Battered Beauty: A Strange Picture Goes Under The Hammer

Coming up at the end of this month, Christie’s in New York will be auctioning an unusual painting which has been put up for sale by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The piece began life as a late Medieval altarpiece, was defaced to become a work of propaganda, and in its present state is one of those pictures which probably only a real art nerd could love. Yet the story behind its creator, its alteration, and the way it looks today provide some interesting food for thought.

The work in question, “The Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome and Louis”, is attributed to the great Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482), and was probably painted in 1472. It depicts the Madonna and Infant Jesus seated on a throne, surrounded by (L to R) Saints Thomas the Apostle, John the Baptist, Jerome, and Louis IX of France. The figures are placed inside an ornate Gothic gallery (look at that beautiful floor tile) which opens out onto a lush, inviting landscape. It is a large piece, roughly about four feet square, although not as gigantic as some other Flemish altarpieces of this period.

As you can see in the image accompanying this post, the picture was ruined at some point in the past. The result is that we can see some of the underdrawing for the figures that are now missing. When this piece was created, the artist or one of his assistants would have sketched out the design first, in order to have some precise visual guidelines to work by. This unusual detail, which normally is not visible to the naked eye, gives us some great insight into the methods of the man who created it.

Hugo van der Goes worked in what is today modern Belgium, and rarely left it, although his work was commissioned by and sent to collectors across Europe. Like his near contemporaries Jan van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden, his paintings have a jewel-like quality to them, both in the richness of his colors, and in his attention to the tiniest details. Although little is known about his personal life, we do know that in his 40’s he closed up his shop to become a brother at the Augustinian Abbey of Rouge-Cloître, outside of Brussels.

While van der Goes continued to paint and accept commissions even after joining the Augustinians, he was apparently troubled both by how much he had taken on, and by his perception that he was never going to be able to complete his work – at least, not to the level of excellence which he felt called upon to achieve. It may have been van der Goes’ perfectionism and scrupulosity which precipitated his retreating to the world of religious life, but eventually his psychosis developed into full-blown depression. He became convinced that he was a failure and going to be damned, and tried to kill himself in 1482, about ten years after this picture was painted. Although he survived the attempt, he eventually succumbed to his injuries, and died shortly thereafter.

Later in its history, van der Goes’ altarpiece was vandalized by an unknown individual. Whoever he was, he scraped off the image of the Madonna and Child, as well as the continuation of the background landscape which appeared behind them, and painted an interior scene of a church. He also scraped away the image of St. John the Baptist, and repainted him with an image of Elizabeth of York, the wife of England’s Henry VII and mother of Henry VIII. St. Jerome lost his cardinal’s hat and his lion companion, and was turned into an Anglican bishop, while the figure of a king, originally intended to represent St. Louis IX of France, could now be interpreted as Henry VII.

In effect, the altarpiece became a marriage portrait, celebrating the union of Henry VIII’s parents. The defeat of Richard III, and the union of the Tudors and the Yorks through marriage, had provided Henry VII with the basis which he needed to claim the English throne for himself. Years later, despite the iconoclasm brought about by Henry VIII, when countless works of art were destroyed, someone managed to save this piece from the bonfire.

From a historical standpoint, it would have made contextual sense if this piece had been repurposed at some point during the Tudor period. However, Christie’s maintains that the scraping down and repainting took place much later, in the 18th century. To me this seems rather strange, given that the piece had survived intact through the Reformation; by the Georgian period, English collectors were eagerly snapping up art masterpieces such as this for their collections. Barring some subsequent discovery, we may never know why this painting has suffered as it has.

A few years ago, The Met had the changes removed, and the entire painting cleaned and restored. While van der Goes’ missing paint could not be put back, the picture did regain its compositional and architectural symmetry. Previously hidden details reemerged: St. Jerome’s lion friend returned to his side, for example, and in the foreground two beautiful little still lifes were uncovered. We see a glass vase with colombines on the left, and a silver censor (an incense burner used at Mass) on the right.

While no longer in a pristine state, this beautiful ruin is still expected to fetch a high price. Christie’s estimates that it will sell for between $3-5 million, though I do wonder whether that is a bit high for an individual collector of Old Masters to swallow, merely for the sake of specialized artistic interest. Perhaps when it leaves one institutional collection, i.e. The Met, it will be acquired by another. We shall see what happens.

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.

dorset

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