Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Allegory of King Henry VIII's Rejection of Papal Authority. 1540c.

 Anglo-Italian School 

Allegory of King Henry VIII's Rejection of Papal Authority.,  Anglo-Italian School
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Red chalk and red ink on paper
16th Century
5 x 13 inches 139 x 341mm
 
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This drawing depicts Henry VIII standing beside a company of six courtiers, behind whom other figures are vaguely suggested. A second group of two, of whom only the figure of a cardinal with biretta and tassled hat can be discerned is clearly intended to represent the Roman Catholic Church. The implication of this grouping is clear: the drawing, as a record of a composition of the later 1530s, represents an example of the visual propaganda that was to become such a forceful tool of the Henrician and Edwardian Reformation. It depicts in allegory what was at that very time a continuing and turbulent process throughout England and is an explicit statement of Royal intention. It is perhaps the first documented visual work in England to depict the question of the Reformation and beyond question the earliest known composition in which the King himself appears as an agent of that reform.

A first impulse might be to date the drawing to a point within the reign of Henry himself (1509-1547), but the technique of the drawing suggests execution from the later sixteenth to the early seventeenth century. Simon Thurley has drawn an interesting comparison with a similarly documentary drawing in the keeping of the British Museum which shows the King dining, attended by his Court and Gentleman of the Chamber, within an unidentified palace interior. This too dates from around the later sixteenth century and shows marked continental influence in the elegant posing of its figures. It seems to represent a desire in common with our drawing to record certain aspects or themes of the Henrician Court. There are compelling reasons to place the composition of which our drawing is a record to within the King's lifetime.

The composition arranges the figures in the manner of a decorative frieze, and the rhythmic interrelation of the courtiers to one another, an interchange of pose and glance, both animates and unifies the whole. The great gulf between King Henry and the cardinal would imply that a group of nearly equal size was intended for the right-hand side of the composition. Whether this group was completed cannot be known, as the man to the right of the cardinal has been drawn -apparently in the same hand- on an added width of paper. If the composition is unified, the figures have in some instances been drawn from separate sources. The figure of Henry is plainly borrowed -like most images of the King at most dates since 1537- from the famous Holbein full-length portrait in the Whitehall mural King Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, King Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. The man standing third from the left with the cursorily drawn Garter chain and George may be intended to represent the Duke of Norfolk and so derive from that peer''s contemporary portrait.

Perhaps it is most interesting, however, to note the Italian influences visible in the drawing. Both the figures of the Cardinal and the book-reading courtier with his back turned exhibit marked contrapposto. The latter figure is a particularly elegant creation, supported on his right foot as he pivots to look up from his book toward the figure of the King. Of all the figures in the group the artist is here less interested by contemporary costume than by a study in figura serpentina and drapery. Henry employed a number of Italian artists during his reign. Pietro Torrigiano was contracted in 1510 to produce the tomb in Westminster Abbey to King Henry VII, and Baccio Bandinelli was later selected to design Henry''s own unexecuted monument. A number of Italian draughtsmen were retained to carry out decorative works. Bartolommeo Penni and Toto della Nunziata -both followers of Raphael- were in England by the early 1520s and were still in the country by 1538. In common with most artists in Royal Service they would seem to have been commissioned to produce a great many designs for temporary theatrical and pageant decorations, it is also suggested that they were engaged on the decoration of Henry''s great palace of Nonsuch. The name of Bartolommeo Penni has been associated with a group of panels painted with gods and goddesses that though now at Losely Park are known to have been part of the decorative scheme at Nonsuch. Although surviving views of Nonsuch suggest an architecture that was unique to the Henrician court, there was clearly a prominently Italian flavour to its embellishments. In the next century John Evelyn referred to the stuccoes that covered the outer walls of the palace as the work 'of some celebrated Italian.'

The subject of the drawing also fits well with what we know of those Henrician works in which portraiture is closely blended with political allegory. None on the large scale survive, though the most famous painting of this sort, the Whitehall mural is suggested well enough by Holbein's surviving cartoon for the King's side, and by Remigius van Leemput's seventeenth century oil copy. These paintings were intended to have a powerful effect on the viewer; Henry''s portrait in the Privy Chamber at Whitehall left viewers 'abashed and annihilated' -a feeling that the cartoon still conveys- whilst the King himself was astounded by a wall painting at Sir Thomas More''s house -executed by Holbein on his first visit to London- 'to discover before his gaze various persons of his acquaintance, not as if they had been painted but as if they were alive.'

The further aspect to the composition recorded in the drawing, a clear statement of the King''s sundering from Rome, is quite in accordance with the flavour of the allegorical and dynastic painting from this period. Too few easel paintings survive from Henry''s reign to make a broad survey, but from Edwardian examples, produced as the Reformation gathered momentum, we can discern the twin themes of the majesty of the King''s person and the rejection of Papal authority. The Allegory of the Protestant Succession in the National Portrait Gallery demonstrates this well, as does the Elizabethan painting by Lucas de Heere at Sudely Castle The Family of Henry VIII, in which Mars attends Queen Mary and her husband Philip of Spain, whilst Peace and Plenty usher Edward and Elizabeth into their father's presence. As a final note to show that an Italian might well swallow private feeling under royal instruction to produce a far less sedate attack on Rome, it is worth remembering that Girolamo da Treviso the Younger painted the surviving Four Evangelists Stoning the Pope for Henry in around 1540.

The composition finds a surprising echo in a design engraved in 1724 by the Oxford draughtsman Michael Burghers for the Christ Church Almanack plate. The source for both our drawing and -ultimately- for Burghers' group is the same, though at what remove for the latter cannot be determined. In this design Henry is flanked by ten variously characterised courtiers, whose poses and disposition are clearly influenced by the earlier composition. Across from him a cardinal -here most certainly Wolsey, the first Founder- recoils defensively from the King, whilst to his side there are seven clerics. These latter have been described as deans of Christ Church and each individually named, just as the group by the King has been traditionally listed as More, Surrey, Norfolk and so forth, but there is no contemporary key, and no strong sense of identity in any but the two central figures.

Burghers was not an artist known for his originality. He is recorded as being opposed to the incipient fashion for topographical Almanac plates, and whilst he conforms to the fashion in his representation of the College in the background, he remained keen to incorporate some allegorical element. The foreground company was not his first choice for the 1724 plate, and a drawing in the Bodleian Library shows that his first composition employed a three figure allegory on Good Governance, borrowed directly from Carteri's sixteenth century pattern book Imagine dei Dei degli Antichi. It appears that he borrowed the Henrician group, via an untraced means, and directly translated the statement of the Reformation into a squabble over the foundation of the College. It is notable in its details that the Burghers group is at some remove from the drawing: the costume of the courtiers is understood only in the most general way and, most conspicuously in the dress of the King, conforms to a stagey eighteenth century conception of what the King would have worn. It is also significant that the majesty of the King has been lost in the fact that he is no longer both part of the company and yet remote from it, but instead turns and gestures to Wolsey.

Nonetheless, this engraving establishes that the composition had been recognised as a highly significant one at some stage, since through its many inaccuracies Burghers' plate could not have come from our drawing. It is most probable that, particularly for one of Burghers' antiquarian taste, there would have been other examples of such an important composition, the original of which was most probably, on stylistic and thematic grounds, a significant item of Royal propaganda. There the composition, most probably a wall painting, would have served both as an aesthetic challenge to the French king at Fontainebleau and as a fundamental statement of the King''s divorce from the Pope. As a record of this our drawing is an invaluable document.
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