Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of John Wycliffe (c.1330-84) 

 English School 

Portrait of John Wycliffe (c.1330-84),  English School
Oil on Panel
16th Century
11 x 6 ¾ inches, 29 x 17 cmvvv
Harbin collection, at Newton Surmaville, Somerset; By descent to the late Mrs Sophia Rawlins.
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This small panel portrait depicts John Wycliffe, one of the first English theologians to challenge the supremacy of the Catholic Church. He is widely credited as the first translator of the Bible into English, and was known to Protestants in the sixteenth century as the ‘morning star of the Reformation’. This portrait would have been displayed in a Protestant household, probably as one of a series of ‘corridor portraits’ including other Reformation figures such as Martin Luther.

Wycliffe, a Yorkshireman, became celebrated for his attacks on the church and its wealth. He believed that the Church should not be the rich, pre-possessing body that it had become, and urged the seizure of all Church lands for redistribution. The same applied to the word of God, the Bible, which should be freely available to all in their own language, not simply the Latin of an educated elite. He was opposed, of course, by the clergy and monasteries, but wildly popular among the poor, and, when Pope Gregory XI attempted to excommunicate him, he even enjoyed the protection of senior nobles such as John of Gaunt, son of Edward III.

Wycliffe also called into question some of the Church’s most strongly held theological beliefs. He was among the first to challenge the doctrine of transubstantiation, which avowed that, during communion, the bread and wine are transformed, literally and physically, into the flesh and blood of Christ. They were, he argued, merely symbols, a view which was, in the fourteenth century, highly heretical, and in the sixteenth century became the cornerstone of Martin Luther’s reformed church. The extent to which Wycliffe was personally responsible for translating the Bible into English is not known, but he is credited with personally translating large parts of the New Testament, while the rest was completed by his followers.
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