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  • Johannes Scott


Johannes J Scott – March 2023

It is often said that one must have an eye for art to see such beauty. The proverbial rebuttal that 'your' aesthetic is not 'my' aesthetic perfectly underscores this misconception about beauty being in the eye of the beholder – that it is a score of preference orientated at some or other object one can buy, own, and consume as personal or private vanity.

Nothing could be further from the truth, neither for the ancients nor for spectators of modern art. Throughout the history of beauty, two pillars of convention provide us with coordinates for appreciating the sublime fantasy of art, namely, form and gaze. For understanding what is meant by these coordinates, this essay briefly visits the theatre and then the Renaissance painting titled The Ambassadors, by Holbein the Younger.

Established in antiquity, the theatre is one of the most established forms of art. For example, the beauty of tragedy has endured dramatic performances throughout the Renaissance to contemporary film making. To understand how this beauty can be experienced as sublime, as if touching the inner soul of public contemplation, a closer look at the convention of theatrical performance – the relation between audience and fiction – will suffice.

To enter this world of art, the audience agrees to an invisible contract formulated by theatrical convention, also known as the ‘Fourth Wall’ convention. It requires the spectator accepts not only an invisible wall of separation between auditorium and stage, reality and fiction, but also recognises theatrical transgression of this convention. For example, when the actor, such as in Brechtian theatre, briefly steps out of character and addresses the audience directly about the fiction – ensuring spectators maintain an emotional distance to the artifice of the character.

In other words, by agreement, the audience accepts to partake in a fantasy where real people, such as actors, members of the audience, theatre technicians and staff, producer and playwright, together with real objects, such as the furniture of the auditorium, the play brochure and stage set, all play their respective roles and functions in order to construct theatrical form. Only once this convention is in play can the experience of beauty, such as sublime drama, begin.

In ancient dramatic form such as Sophocles’ Antigone, it is the role of the chorus to ensure aesthetic distance between fiction and audience. At the climax of Antigone’s tragic conflict with the law, when her character spirals into an unbearable abyss beyond symbolic comprehension, the sublime mantra of the chorus intervenes on behalf of the traumatised, speechless audience – the voice of demand for social justice – and ‘magically’ transforms a doomed criminal character into that of heroine. Thus, beauty is coordinated from within the convention of theatrical form – the beauty of the sublime chorus brings the Athenian audience to contemplation about their judicial reality.

The Ambassadors by Holbein the Younger (photo credit: London National Gallery)

Painted during the ideological transformation from Middle Ages to Modernity and currently on view in the public collection of the London National Gallery, the Renaissance painting titled The Ambassadors literally exemplifies the role of aesthetic distance for symbolic beauty. It shows how the view of an awry angle can bring 16th century spectators to contemplate life – this, at a time of uncertainty when Europe was in an intellectual crisis regarding perceptions of reality. Moreover, the arts and religion were at ideological odds about subjectivity. Demand for religious art was in decline due to the Reformation; the art technique of perspective for visual representation inclined; and the inverted use of perspective, known as anamorphism, was discovered.

Hans the Younger Holbein painted The Ambassadors in 1533. It is a portrait of Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to London, and George de Selve, French ambassador to Venice. He painted it after moving to London on recommendation of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, a Humanist scholar of the northern Renaissance. Two decades earlier, Erasmus had commissioned Holbein to create illustrations for his book, Praise of Folly – a satirical attack on European society and the superstitious Latin Church. The publication, with the notion that blindness haunts wisdom, inspired the polymath Cornelius Agrippa to famously write On the Uncertainty and Vanity of the Arts and Sciences: An Invective Declaration – published three years before Holbein paints The Ambassadors.

Agrippa, who in the preceding years was sent by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian on a diplomatic mission from Flanders to London, focussed his De vanitate as literary attack on the arrogance with which philosophical and theological schools apply the quadrivium. The quadrivium is a set of four ancient arts inherited from Aristotle for medieval education, namely, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. Agrippa asserted that there is nothing more fatal to the social fabric than when science is distorted by superstition and impiety – that it is safer to know nothing and be ignorant.

During this time, Flemish painters established an art genre known as vanitas, Latin for vanity. This art is recognised by still life compositions showing symbols of the quadrivium as allegory. These are the terrestrial symbols of art and science Holbein places on a shelf in the centre of The Ambassadors, a sun dial, globe, book, musical instruments, and so forth. The two ambassadors, heavily fitted in emissarial attire, lean onto this shelf to support their immobile stance. In this setting, the painting signifies glory of power granted by the quadrivium.

From a frontal, distant perspective, the painting sustains the symbolic gaze that drives Renaissance desire for recognition of unity with the arts and sciences. This perspective lures the 16th century viewer to envy the prestige of the ambassadors and be fascinated by their world of knowledge. But inevitably, this symbolic gaze comes to a shattering fall when the spectator is lured too near and captured by the uncanny, nebulous thing Holbein painted in the foreground of the composition, below the shelf, positioned between the legs of the ambassadors. This slanted ‘shadow of nothing’ is a deceptive, amorphous surface that escapes symbolic recognition, trapping the viewer in an abyss of uncertainty.

With the symbolic gaze vacant, everything in the composition becomes suspicious. It is as if the painting now gazes back at the spectator, returning the viewer’s very own narcissist delusions and perverse vanity of self. For theoretical psychoanalysis, by metaphor, this is the moment when ethical distance is transgressed. When, not accepting that beauty is only skin deep, one moves nearer to the object of desire for closer inspection and finds, behind the artificial veil, the object cause of desire, namely, one’s own inept lack.

Adequacy is recouped once the viewer surrenders the gaze of the ego, steps back, and takes a detached, lateral glance back at the composition. This awry angle discloses the enigmatic shape as that of an anamorphic skull. With the symbolic gaze regained, the anamorphism reveals the sublime significance of the Renaissance painting – the futility of terrestrial objects in the face of mortality.

As shown here in drama and painting, beauty is an effect of imaginary coordinates, namely, the harmony of the chorus for theatrical form and the artifice of anamorphosis for the painted allegory. By symbolic trajectory, the spectator appreciates the effect as sublime fantasy. In other words, meaningless as it is, the signifier ‘beauty’ lurks within the aesthetic convention of pretence – a fascinating charade that, once illuminated by symbolic gaze, signifies aesthetic experience.


Bennett, Susan. 1997. Theatre Audiences. A theory of production and reception. London & New York: Routledge.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis 1964 (J-A. Miller, Ed. and Sheridan, Alan, Trans.) (1977). New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

Zizek, Slavoj. 1991. Looking awry: an introduction to Jacques Lacan through popular culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Zizek, Slavoj. 2006. How to Read Lacan. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Johannes Scott received the BA degree in English and Theory of Literature at UNISA in 2011; postgraduate studies in Theory of Drama (2013), Narratology (2014), Critical Theory (2015); and with specialisation in Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction and Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of aesthetics.


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