As a lauded Tudor masterpiece now displayed proudly on the walls of the National Gallery, London, Hans Holbein the Younger’s “The Ambassadors” (1553), continues to claim considerable attention. Yet its appeal lies not so much in the array of fascinating objects that adorn the central table, the expressive features of the two mysterious figures who frame the piece, nor the meticulously-restored richly green curtain from which the two figures’ dark velvet and startling ermine clothes leap out so vibrantly, stunning though these features are. The central interest in the piece is in fact regarding the mysterious floating object in the front centre, which for a long time perplexed art historians and members of the public in the extreme. As late as the 19th century, there was a school of thought that this strange stick-like form was a piece of cuttlefish. We know now, that by taking a walk to the right of the picture, the distorted perspective flattens out an image of a human skull. Skilled painter though he was, we are still unsure how Holbein perfected this astonishing illusion. What it does reveal, though, is a determined effort to recreate a human cranium, but also a desire to disguise it, to hide it away from first view. It is an image that continues to fascinate. Yet Holbein was not alone in displaying a fascination with skulls. He was part of an effort to record and capture skulls throughout the centuries. But why? It is strange picture, and a strange story, and like all strange things, worthy of further exploration.

In the Early Modern Era, as humanity started to learn more about the inner workings of its own body, early anatomists sought to use ink to record their findings, such as Andreas Vesalius’ drawings. Yet though these depictions were of course primarily created in a scientific vein, these diagrams also displayed these skeletons in oddly lifelike poses which seem amusing to the modern eye. Indeed Vesalius’ “Skeleton contemplating a skull” (1543) pokes fun at the human condition and our obsession with our own mortality. Underneath the humour, however, Vesalius’ depictions display an anxiety over death, a difficulty in reconciling the sense that this still-human shape is incapable of controlling its own animation. The issue of representation was resolved in casting the skeletons in familiar roles, sitting at tables, resting their head in their hands, as deeply disturbed about the small gap between life and death as the living beings that assembled and recorded them. A similar feeling surely inspired Shakespeare to write the famous scene in Hamlet in 1599, in which his troubled protagonist recognises a skull of a man he once knew, raises it aloft and agonises

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

(As an additional note on the curious irony of death, the anniversary of Shakespeare’s purported birthday and death day occurred earlier last week, on April 23rd).

The role of the skull as a pictorial device, however, was really raised to new heights in the 17th century, during the Golden Age of Dutch Painting. During the 1500 and 1600s, Northern European artists, particularly in the Netherlands, sought to arrange and paint a range of possessions in a layout we now know by the name “Still Life.” Amongst an environment of growing affluence and urbanisation, however, the Still Life genre really took hold in the Netherlands. These images displayed the vast array of rich and exciting items the Netherland’s new trade routes had opened up, and were known as “Vanitas” paintings. Yet the image of the skull or dead animal, often included in images such as Maria Van Oosterwijck’s “Religious Still life”, 1668, or Jans Davidsz de Heem’s “Still Life with Lobster,” 1643, also indicated at the prospect of death- all things are temporary, everything has the potential to be stilled, not just in painting, but permanently. Indeed, Dutch Still life Paintings presented an interesting split. Floral depictions were particularly popular in Antwerp, Middleburg, and the Hague, and a tendency to depict the dinner table, or kitchenware, took off in Haarlem and Leiden. Perhaps most keenly felt in the depictions of flowers, however, the hollowed eyes of the skull next to the flora drew attention to their ephemerality, and, perhaps indirectly, the human presence of the painter, that went beyond the picture frame. Their painting would last whilst they would not. In the meantime, rich items provided a reasonable distraction- there were still enough flowers to fill your vases, and lobsters for your dinners.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, in the age of “Enlightenment” and experimentation, the skeleton again largely became a feature of the scientific arena. By the Victorian era, there was a notable movement to measure and classify skulls, drawing upon the ideas floated by Social Darwinism and the Eugenics movement. (The phrenologist George Combe, incidentally, was particularly shocked at the size of George Eliot’s skull- apparently 22 ¼ round inches was rather large for a woman.) Some believed the bigger the skull, the more intellectual the individual, whilst biological theories of criminality likened convicts’ skulls to primates. It was on such a principle that Degas’ “Little Dancer aged fourteen” (1878-1881) was based. A sculpture of a young girl with a flattened skull, Degas’ depicition drew on the unfortunate reality of the ballet- many backing ballerinas were in fact girls from struggling families known as “opera rats, who might be incited to a life of crime or into life in the sex trade in order to survive. Whether Degas’ depiction of his model- a real ballerina named Marie van Goethem- is sympathetic or not, is still a matter for debate.

Yet aside from being a resource for external observation, the skull also came to feature as a site of subjectivity and personal expression. In 1886, Vincent Van Gogh used the image of the skeleton to provide his own comment on the strictures of the Art Academy in Antwerp. As an Academician who was traditionally trained, a budding artist would constantly be expected to attend life classes, and to draw both living and dead human bodies. In classic speedy impasto style, Van Gogh vibrantly constructs an image of a skeleton complete with a jauntily placed cigarette. In some ways, the image recalls the Early Modern pieces, but with a very different sentiment behind it. This was open fun, drawing attention to the ridiculousness of those who sought to veil themselves in clothes of superiority that hid their true nature. Under it all, we are all merely bones.

It is a matter of personal opinion as to whether Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, “For the Love of God” was constructed in the same spirit in 2007. Whilst some lauded its brilliance, others found it tacky and tasteless. It was a particularly difficult sell, and though Damien Hirst said he had sold it at the original asking price of £50 million, it later emerged that the purchasing group included Hirst himself. He just about covered his costs, he later admitted, by encouraging an anonymous investment group to buy a third of the piece. Hirst is still criticised for being motivated by shock and sensationalism, rather than true artistic sentiment. A brand without a soul? A hollow head? It is up to those who look into the eyes of one his most famous works, perhaps.

Painting with, and even seeing human skulls is still something that feels unsettling for a lot of us. It is perhaps for this reason that Holbein obscured his skull from direct view in 1553. Yet there is so much we can learn from observing the skull. It reminds us to remain grounded, yet also encourages us to marvel at the complexity of our own creation. Drawing a skull, however, is a great way to learn about how to represent texture, tone, and perspective.

If you would like to have a go at drawing an animal skull, using pictures from the institution’s own collection, or if you would like to have a go at painting a still life complete with an animal skull, both resources will be available on our facebook and twitter pages.

Bethany Howell, Saturday Activities Coordinator