There’s a famous painting by Hans Holbein the Younger hanging in the National Gallery, London. It’s called The Ambassadors, and it depicts two guys, opulently dressed, standing on a mosaic based on the altar at Westminster Abbey. They're surrounded by symbols: globes, a musical instrument, and a bunch of other stuff. Some say the double portrait is a metaphor for the marriage of capitalism and the church.
What transfixed me when I saw first saw the painting is the long, distended object in the foreground. Do you see it? It’s hard to tell what it is. You have to step back and look at it from a precise angle to discern that it’s a human skull.
To create it, Holbein painted an anamorphosis, an optical illusion in which an image is projected or painted in such a way that you can only tell what it is from a certain perspective.
Tomorrow (Wednesday, October 29) on Live From Hochstein, you have the chance to hear an aural anamorfosi by contemporary Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino. Pianists Daniela Mineva and Wenqing Zhang will play a live program of dreamy, imaginative music starting at 12:10 on Classical 91.5 or streaming. Come in person, if you like, to 50 North Plymouth Avenue in Rochester.
There are a lot of theories as to what Holbein’s skull means. Maybe the painter was showing off, hoping to impress potential commissioners. Maybe the painting was supposed to hang in a stairwell.
I think it’s a reminder that, eventually, we all die.