Friday, September 30, 2016

The Regal Hand or a Bloodied Fist? The Tudors...

Henry VIII - Hans Holbein the Younger - 1540-50
Last year I went along to see the exhibition on the Tudors at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris. This was largely out of frustration because I hadn't been able to watch all the episodes of Wolf Hall and wanted to get a little more insight into this period of history.

The exhibition was interesting, but in hindsight, I wish that I had known then as much as I do now. Since the visit, I've been having a bit of a Tudor-fest!

Henry VIII - as above...
I also regretted not knowing how to use my camera correctly; most photos were spoilt by milky light reflections blotting out expanses of the image. As a result, I decided to concentrate on details of the paintings exhibited... This turned out to be quite revealing, I thought.

Predictably, Henry VIII is presented with sizeable regal paws, gripping onto all and any of the glorious trappings to which he believed he had a divine right as God's representative as King of England. Of grand stature, Henry struck an imposing figure and would use all the means at hand to strike anything or anyone who stood in his way. His regard is unflinching as head of the Tudor dynasty, having succeeded from his father, Henry VII. Sure of his position and power, he stares out at us, some 500 years on, with a certain air of defiance and belligerence. The same could not be said of Henry VII...

Henry VII - 1505
Having 'picked up' the crown in the Battle of Bosworth (1485), from his predecessor Richard III, Henry Tudor became monarch. In so doing, he ended the War of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster. However, Henry knew that his legitimacy would be questioned and his reign threatened by pretendants. Here, his tenuous grip on the English throne seems to be reflected in his very hands, which nervously 'worry' at the inscription below his portrait as he holds the Tudor rose - with the red of the Lancasters and the white of the Yorks. By the time his son, Henry VIII, came to power, the Tudor stronghold was manifest everywhere. When Edward succeeded Henry VIII in 1547, his youth is apparent in his pale, boyish hands -  after all, he was only 9 years old when crowned! However, he has already adopted the swagger and self-assurance of his father.

Edward VI - Master John - 1547
The Tudor reign saw five successive monarchs at the head of the country over 100 years, ending with the demise of Elizabeth 1, in 1603, without a legitimate heir. The Tudor years not only marked a sea change in England's religious, political, economic and social structures and systems, they also heralded a new era in culture.

Anne Boleyn 
Under Henry VII, the first signs of the influence of the Renaissance began to show. Gradually, the Gothic forms of the Middle Ages gave way to Classical elements. Portraiture developed as new social classes became wealthy and wished to reflect their status, prestige and power in pictoral form. Over the Tudor years, the portrait lost its identity as being the preserve of royalty and nobility. Until this 'democratisation' of the medium, the portrait miniature largely played an important role in marking and maintaining dipomatic relations in Europe. Acting as a form of business card, the portrait generally offered a rather idealized form of the sitter. Physical likeness was deemed less important and perhaps less advantageous to the cause than the opulent display of wealth and authority. Typical early Tudor portraiture offered a means to mask the imperfections of a graceless face, but not without its own perils...

Robert Dudley -  Elizabeth's  faithful friend and supposed suitor - cerca 1564
Above is a detail of a portrait of Queen Elizabeth's life-long friend - Robert Dudley 1st Earl of Leicester. The adoring dog by his side is surely a symbol of its owner's devotion to the Queen, and you can ony wonder what object or message Dudley is trying to conceal in the black purse... This is in contrast to the striking portrait of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's much-maligned mother, executed under Henry's orders. Here, the gaze is fixed and direct, but the message is difficult to read and conveys little.

Anne of Cleves - Hans Holbein - 
Sometimes, the flattering aesthetic of a portrait could lead to disastrous consequences; the beauty painted sometimes bore little or no ressemblance to reality. Such was the case with the image of Henry VIII's unfortunate fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, by Hans Holbein the Younger. When confronted with his flesh-and-blood bride, Henry balked and sought to annul the marriage immediately. And yet, on the portrait, her hands seem to portray the person; honest, modest and unassuming.

Anne of Cleves - Hans Holbein the Younger - 1539
Fortunately, the artist was not punished for the misrepresentation of the Queen Consort, unlike Thomas Cromwell, the chief royal minister, who paid heavily for having orchestrated the mismatch. It was, after all, Hans Holbein who did so much to trigger the transformation in English portraiture in the 16th century. Leaving his home town of Basel, Holbein became King's Painter in 1536 where the exactitude of the linework and economy of detail led to work of curious intricacy and depth. Furthermore, the interpretation of the individual went beyond being a mere presentation of physical appearance; the character shines through, across the centuries, in a strangely familiar manner. This curious, enigmatic proximity is nowhere more apparent than in Holbein's drawings. One of his most famous paintings The Ambassadors (1533) shows Holbein's reliance on cryptic objects to convey a message.

The Ambassadors - 1533
The two men both stare out with an oblique regard, their overall stance seems nonchalant. Between them is a meticulously painted still life, composed of an array of symbols for the celestial, the terrestial and death itself with an anamorph skull in the foreground. The richly-dressed French ambassador rests his arm with self-assurance, his left hand is limp and relaxed, whilst the other loosely holds a spyglass. The meaning is not clear, but the growing importance attached to observation, inquiry and calculation over the Renaissance years is reflected.

Wife number six: Catherine Parr - 1545
Henry's sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr, does not seem to radiate assurance and ease in the full-length painting by Master John (1545). The symbolic objects acting as memento mori ("Remember that you have to die") have been stripped away, but Catherine's spider-like hands seem to be the nervous focus of the work - framed by the brocade and fur that you almost want to touch. Perhaps she knew that her position as Queen was tenuous, and her grasp on life itself was threatened by Henry's growing suspicions that Catherine's interest in Evangelical Protestantism smelt of heresy. She certainly had full knowledge of the fate reserved to anyone who seemed to question the king's ideas, test the extent of his power or mock his manhood. His frivolous, flighty fifth wife, Catherine Howard, had been sent to the Tower of London for treason and was beheaded for her presumed adulterous acts. Catherine Parrs theological interests seemed to flout Henry's position as Supreme Head of the Church of England and it required her clever mind to outwit Henry's paranoid one and to enable her to keep her head when interrogated - quite literally!

Henry had instigated the tumultous break with the Roman Catholic Church in order to override papal authority and thus enforce the supremacy of the English Crown; himself. All of this was a means to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon that had borne no male heir to the throne and to free him to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. In order to get his 'hands on the girl' in holy matrimony, Henry had created the Ecclesia Anglicana - The Church of England - and in so doing had set in motion a set of events that would have wide-spread and long-lasting repercussions, and not just for England. In the wake of this turmoil came the supposedly legitimate dissolution of the monasteries and the seizure of their assets, entailing extensive land-grabs under the jurisdiction of the Crown, and the mass destruction of ecclesiastic art and architecture of great beauty. Henry's hands shaped England on every level, and were certainly dirty and bloodied. His increasingly irascible, tyrannical nature led to the death and torture of many of those nearest to him, along with anyone guilty of treason or heresy, interchangeble crimes of lèse-majesté. Suspicion, secrecy, fear and furtiveness were rife and the attendant blood-letting found little respite over the Tudor years as each successive monarch left their mark, and sought to impose their interpretation of English faith. Bloody Mary duly merited her name, yet even the subsequent decades after her demise seemed to be seeped in blood, in spite of the finery and flamboyance of the Golden Age.

 Coronation of Elizabeth I -  Copy of lost original cerca 1559
When Henry's second daughter, Elizabeth I, ascended to the throne, England was already entering an era of unparalleled power and began to occupy a unique position in Europe. Just as the newly-founded Protestant country turned away from the Catholic Continent, it also shunned the broad Classical lines of the Renaissance in favour of its own ecclectic English take on the movement. Leading Renaissance minds, such as Holbein had come across from Europe, leaving their influence on a portrait style that had developed from the illuminated manuscript tradition. Whilst striking realism would be used to portray certain aspects of the painting, the overall effect meant that the viewer would read the abstract image like a book rather than a realistic view of the sitter. Whereas the representation of the individual's face could appear rather vague or flat, this was in stark contrast to the sumptious clothing, jewellery and material props that were all lavishly painted in rich detail. The English Renaissance portraitist par excellence was Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), a goldsmith and limner who painted many portraits of Elizabeth, in a style that appeared conservative compared to European norms, but fully catered to the Tudor taste for concealment and the symbolic.

Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, was betrothed to her country alone, mother to her subjects, and as holy matriarch led England into new, unchartered, virgin terrirory. The regal image reflects this, with symbols of virginal purity and power - gold, pearls and moons.

Rubies and pearls...
Yet Elizabeth was also to be Empress of the Seas, head of a growing empire that believed its reach was as boundless as the horizon. Exploration of the New World and the defeat of the Spanish Armada ensured that Elizabeth would be remembered as Gloriana. It is hardly surprising that images abound of Empire. crowns, globes, swords and the like.

Elizabeth's orb and ermine...
Nicholas Hilliard painted some of the most famous portraits of Elizabeth and his Phoenix Portrait shows his unique style with its symbols and rich detail contrasting that strange mask-like face, accentuated by its pallor that comes from the deterioration of pigment.

The Phoenix Portrait - Nicholas Hilliard - 1575
The colouration of Elizabeth's face may have faded over the years, but she herself seems ageless. Already in her forties, she is shown by Hilliard as majestic and flawless, even if rather haughty. The queen wears a pendant of a phoenix, emblematic figure of Christ, and symbol of resurrection. Like the creature rising out of the ashes, royalty never dies and the rose which Elizabeth gently holds between her elegantly tapered fingers refers back to her lineage. Unbeknownst to Elizabeth, of course, was the fact that her death in 1603, would mark the end of the Tudor dynasty; neither would be eternal.

Phoenix pendant....
The Darnley Portrait (1575), thought to have been painted by the Italian Federico Zuccari, presents Elizabeth in a similar, age-defying manner. Unlike the Hilliard work, however, a certain investment in depth and perspective is apparent. In the background, the symbols of sovereignty are visible with the crown and scepter, but our attention is drawn to the sovereign herself.

The Darnley Portrait - 1575 - Zuccari 
The Queen stares directly at us, with her dark eyes and steely gaze set in a rather more rounded face, framed by frizzy hair that appears more life-like than Hilliard's 'fleece'. Despite the greater realism of flesh and bodily form, Zuccari's portrayal of the royal hands let the show down - these puppet hands half-heartedly hold onto the beautiful feathered fan! There was nothing half-hearted in Elizabeth's reign over England but had she acknowledged her powerlessness over her human mortality, and been less time-defiant she might have been more willing to chose a successor in her final years.

With Elizabeth, died an era punctuated by plots, political intrigue, personality cults, paranoia, persecution, adultery, blind allegiance, illicit alliances, lust, liaisons dangereuses, marital disarray, murder, megalomania, mass destruction, treason, tyranny, treachery, cheating and torture - most of which arose around one man's supposed religious convictions and his need to have the upper hand.

Armada Portrait - George Gower - 1588
I just wish that Henry VIII had not marked his territory and time like some rabid, mad dog, destroying so much art in his rage. Perhaps the dramatic jousting accidents of his younger years had indeed resulted in some form of lasting damage to the frontal cortex of his brain. His whole personality and behaviour were affected, and his state of mind and general health were worsened by the sores and ulcers that plagued him to the very end of his life. His mood swings and unpredictable acts grew in size and frequency, just as his stature and girth took on gargantuan proportions. Henry's friend, the humanist Thomas More, remarked that living in proximity with the king was "like having fun with tamed lions. Often he roars for no reason, and suddenly the fun becomes fatal". How true those words proved to be - Henry had More executed in 1535.

Ditchley Portrait - Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger - 1592
Nevertheless, the Tudor era was far more than that. For the first time, women actively came to the fore in sovereignty, and whilst Catherine Parr carefully admitted to Henry that "Women by their first creation were made subject to men", she knew this state of submission would not last. It was the Henry's own daughters who would prove this, and no one more than Elizabeth I.

Robert Devereux (?) and my not-very-regal hands!

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