By Max Clarke

The iconic National Gallery painting The Ambassadors (Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533) is one of the stars of the new Google Art Project, which will enable people to discover and view more than 1,000 artworks online in extraordinary detail.

The Project, which was launched today, is the result of a unique 18-month collaboration with 17 of the world’s most acclaimed art galleries and museums, including London's National Gallery and the Tate Britain.

The project involved selecting one famous artwork per institution to capture in super high resolution — The Ambassadors for the National Gallery, London — as well as collating thousands of other images into one place. It also included building 360-degree tours of individual galleries using Street View ‘indoor’ technology.

With this unique project, anyone anywhere in the world will be able to learn about the history and artists behind a huge number of works, at the click of a mouse.

The National Gallery worked in collaboration with Google, providing expertise and guidance at every step of the project: from selecting the incredibly detailed work The Ambassadors as the best painting to feature, to providing expert information to accompany the artwork.

The Ambassadors was photographed in extraordinary detail using super high resolution or ‘gigapixel’ photo-capturing technology. Each such image contains around 7 billion pixels, enabling the viewer to study details of the brushwork beyond that possible with the naked eye. Hard-to-see details suddenly become clear — such as the names of the individual countries, even cities, on the globe featured in the centre of the painting.

National Gallery Director, Dr Nicholas Penny, said: ‘The Google Art Project has enabled museums to showcase some of their greatest and most iconic works of art using Google’s Street View technology. In addition, Holbein’s Ambassadors, one of the best-known paintings from the National Gallery in London, has been singled out from the collection to be viewed in extraordinarily high resolution. Viewers will see details — such as the globe —- and explore the painting in a way that hasn’t been possible before. The Google Art Project is a powerful example of how digital technology can help art institutions work in partnership to reach out globally, to new audiences, and enable works of art to be explored in depth and with stunning clarity.’

The men depicted in The Ambassadors are, on the left, Jean de Dinteville, French ambassador to England and, on the right, Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur, who acted on several occasions as ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See. There are many objects in the painting that tell us about them, and the picture is in a tradition showing learned men with books and instruments. The objects on the upper shelf include a celestial globe, a portable sundial and various other instruments used for understanding the heavens and measuring time. Among the objects on the lower shelf is a lute; a case of flutes; an open hymn book showing Martin Luther's translation of the hymn ‘Come Holy Ghost’ (seemingly referring to the Reformation, the great religious change that was then sweeping Europe); a book of arithmetic; and a terrestrial globe, turned to show France, and in the centre, the town of Polisy, where Dinteville’s chateau was located.

A crucifix hangs at the upper left of the painting, and a small skull adorns Dinteville’s hat. Each is a memento mori, a reminder of mortality and the fleeting nature of life. So too is the distorted image of the skull in the foreground. The lute's broken string is another reminder of the transitory nature of life: death can come at any time to everyone, no matter how elevated their standing and learning.

Nelson Mattos, VP Engineering, Google, said: ‘The last 20 years have transformed and democratised the world of art — with better access to museums in many countries and a proliferation of public artworks. We’re delighted to have been able to collaborate with leading art museums around the world to create this state-of-the-art technology. We hope it will inspire ever more people, wherever they live, to access and explore art — in new and amazing levels of detail.’