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Tuesday, November 4, 1997 Published at 20:38 GMT


Intriguing Holbein masterpiece goes on show

A detail from The Ambassadors (reproduced courtesy of the National Gallery)

One of the most intriguing paintings in London's National Gallery goes on display on Tuesday following an extensive restoration programme.

[ image: The newly-restored Holbein painting]
The newly-restored Holbein painting
Painted in 1533 by Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors commemorates the meeting between Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur, and forms part of an exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of Holbein.

[ image: The viewing platform next to the painting]
The viewing platform next to the painting
The objects in the picture tell a fascinating story about the two men and the political and religious intrigue that brought them to England. New measures have been included to help visitors spot the painting's secrets.

It is believed that both of the solemn figures were on a mission to dissuade King Henry VIII from divorcing his wife, against the wishes of the Pope, and causing a rift in the Catholic Church. Holbein alludes to the political crisis with the subtle use of symbols of discord.

[ image: A crucifix hidden in the top left corner of the enigmatic picture]
A crucifix hidden in the top left corner of the enigmatic picture
The mysterious distorted skull in the foreground has also been an enigma to generations of art historians but the technique used by Holbein and the use of his cryptic visual clues to convey another message are now better understood following the conservation work.

The painting was damaged by damp, the oak backing panels were showing through and the conservation team found that earlier restoration was inaccurate.

They decided to apply some new paint and restore the historic painting to its former colourful glory in the manner Holbein had intended - leading to some criticism that the restoration had been overdone.

However, the cleaning, conservation and research work has led to new discoveries about the painting and its significance.

The exhibition, called Making and Meaning: Holbein's Ambassador's, runs until February 1998.

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