued observers, and its meaning has become fiercely contested.

Scholars have suggested it relates to the dangerous international situation in 1533, when it was painted,with the skull a reminder of the proximity of death. However,a new study by John North, emeritus professor of the University of Groningen in Holland, says the skull is a key that shows the painting contains a religious message.

North, an expert on medieval philosophy and science, says the skull leads to clues which point to a particular date and time - 4pm on April 11, 1533, or Good Friday: the 1,500th anniversary of Christ's crucifixion.

"The picture is riddled with geometrical and astronomical oddities which fit that moment - an hour after the death of Christ," he said. "Every time I looked at it I found something new, which shows this is very carefully worked out."

If viewed from a certain position the skull appears normal. North found viewers need to look at an angle of 27 degrees to make the image appear undistorted.

North then drew a line up at the same angle and found it led to the eye of Jesus in a partly hidden crucifix at the top left of the painting. Not only does this draw attention to the crucifix, but at 4pm on April 11, 1533, the sun would have been at 27 degrees over London. The cylinder dial, a sundial on the shelf behind the ambassadors, indicates the same date and time.

North, whose book The Ambassadors' Secret will be published later this month, believes this date would have held particular significance at the time. It was predicted that the world would end exactly 1,500 years after Christ's death.

With the discovery of the 27-degree lines,another series of clues fell into place. The blue celestial globe in the painting shows various constellations, but not the sun.North calculated that if shown, it too would fall on the 27-degree line, which passes through the center of the dial of one instrument on the shelf, touches the needle tip of another and hits the middle of a solar-measuring instrument. North draws on other snippets of information: the hymnbook on the lower shelf is open at page 19, a key number for calculating the date of Easter. He also argues that 27, three to the power of three, represents the Holy Trinity.

Such close analysis may seem far-fetched today but gematria, which relates holy names to numbers, was then very much in vogue, and 16th century artworks are often highly valued because of the complexity of the concealed information.

"I am convinced and think it is a marvellous piece of work," said Nicholas Jardine, professor of history and philosophy of the sciences at Cambridge University. "It should be taken very seriously even by people who don't believe all of his claims."

Previous explanations have taken great note that the lute has a broken string. This was taken to indicate discord in Europe, with the Reformation in full swing and Henry VIII in the process of divorcing Catherine of Aragon against the wishes of the Pope.

The picture, which is in the National Gallery,records a tense moment, showing two French diplomats visiting Henry VIII's court - some of whose major figures Holbein painted in this period - to represent the wishes of Catholic France as England veered towards Protestantism. Others have read significance into the fact that the first word on the page of arithmetic visible is Divide, indicating the political division in Europe. "What I have said can sit quite happily alongside a lot of what has been said in the past," said North, who has previously written astronomy-based studies of Chaucer and Stonehenge. "Where I do draw the line is when people start cooking things up from thin air."

Nevertheless the book is certain to provoke controversy in the art world. Although unwilling to criticise North's work in public, many art historians privately dismiss it.

Other experts who are convinced by his theories say the critics are simply irritated that the findings come from someone outside the art history establishment.

Professor Will Ryan, of the Warburg Institute,London, said: "North has often been criticised by people for having wild theories. But he has usually been proved right."

© 2012, Donald Kunze, all rights reserved