The Duke and the Face of Christ

We often think of military men as being stern, cold-blooded creatures, for indeed they often have to be in order to do their job. There are times when we allow them to express emotion, but generally speaking I would assert that most rational people do not want military commanders making touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy decisions in the field when they are defending our lands or our interests. In Britain, this deeply ingrained attitude with respect to military officers is part of the legendary British virtue of the “stiff upper lip”, still embodied in people like Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

There can be few more archetypal embodiments of this personality than Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington. His legendary aloofness is reflected in virtually every portrait of him, as well as in biographies written by his contemporaries. However every man, no matter how tough, has his softer side, and in the case of a particular painting which was presented to him by the King of Spain, the object may have served as a means for Wellington to express some instinct of personal piety, as I will describe below. Why that is I can only speculate, but before we get to this, we need a bit of art history; bear with me, gentle reader.

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One of the prize works of Wellington’s collection was a small painting of “The Agony in the Garden” by the great Renaissance painter Antonio da Correggio, painted circa 1524-1525. It represents the familiar scene from the Gospels in which Christ, on the evening before His Crucifixion, is comforted by an angel in the Garden of Gethsemane. There is an old legend that this small, devotional work was painted by Correggio for an apothecary to whom he owed money. However to my mind it seems more likely that, even if it was presented in payment of debt to his pharmacist, the work was more likely done as a personal project by the artist for his own prayer and meditation.

The painting is known to have come into the Spanish Royal Collections via purchase by Philip IV, who paid 700 doubloons [N.B. about $11,000 according to two calculations I ran] for the piece. The first official listing of it as being part of the collections of the Spanish Crown is dated 1666, the year after Philip’s death, when his widow and regent for the future Charles II, Queen Mariana de Austria, commissioned a catalogue of all the art in the keeping of the Crown. In the annals of art history this effort on the part of the last Habsburg rulers of Spain has proven to be of immense importance, for it tells us, among other things, what was hanging in the royal fortress of the Alcázar in Madrid before it burned in 1734.

The painting subsequently remained in the hands of the Kings of Spain until the time of the Bonapartes. Regular readers of these pages will know that I am no fan of Napoleon and his band of heathens, who among other atrocities destroyed the Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat, the most holy shrine dedicated to Our Lady in Catalonia for over 1000 years. During the Peninsular Wars in Spain, led by the Duke in order to unseat Joseph Bonaparte as the usurper of the Spanish Throne, Joseph crated up hundreds of works of art belonging to the Spanish Crown and shipped them back to France. Even to this day, some of these looted works remain in France or elsewhere, while others were eventually returned to Spain.

This particular piece was part of a cache of over 200 paintings captured by Wellington in 1813 when he defeated the French troops at the Battle of Vitoria, in the Basque Country. These works were in a carriage full of pieces which Joseph was attempting to take out of the country. The haul included works by Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, and many other great masters. The paintings remained in British hands as the Napoleonic Wars waged on.

In 1814 a catalogue of the captured works was prepared by William Seguier, a picture restorer and art expert (and later the first head of the National Gallery) to send to the Spanish Crown, as part of the effort to figure out what was missing from what palace or church, and where the piece had got to as a result of the Bonapartes’ machinations. This effort was coordinated by the Duke’s brother, Lord Maryborough, who in preparing the catalogue consulted with Benjamin West, a great painter himself and then President of the Royal Academy (back when being the President of the Royal Academy meant actually having good taste and an understanding of art.) Lord Maryborough wrote to the Duke in February 1814 with the catalogue and told him that, in West’s opinion, the Correggio and another Renaissance work “ought to be framed in diamonds, and that it was worth fighting the battle” just for these two pieces alone.

In 1816, after Ferdinand VII was restored to the Spanish throne, the Duke returned the pieces to the Spanish Crown. Not to be outdone, the King returned the paintings to the Duke, and decreed that this collection of captured art should be kept by the Duke as a gift from Spain in thanksgiving for the liberation of Spain from the Bonapartes. The painting, along with the rest of the works captured from Joseph Bonaparte, has remained at the Duke’s London residence, Apsley House, ever since.

The original painting was partially damaged on its right side by a fire, and a subsequent cleaning and restoration in 1949 removed what at the time restorers believed to be subsequent overpainting. Unfortunately, with hindsight it appears that the overpainting had been done by Correggio himself, and the over-cleaning has led to the figures of the Apostles becoming somewhat muddled and obscured. An early copy now at the National Gallery in London gives us something of a closer approximation of its earlier appearance, although the composition of the sleeping Apostles is somewhat different.

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Wellington kept “The Agony in the Garden” locked under glass, which was a common practice in many old collections, though this can sometimes encourage the growth of mold, and the trapping of dust. Apparently, the Duke would not allow his servants to touch or clean this painting, and only cleaned it himself. On one occasion his friend and private secretary for many years, Colonel John Gurwood, asked the Duke if he could have the key so that he could dust the painting for him, and the Duke replied, “No. I won’t.”

There are also reports that, late at night after everyone had gone to bed, Wellington would occasionally come into the gallery where the painting was displayed, slide back the glass cover, and look at the painting as he dusted it. In doing so, he was spied to be paying particular attention with his handkerchief to the face of Jesus. Admittedly, the Duke himself is not available for us to question about it.

Yet if the Gurwood report is true, and we have no reason to believe it is not, then why did the Duke love this painting so much? Was it purely because of the high value ascribed to it in the report given to him by his brother and Benjamin West? Perhaps, although it was certainly not the most valuable piece in his massive art collection. Was there some reason for his unusually delicate attachment to this work of art?

This is pure speculation on my part, but I wonder whether the ownership of this painting, given the Duke’s particular attachment to it, may have, even if indirectly, had a profound effect on the development of not only British, but Church history. Wellington served was Prime Minister twice, and during the first period he served, 1828-1830, he introduced and helped pass the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which granted (more or less) full civil rights to British citizens who were Catholics. This took place despite fierce opposition from within his own Conservative Party; indeed, he fought a duel with another Tory who accused him of plotting to bring down the country’s Protestant constitution.

The Duke was, of course, certainly no Catholic himself. His decision to push this bill had more to do with political agitation in Ireland than with any love for the Church. Indeed his speech on the second presentation of the Relief Act shows that there is no affection on his part for Catholicism, only a recognition that times have changed.

However, Wellington had been brought up in Ireland, and it is reasonable to assume that his interactions with the Irish people and his understanding of the place, in combination with his experiences in Spain, led, even if only slightly, to his adopting a comparatively more enlightened view of the Church than that manifest in the rampant anti-Catholicism of his day. At roughly the same time the Duke oversaw this development in the emancipation of Catholics, Blessed Henry Cardinal Newman and his friends began the Oxford Movement. And Catholics and Anglicans alike all know where that has led.

So again, I pose a question which we will probably never be able to answer: what did the Duke of Wellington see in this Biblical picture, painted by an Italian Catholic and given to him by His Most Catholic Majesty, the King of Spain? Was there some twinkling of the old Papist piety in his eye as he stared at the face of Christ? Did he meditate on Jesus’ sufferings as he wiped the face of the Lord delicately with his handkerchief?

Pure speculation and even fantasy on my part it may be, but it is interesting to think that this single work of art, among the hundreds and hundreds of paintings in Wellington’s collection, somehow stirred his soul and may have led, even if indirectly, to fostering the rebirth of Catholicism in England.

The Agony in the Garden by Correggio (c. 1524-1525)
Apsley House Collection, London

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