Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The KING'S Bedpost: A Model in its Genre

The genre I'm referring to is the reinterpretation or correction of a common theory about a historical object or event, suggesting another, accepted view is incorrect or incomplete.

The late Margaret Aston took on Roy Strong's dating of the allegorical painting Edward VI and the Pope in this wonderfully illustrated and elegantly argued exploration of religious issues during Elizabeth I's reign. Aston does it with such good humour and careful explanation that I think that even Roy Strong wouldn't mind her suggestion that he was wrong to date this painting to the reign of Edward VI, even though it seems to depict events occurring while that new Josiah was on the throne and his Protectors and Council were implementing a truly Calvinist and iconoclastic Reformation in England.

Much of Aston's evidence is graphic as she dates the sphinx-like bedpost at the bottom of Henry VIII's bed, and indeed Henry VIII's posture, including the hand on his knee and the pointing finger, by citing another image, created after both Edward and Mary I reigned, on the Continent by Peter Galle in 1564. Aston also found a drawing of the Fall of Babel dating to 1567 upon which the inset picture of the destruction of idols could be based. Those two models take the allegorical picture out of Edward VI's reign and into Elizabeth's reign.

Aston then describes how in the minds of many Puritans, Elizabeth was not as strong on the destruction of idols as she should be. She refused, for example, to get rid of the crucifix and candles on the altar in her private chapel; nor would she allow the Eleanor Cross in Cheapside, which included an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus on a panel, to be destroyed. She was not the Josiah her brother had been at all.

John Martiall (1534-97), an English Catholic living in exile rejoiced that Elizabeth prayed before a Crucifix. He wrote A Treatyse of the Crosse, gathred out of the Scriptures, Councelles, and auncient Fathers of the Primitiue Church in 1564 and dedicated it to Elizabeth! James Calfhill of Oxford responded with Answer to the Treatise of the Crosse and Martiall wrote again in response to Calfhill with A Replie to M. Calfhills "blasphemous Answer made against the Treatise of the Crosse.

Numerous attempts were made to persuade Elizabeth to get rid of that Crucifix and it was even destroyed by a couple of visitors to the chapel. Calvinists preached sermons to her; courtiers counselled her, and even common men wrote to her, but she replaced the Crucifix and candlesticks again and was adamant that they would remain in her chapel! She did stop having the candles lit.

This allegory would have been a reminder to her that only the strong leadership of a Josiah or Hezekiah, or other great Old Testament king, could contend with the dangers of the Papacy--which she well knew as a source of rebellion against--and Popery. To demonstrate that leadership she had to destroy all the idols in England, in her chapel and in her capital.

Aston also describes the predicament of Thomas Howard, the son of Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, and father of St. Philip Howard. She suggests that this painting, with the depiction of the two Seymour brothers, Edward and Thomas, who brought down his father and grandfather at the end of Henry VIII's reign, would have been a warning to him to stop flirting with Popery by plotting to marry the deposed Mary Stuart of Scotland, at that time a "guest" of Elizabeth. John Foxe, who had been Howard's tutor, urged him to avoid the grave danger he was getting into and to return absolutely to the strong Calvinist doctrine he had taught him.

Aston does not contend that she has proved beyond a doubt that she is right about either of these theories, but this article notes that later scientific research did prove she was right about the dating of the painting:

Twenty years later, in 2013 (and possibly as a result of Aston’s work), King Edward VI and the Pope was chosen as one of three portraits to be renovated by the National Portrait Gallery through support of an art conservation project. This project confirmed the theory of a later production date. Dendrochronological analysis helped researchers conclude that the panel was made from a tree that was felled between 1574 and 1590.

This is really masterful work, explaining many facets of the English Reformation through the analysis of an allegorical painting which is not really a great work of art but a fascinating image nonetheless. 

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