The Ambassadors Reimagined: How Holbein’s painting can inspire global AI negotiations?

Published on 23 August 2023
Updated on 02 November 2023

In an era where technology rapidly evolves, and artificial intelligence (AI) stands at the forefront of the next seismic shift, the Renaissance masterpiece, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, offers an inspiring guide for today’s AI diplomats.1The painting is displayed in the National Gallery in London. The painting, created in 1533 during a period of profound political and scientific changes, encapsulates the spirit of its time and provides an alternative perspective for understanding the current AI era.

Holbein witnessed historical moments at Tudor’s court when King Henry VIII broke away from Rome and created the Church of England. Two ambassadors from Holbein’s painting aimed to overcome the conflict between Henry VIII and the Catholic world. They failed in their diplomatic mission, but the painting’s message remains relevant to our time.

About the painting’s historical context

The Ambassadors reflect the spirit of the time. The Renaissance was in full swing in science and art: Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in 1503, Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation by posting ‘95 theses’, and Magellan sailed to new continents in 1519. 

It was a time of major political conflicts triggered by a religious split in Christianity. Two ambassadors from Holbein’s painting are in the middle of that time’s religious and diplomatic upheavals. 

On the left, as we look at the painting, stands Jean de Dinteville: a French ambassador to England at the court of King Henry VIII. 

On the right is Georges de Selve, a bishop of Lavaur who acted several times as an ambassador for French King Francis I to the Holy Roman Emperor, the Venetian Republic, and the Pope. 

In 1533 when the painting was made, King Henry VIII’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was finalised, leading him to marry Anne Boleyn. The Pope’s refusal to sanction the annulment resulted in Henry’s breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church and establishing the Church of England. This move had profound political and religious implications for England and its relationship with Catholic countries in Europe.

In this seismic moment, Jean de Dinteville got diplomatic support from Georges de Selve, who had a broader understanding of the geopolitics of the crisis between England and the Catholic world. 

The symbolism and relevance of painting in the AI era

While the painting can be appreciated for its artistic mastery, understanding the political and religious context of the era provides deeper insights into its symbolism and the message Holbein might have intended to convey. 

In the following text, we will explore how the deeper symbolism of The Ambassadors transcends time and remains relevant for issues we face in the AI era.

Interactive analysis of Holbein’s The Ambassadors

Click on the paining for more insights

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Lower shelf Upper shelf Scull

Lower shelf

Lower shelf of Holbein's painting The Ambassadors

The following objects are displayed on the lower shelf of  the painting:

8. Terrestrial globe; showing the edge of recently discovered America.

9.  Arithmetic book

10. Set-square

11. Divider

12. Lutheran hymn-book; at that time of division between Catholics and Protestants, the presence of the Lutheran book was very controversial. As both ambassadors were Catholics, the most plausible interpretation is that the book was included in the painting to signal a call for reconciliation between the Catholics and Protestants. Their diplomatic mission in London was to avoid a split between the Vatican and the Tudors.

13. Case of fluters

14. Lute: one string is broken symbolising disunity in the Christian world

Source: Susan Fosister, Ashok roy and Martin Wyld | Holbein's Ambassadors, Making & Meaning | National Gallery Company, London | 2001 | p. 30

Upper shelf

Upper shelf of Holbein's painting The Ambassadors

On the upper shelf of the painting the following objects are displayed:

1. Celestial globe

2. Cylindrical or shepherd's dial

3. Quadrant

4. Quadrant

5. Small dial

6. Polyhedral sundial

7. Torquetum

 

Source: Susan Fosister, Ashok roy and Martin Wyld | Holbein's Ambassadors, Making & Meaning | National Gallery Company, London | 2001 | p. 30

Scull

The scull in the painting is a reminder of human mortality. Skulls were common in the paintings of that era, usually placed in the background. Holbein puts the skull in front of the ambassadors. The skull is also distorted which was considered an artistic 'innovation' at that time. Interestingly, when the skull from the Ambassador was 'normalised' in reverse, the result was a perfectly drawn skull.

Two shelves: between earthly and heavenly

In the centre of the painting are two shelves filled with objects with strong symbolic meaning. 

The lower shelf has earthly symbols, including a globe, a merchant’s calculus book, a lute with a broken string, and a Lutheran hymnal. These items represent earthly interests and the disputes that accompany them.

The upper shelf symbolises a heavenly order, represented by astronomic tools evoking the scientific optimism of the Renaissance era. 

The two ambassadors should overcome these earthly conflicts and elevate society to the upper shelf, symbolising a stable heavenly order.

This symbolic meaning of shelves on The Ambassadors corresponds well with the challenges of AI negotiators. 

The lower shelf would represent the tangible, known elements of our reality: the technology and machinery of AI, the legal frameworks and policies currently in place, the commercial interests driving the industry, and the societal and ethical implications unfolding around us. Like the broken string on the lute in the painting, these elements can be discordant and cause conflicts that need resolution.

The upper shelf would signify our wishes for a largely unknown AI future:

  • the promise of scientific progress and breakthroughs in AI,
  • the hope for societal benefits of AI, and 
  • the desire for harmonious relations between AI and humans

A reminder of human limitations

The skull, a memento mori, or ‘reminder of death’, serves as a warning of the limits of human agency, including blind faith in technology. It encourages us to be humble, deliberate, and mindful of, for example, ethical boundaries as we advance AI. The skull also warns against some AI leaders’ ideas about changing human nature and achieving immortality. 

Broad perspective and focus on details

Holbein’s painting is a mastery of grasping overall context while meticulously focusing on details. This type of optics – zooming in and out – will be one of the main challenges for AI negotiators as they deal with the layered complexity of AI developments.  They have to resolve ethical and philosophical issues while making detailed and practical guidelines that could help software engineers to develop algorithms and applications.

Honest realism

Holbein’s painting is honest and realistic.2.In preparing to paint astronomic objects at the Ambassadors, Holbein consulted Nicolaus Kratzer, the German-born astronomer at the court of Henry VIII. There is no flattery in his style. He depicts the overall situation and personalities of the two ambassadors as they are. Honest realism is badly needed in the AI era as this technology is perceived almost like ‘magic’ with high extremes of enormous enthusiasm and fear. The Ambassador reminds us to be fully aware of the reality that AI triggers or may trigger in the future. In today’s diplomatic lingo, it could be called ‘evidence-based’ policymaking. 

Harmony and balance

The two ambassadors in the painting stand harmoniously yet distinctly, symbolizing a balance of power and collaboration. Finding a harmonious balance between national interests, technological advancement, and ethical considerations in AI diplomacy is vital.

Interdisciplinary approach

The painting is rich in symbols from various fields – theology, astronomy, music, and more. Similarly, AI discussions should be interdisciplinary, involving experts from various domains to ensure comprehensive governance. AI should not be seen only as a technical or scientific issue.

Representation and responsibility

Just as the ambassadors in the painting bear the weight of representing their ruler. AI ambassadors are responsible for representing humanity’s best interests in the AI realm. Trust in AI can be developed through responsible representation of various perspectives and policies from citizens, communities, and countries worldwide.

Triptych on the Sage of Diplomacy

Acrylic on canvas by Andrej Vujicic, 1996

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The left panel starts a story with the link between one of Holbein’s ambassadors, Jean de Dinteville, and the digital world. He bridges the time between 16th-century Renaissance and 21st-century digital world. The lizard next to his leg also symbolizes a link with nature.

 Adult, Male, Man, Person, Aircraft, Transportation, Vehicle, Face, Head, Astronomy, outer space

The middle panel illustrates interconnections as one of the underlying principles of the digital world. Vanevar Bush and Ted Nelson are the fathers of hypertext. Bush, a science advisor of US President Roosevelt, proposed in 1945 to develop Membex as ‘a mechanised private fiele and library’, a system developed on microfilms. Memex was the forerunner of hypertext.

Ted Nelson envisaged Xanadu as a universal library of all published documents. Named after St. Coleridge’s verses and reconstructed as a place in Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, Nelson imagined a hybrid of a museum and a mausoleum that would serve as a repository of the world’s culture.

 Art, Painting, Person, Hourglass

The right panel of the Triptych features a return to the temporal and spacial aspects of diplomacy. There is the Chapel of Peace which was built in 1699 in order to conclude the Peace of Carlowitze. The circular building has five entrances for each of the five great powers at the time to enter and sign a peace treaty simultaneously. In this way, they resolved disputes over precedence. It is a reminder of the sensitivity of States for their honour and standing.


The Tryptic on the Saga of Diplomacy was painted in acrylic by Andrej Vujicic, an art student at the University of Malta, based on conceptual and symbolical analysis by Jovan Kurblaija. Triptych is stored at the DiploFoundation office in Malta.

Parting thoughts

Holbein’s painting reminds us that diplomats should not be only representatives of the interests of their principles but also promoters of the global public good. In the painting’s metaphor, as they navigate geopolitical complexities of the ‘lower shelf’, they should always aim at the enlightened vision of the ‘upper shelf’ of developing a prosperous and harmonious global society.

Today, many policy issues, from wars to climate change and AI, need to be elevated to the ‘upper shelf’ of peace and the promotion of the core values of humanity. 

Today’s AI diplomats, much like The Ambassadors, are heralds of wider societal interests, weaving through the intricate fabric of technology, ethics, and global politics. Holbein’s dichotomy of worldly chaos and divine order offers a metaphorical guide: To successfully chart the AI terrain, we must elevate our discourse, aspiring to a harmonious coexistence of man and machine.

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2 replies
  1. Sushma Joshi
    Sushma Joshi says:

    Wonderful analysis. I love the historical art as metaphor to understand the imperatives of AI.

    You are assuming however that humans operate with goodness in their heart. We could very well be looking at an extraordinarily evil system which intends to insert itself into people’s brains as nanoparticles, injected via vaccines, to create a giant synthesis of human knowledge for private gain (eg; something like ChatGPT.) All of these tech are well recorded: someone decided to use human DNA in the brain as electronic censors and DARPA gave him funding; these synthetic nanoparticles can be injected into the body; Neuralink links brain to net, ChatGPT started “chatting” right after billions were injected with experimental vaccines…this is all part of AI, breaking down ethical boundaries.
    AI might be useful in a world ruled by good. In a world ruled by evil where capitalist profit trumps every other motive, it could become a terrifying global control apparatus.

    Reply
    • Jovan Kurbalija
      Jovan Kurbalija says:

      Sushima, it is a real dilemma. Could we contain the Orewelian scenario? I do not know. We should try everything possible as this is a battle for what defines us as humans.

      Reply

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