Poetry from Mark Murphy

Old fashioned painting of two men from Western history hundreds of years ago, in capes and furs. They are standing in front of a green drape and instruments including a globe, books, microscopes and musical instruments.
The Ambassadors Holbein

Mark A. Murphy

The Ambassadors

 I am the most melancholy, weary and wearisome ambassador 

in the world. — Jean de Dinteville, 1533

‘O wretched mortals,

open your eyes…’

So pleaded Leonardo,

one time for every day.



Of course, the verdant floral 


deserves another look,

dominating the backdrop. So we step

into Holbein’s puzzling

oil on oak,

painted in the old Flemish School style.

Not only a full length double portrait,

but a meticulously rendered

still life.

An anamorphic mystery,

and rendezvous with death, or memento mori.

A repository of secrets,

and morality tale

memorialising the two childhood friends

and diplomats,

Jean de Dinteville, on the left,

and Georges de Selve, (Bishop of Lavaur)

on the right, posed

amid the chaotic curios of the day,

showcasing two immaculately conceived globes:

One celestial, shows the mythological


where Cygnus the swan faces the viewer.

One terrestrial, shows Rome

at the geographical centre of the world.

On the higher shelf, we are witness

to a mare’s nest

of astrological and astronomical instruments,

intellectual/revival objet d’art


by the cylindrical shepherd’s dial, a quadrant,

a torquetum,

and a polyhedral sundial.

All devices, for the revelation

of time and cosmos, and still, we are not sure

of the time of day.

Then, on the shelf below,

worldly concerns: A mathematics book

open at the page on division,

one Lutheran Hymnal, one compass,

one set-square,

one lute with a snapped string

and five bundled flutes,

all clues to the pursuits of man. Lower still,

under the bottom shelf,

a discarded lute in full shadow

turned upside down, another signifier

of the earthly life.


Have we missed anything, Hans?

— Of course, we have

missed de Dinteville’s

golden ceremonial scabbard,

and gold medallion

featuring the Arch-angel, St Michael,

‘defender of the church,’ killing

the serpent with his spear.


In this arcane panel, heaven and earth vie

for our attention.

Even the Cosmati floor

tiled mosaic

with its geometric motifs and Star

of David, boasts

of its ancestry, placing

the two Renaissance men at the centre

of the cosmos.

Now de Selve’s gloves are off

in the battle

between the faiths. He looks suspiciously

at the painter, almost squinting to see

which way he might fall

in the antagonism between King, Emperor and the Holy See.


We might conclude, a religious man,

however defensive

in his long damask robe and cleric’s biretta

(like the closed book

he leans on

with his right elbow)

might well have more secrets than the French

Ambassador to England,

who dares us to guess his thoughts

in his salmon satin shirt,

and expensive silk gown lined with lynx fur;

his outfit for the coronation

of Ann Boleyn. Poor (devout) Catherine

of Aragon, ‘humble

and loyal,’ soon to be divorced.


What else will we remember of this

Good Friday portrayal

of two young noblemen, landlord

and churchman,

the last entreaty before the great schism

with Rome

putting a brave face on it?


At last, in the top left corner of the painting,

we find the last piece

of the puzzle

half concealed

by the closeted green curtain —

the crucified Christ,

God’s gift

to man, awaiting

all believers

in the one true faith, despite the April freeze.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *