What Lies Beneath: Hidden Paintings and Tudor Portraits

If you will be in London between now and June 2nd, make sure you take time to drop by the National Portrait Gallery for a small but fascinating new exhibition, entitled Hidden: Unseen Paintings Beneath Tudor Portraits.  In preparation for a separate exhibition, experts at the National Portrait Gallery have identified that at least two paintings from the  16th-17th centuries in their collection were painted on top of Catholic devotional works.  The underlying, original images were revealed using modern investigative methods including x-rays and infrared reflectography.

It is not entirely unusual to have a new work of art created from an old one, for various reasons, and examples are known from the ancient world through to today.  Thus,  if a pharaoh fell out of favor in Ancient Egypt after his death, sculptures or paintings of him might be recarved or repainted to reflect a subsequent ruler.  In other cases, the artist may not have had access to all of the materials he needed, and so had to re-use what he had available; we know that Van Gogh often had to do this, for example.

While there is no consensus in this exhibition as to why these particular works were used as a base for new paintings, I would venture it is a reasonable certainty that this was partially brought about as a result of the iconoclasm that took hold under Henry VIII and his illegitimate progeny.  Beginning with the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry instigated a period of systematic destruction of the cultural and artistic patrimony of England that continued under his successors.  Anyone interested in learning more should read Cambridge professor Eamon Duffy’s authoritative The Stripping of the Altars, to try to grasp at least to some extent what was lost.

One of the works in this show is a portrait of the 1st Earl of Dorset, which was painted over a copy of Sebastiano del Piombo’s “Flagellation of Christ” – which itself was based on designs by Michelangelo. Another portrait, that of Sir Francis Walsingham, who was employed by Elizabeth I to capture, torture, and execute Catholics, is in a terrible irony of history painted over an image of the  Madonna and Child.  It should be pointed out that neither of these paintings are recoverable, at least with the technology presently available to us, because they were partially destroyed in order to create an even ground for the new painting to be painted on top.

Given that these portraits were painted about twenty years apart, it begs the very fascinating question: what else is out there to be discovered?  For surely now there is going to be a great interest among museums and collections which hold portraits dating from the Tudor period to have them analyzed in order to discover whether a devotional work lies beneath.  Perhaps there might even be a great artistic discovery in the making, of a work long thought to be lost.  It may be that, in reality, it has been hanging in plain sight all this time, in some castle or public gallery, under a thin veil of paint and varnish.


Portrait of Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset by Unknown Artist (1601)
Current state (l) and x-ray showing “The Flagellation of Christ” (r)
National Portrait Gallery, London

A Strange Trip: From the Coffin to the Bookshelf

Last evening while watching BBC World News I caught a report on the 1,300 year-old St. Cuthbert Gospel, which recently became the property of the British Library in London.  The story of how the earliest, completely preserved European book came into the collection of the Library is an extremely interesting one, as you shall see.  However it is also a rather sad, contemporary example of how many of the Christian art objects we enjoy in museums today have lost their original, intended purpose.

Last summer the British Library began a campaign to purchase the book known as the “St. Cuthbert Gospel” from the Jesuits at Stonyhurst College in England, who have owned it since the 18th century; the book is a beautifully handwritten, simple manuscript of the Gospel of St. John in the New Testament dating from the 7th century.  The Library announced yesterday that, with the assistance of Christie’s auctioneers and other experts on valuation, since the book was not actually on the open market, they had finally raised the agreed-upon $14.7 million price tag for the volume, through a combination of public grants and private contributions. The Library has been in possession of the book since the late 1970’s, when it was loaned by the Jesuits for exhibition and study.

St. Cuthbert (c. 634-687) is one of the most revered of the early English saints. He was born in the Kingdom of Northumbria, in the north of present-day England, and discerned a religious vocation after spending part of his youth as a shepherd and then as a soldier. He subsequently became a monk, and was eventually ordained the Bishop of Lindisfarne, one of the most important centers of Christianity in Britain during this period.

The process for canonization of saints as we understand it today had not been fully formalized at the time of St. Cuthbert’s death, but according to St. Bede, the great chronicler of the early Church in Britain – whose superb “An Ecclesiastical History of the English People” is a must-have for any serious student of history – when several miracles were attributed to St. Cuthbert’s intercession and his coffin was opened, his body was found to be incorrupt. This led to his popularly being declared a saint, and he was re-buried in a beautifully decorated coffin in about 698 A.D., behind the main altar at his cathedral in Lindisfarne. The Gospel copy which is now the property of the British Museum was a gift from a neighboring monastery, which created and donated it to be buried with St. Cuthbert when he was re-interred.

From there the travels of this book, and indeed St. Cuthbert himself, become exceedingly strange. The coffin had to be moved multiple times due to invasions by the Vikings, until in the 10th century it finally came to rest at Durham Cathedral. During construction of a shrine to house the saint’s remains, his coffin was opened and this volume was re-discovered. It was then removed from the coffin, and kept in the cathedral priory for select visitors to examine and use as an aid to prayer; it remained there for the next 500 years.

When Henry VIII decided that he was not disgusting enough already, and decided to destroy the monastic communities in Britain so he could take their wealth and possessions for himself and his cronies, many books such as this were lost. Fortunately, someone managed to preserve this little volume from destruction, and it eventually came into the possession of the Earls of Lichfield.  The 3rd Earl, in turn, presented it in the middle of the 18th century to the Reverend Thomas Phillips who, in most of the news articles I have read in researching this story, list him as a “Canon”, meaning a priest attached to a cathedral.

However it turns out that Thomas Phillips was not a Protestant dressing up and playing Catholic in property stolen from Rome, but rather the real thing: a Catholic priest. He was private chaplain to the recusant Berkeley family, who were instrumental in getting the remaining English Catholic nobility and gentry together to petition King George III for his support of the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. This Act was the first, small step toward the emancipation of Catholics following the Reformation, who up until the passage of this Act could be prosecuted, for example, for being or housing a Catholic priest, or teaching the Catholic faith in a school. Catholics were forbidden from buying or selling land, and they could in fact lose their property if a Protestant relative wished to take possession of it. Of course, legally enshrined prejudice against Catholics is still in fact part of English law today, but we will save that for another post.

For his part Father Phillips was the first English biographer of Reginald Cardinal Pole (1500-1588), the last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, and published a two-volume study of this rather interesting prelate at Oxford in 1767. As an aside, Cardinal Pole was perhaps not always a saintly bishop, but he and I share a mutual dislike for Machiavelli and a preference for Count Castiglione, who is of course the patron of this blog. Cardinal Pole once described Machiavelli’s “The Prince” thusly: “I found this type of book to be written by an enemy of the human race. It explains every means whereby religion, justice and any inclination toward virtue could be destroyed”.

In 1769, Father Phillips presented the St. Cuthbert Gospel as a gift to the English Jesuit College in Liège, Belgium, where many of the English Jesuits who had been killed by Elizabeth I received their education. It then traveled back across the Channel, after the Jesuits were suppressed in Catholic Belgium and, ironically, found refuge in Protestant England in 1794. The book had remained at their school, Stonyhurst College, until it went on loan to the British Library, which now owns the well-traveled and ancient volume.

As interesting as all of this history is, I cannot help but think it a shame that this book is not still resting with the relics of St. Cuthbert. Of course it was not a book which he personally owned, since it was created several years after his death. Yet it was a mark of love, gratitude, and respect from his fellow monks, in recognition of how much he had done for them, and indeed for all early Christians in the north of England.

It also demonstrates yet again something which I have talked about periodically in these pages over the years. As much as I love things like beautifully made, historic paintings, statues, illuminated books, and other Catholic religious objects, there is something very tragic about seeing said objects in secular hands. I am of course not naive on this point: no doubt they are being better cared for than they would be if they were kept in regular use, or if they were simply gathering dust in some ancient and leaky church.

However when these things stop being ways of giving glory to God, and become little more than pretty baubles to be looked at, or remains like fossils or pottery shards to be studied scientifically, there is a type of sadness that arises for those of us who not only appreciate these things aesthetically, but also as spiritual expressions of the Catholic Faith made tangible. They were created by Catholic artisans for Catholic communities, but have been removed from the practice of the Faith, never to return.  I cannot walk into the National Gallery for example, and kneel down in front of the tranquil, meditative, and magnificent 15th century Perugino altarpiece of the Crucifixion to pray and reflect on Christ’s suffering. Well, I suppose I could, but then I would probably be chased away or arrested.

In the end it is certainly a good thing that more people will be able to study this remarkable book – which by the way has been digitized and will be available to examine online – and that it will be preserved for future generations.  However in isolation from its context, i.e. the shrine of a great Catholic saint, it loses some of its impact.  It is no longer an ex-voto, as it was originally intended to be, but an ex-ex-voto.  And for those of us who are aware of this fact, we cannot help but be a bit disappointed that it is not remaining in at least some kind of a Catholic setting.

Beginning of the Gospel of St. John from the St. Cuthbert Gospel (c. 698 A.D.)
British Library, London

Katharine of Aragon: Give The Lady Her Due

Last evening while watching a few episodes of the old HBO juggernaut “The Tudors”  – the at-times laughably anachronistic television series about Henry VIII and his court – I could not help but think about one of my favorite hopeless causes: namely, the question of whether Katharine of Aragon should be considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church.  The series itself gives her a reasonably fair shake, compared to some film treatments I have seen.  Yet the issue of whether she ought to be put forward for investigation by the Church is something that still seems to be lacking in proper quarters to give the lady her due.  Whether or not she is, in fact, a saint, I think she is at least worth consideration.

With respect to the television serial itself, certainly there are some good elements to the series, purely as a visual matter.  The costumes are beautifully rendered, for example, not cheap stuff.  As someone who dressed up as Philip of Spain for Halloween a couple of years ago, trying my best to base everything chosen on a couple of paintings of the Spanish monarch, I can appreciate the attention to detail with the proper choice of materials, chains of office, and so on.  Moreover, not all of the acting is of the scenery-chewing variety, though there are some eye-rollingly bad performances.

Yet for whatever reason, as is usually the case in any film dealing with Henry VIII which I have ever seen – with the exception of “A Man for All Seasons” and perhaps one or two others – the man gets off too lightly in the hands of the filmmakers.  It is admittedly difficult to make a long dramatic piece centered around an evil man, for clearly Henry became one whatever he may have been at the start of his reign, and not risk losing your audience altogether.  Great writers can do it, as Shakespeare could do in “Richard III”, and great television series can occasionally achieve it, such as in the “House of Cards” series with the wonderfully infernal Sir Francis Urquhart.  Yet Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, engaging as he is in other work of his I have seen, does not quite have the gravitas to be believable as this particular Tudor monarch: he looks like a gigolo and he acts like one.

Coming back to the point however, of Queen Katharine, she was treated very badly not only by her husband, but also, to be frank, by the Church, the State, and her own family.  Some years ago I had read historian Garrett Mattingly’s moving biography of her, which drew particularly on surviving correspondence.  She never wavered in knowing who she was, as a Catholic, a wife, and a monarch who had made vows to God, her husband, and to the English people whom she was to aid her husband in governing, that she would fulfill her vows no matter what the cost to her personally.

Her last letter to Henry, written the day she died 476 years ago this week, is brief, but poignant. It gives us a glimpse of how Katharine saw her relationship to him, as the spurned wife, as a mother, and as the head of a small household. Yet it also shows us someone who realized that she had to make one last appeal to him to save his immortal soul and repent of what he had done, even if it was too late for the two of them, and even though she was still deeply in love with her husband:

My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

Katharine the Quene,
January 7, 1536

Before you think that a letter such as this could move a heart of stone, and at least cause some level of regret or reflection, even if not full repentance, you should know that contemporary reports are that Henry greeted the news of Katharine’s death with rejoicing.

I hope my readers will forgive the apparent crudity of the following statement, but the truth is that Henry did not have the cojones, as one says in Spain, to produce viable male offspring with Katharine, a fact which of course he blamed her for. His subsequent poor track record on that score – which ultimately led to to the deaths of tens of thousands of people – with his subsequent wives, when viewed purely from a plumbing perspective, would seem to indicate that he was the cause of the problem, as was rumored increasingly at court as he went from one young and otherwise healthy wife to another. Nor did Henry have the cojones to execute Katharine herself, either, for fear that it would cause either a popular uprising against him by the common people who loved her dearly, or to an invasion by her nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain Charles V.

As to why Katharine herself has not been considered for sainthood, there is in fact some movement underway, at last, to have the Church consider the matter.  I have seen comments to the effect that women who have been married and had children cannot be canonized, which is an ignorant statement.  St. Isabel of Portugal, St. Margaret of Scotland, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Bridget of Sweden, St. Rita of Cascia, St. Monica, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and St. Jane Frances de Chantal, to name a few, were all married women – some of whom were queens of their respective countries – who bore children and later went on to become canonized saints.

I have also seen comments that the ecumenical dialogue which the Catholic Church has attempted to broker with the Anglicans in recent years means that politically the question is too much of a hot potato, and there may be some truth to that. However given that there are now many martyrs under Henry and Elizabeth who have been canonized by the Church, it can hardly be said that Rome is seeking to defer to the wishes of Canterbury for the sake of appearances any longer.  If the Pope did not consult with Rowan Williams before establishing the Anglican Ordinariate for Anglicans wishing to come back into communion with Rome, and which celebrates its one-year anniversary this weekend, then I see no reason why he should consult with him before investigating the cause of Katharine of Aragon.

The real problem is that there needs to be a build-up at the local level of interest in and consideration of Katharine, if she is ever to be properly considered by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  It is fine if people in America or Spain want to talk about her for example, and promote her cause, but if the real base for that effort does not come from English Catholics, then chances are it will never happen.  And this is unfortunate, because we should consider what a great patroness she would be, if she is indeed in Heaven, for wives and mothers abandoned by their husbands, or who have their children taken away from them.

While Katharine’s candidacy for sainthood may be a lost cause, it is one that on a personal level I will continue to advocate.  As a Catholic, as an Anglo- Catalan, and as a gentleman, the way she was treated still makes my blood boil at the injustice and indignity she suffered, nearly half a millenia after all of it occurred.  And even if we cannot have a St. Katharine of Aragon, would that someone in Hollywood would make a film of her life, drawn from her perspective, rather than continuing to be fascinated by her disgusting reprobate of a husband.

Portrait of Katharine of Aragon by Michael Sittow (1502)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna