by Mark Miles
Before you start to think Bella has somehow gotten lost and found her way under my house, don’t worry. She’s fine, apart from some minor digestive complaints she’s had lately. The dog to which the title of this article refers is another one entirely, one I only discovered recently due to unusual circumstances and close observation. But before I get to that, I have to do some explaining about a particular piece of art.
The piece in question is The Ambassadors, painted in 1533 by Hans Holbein the Younger. It’s a double portrait of two Frenchman, Jean de Tinteville and Georges de Selve, who visited the court of Henry VIII at the same time Holbein was making his second visit to London. The piece is widely considered to be the most ambitious of this phase in Holbein’s career, and it’s not hard to see why. The level of detail invested into every seam, fiber, and surface is astonishing. The garments of Jean de Tinteville, on the left, are enough to make a status-conscious individual in any era start salivating. Similarly the artifacts — which include a globe, a lute, and an astrolabe among other things — are testaments to the wealth of the two men portrayed and the skill of the artist who portrayed them.
But not long after looking at this painting, you’ll probably start to realize that something isn’t quite right. In fact it seems as if Holbein has made a gigantic goof — which looks like some sort of inartistic smear — and has had the ill luck to place it at the bottom center of the painting. “How could anyone with his level of skill and experience make such a catastrophic blunder?” — one might reasonably ask. The question, however, is immediately resolved when the viewer adopts a very awkward angle at the extreme top right or bottom left of the painting. When the viewer does this, something emerges out of the apparent blunder.
The meaning of the skull on the floor sitting in plain sight between two powerful men regaled by symbols of wealth and status is easy to infer. At the end of the day, no matter how much money is in your vault, no matter how many fur coats you have, no matter how many signifiers of wealth and power you possess, you too will ultimately die and leave it all behind. It’s a sobering message, and its presence in the painting assumes added significance when one considers the swathe of bloodshed left in the wake of Henry VIII, at whose court Holbein worked during his stay in London.
“Now how in the world does this relate to a dog in your floorboards?” — you might be asking at this moment. The answer will make more sense if I explain how I came to it. As it turns out, I was sitting on the couch in my living room one day in January, eating a snack before recorder practice, when I happened to glance toward my practice room, which is about fifteen feet from the couch’s position in the living room. Because I was at such a low angle and because there’s no wall between the two rooms at that point, the apparent texture of the wood floor in my practice room was dramatically skewed. It was so skewed in fact that I noticed something I’d never noticed in the ten years I’ve lived in this house. There, in the floorboards, staring back at me with lopsided ears and a silly grin, was the likeness of a dog.
It may be hard to believe, so I’ve included three photos of the wood floor in my practice room, starting with a perpendicular angle and moving to a more sharply acute angle with each frame. (Basically I went from shooting a photo while standing up to shooting a photo while lying on the floor.) The effect is startling.
How exactly this came about is beyond me. I would have to guess it was done by accident, though I suppose there’s a very small chance that the placement of the two boards which comprise the dog’s face was chosen specifically by the foreman who oversaw the installation of the floorboards as a kind of practical joke or Easter egg for anyone living in the house. Perhaps he was imitating Holbein, perhaps not. It’s impossible to say for sure. At the end of the day, nature must take the greatest share of credit for this portrait, which demonstrates more clearly than ever that the best way for us to gain a new appreciation of our surroundings is to adopt an unconventional angle from which to view them.
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