The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England
New YorkMetropolitan Museum Of Art
The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England
October 10, 2022 – January 8, 2023
Compulsively rewatching the screen serialization of the late Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, her quasi-fictional account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell in King Henry VIII’s service, you may decide that Tudor England is a little too close to home. You wince at the arbitrary power of the king, and you are revolted by the deaths of so-called traitors and heretics. In this strange world of autocratic rule and illiberal piety, you perceive what our own might yet become. What keeps the intensity of that vision at more comfortable arm’s length is the scenery. Bookended by the reigns of the usurping Henry VII (r. 1485–1509) and his great granddaughter, Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603), the Tudor period brings ready images to mind such as Hans Holbein the Younger’s portraits of the foursquare Henry VIII and costume performances of William Shakespeare’s plays. The visual terrain is paradoxically familiar and exotic all at once. Yet, as the Metropolitan Museum’s current exhibition, The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England, reveals, this cozy view of the epoch is not in fact an accurate one.
Like the museum’s last foray into an era framed by dynastic patronage, The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512–1570, the present exhibition sets out the dramatis personae early on. In this case, we encounter representative images of all five Tudor kings and queens (Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth I). This includes the finest surviving image of Henry VIII by Holbein’s hand (ca. 1537), a compressed likeness that seems ready to burst its diminutive frame. We also find the first full-length portrait of Elizabeth I, which shows the young queen (ca. 1567) clasping the arm of her golden throne, the coat of arms of England woven in the cloth of gold behind her. Both works seek to embody royal authority. Yet portraits are not the only things on view in the exhibition’s opening spaces: the propaganda function of the visual arts is articulated also by stained glass, printed books, and armor. Such objects represent Tudor authority through sumptuous material, brilliant design, or personal imagery. Even mass-produced prints supported Tudor claims to the throne by propagating the Tudor view of history or figuring Tudor rulers in allegorical terms.
Tudor imagery, like that of other ruling houses, purposefully obscures the unsavory bloodshed and traumatic controversies that attended its rule. Even the dynasty’s famous emblem, the red-and-white rose, euphemizes its contentious ascent in the Wars of the Roses as a happy reconciliation of rival claimants. Beyond its violent rise, the Tudors instigated traumatic religious reforms. When one recalls how Henry VIII and Edward VI had England’s ancient monasteries and church furnishings thrown to the ground as part of their Reformations, one realizes that ruin and absence must have counted as seminal visual impressions of the age. Such impressions do not figure in this exhibition, but their reverberations are documented in several objects, such as two English translations of the Bible (1535 and 1540), whose frontispieces feature Henry VIII enthroned, giving apparent assent to how scripture was to be consumed. Diligent viewers will be able to contrast a handful of examples of traditional Catholic images, such as the statues of saints designed for the tomb screen of Henry VII (ca. 1505), with the awkwardly innovative Reformation iconography presented, among other places, in Holbein’s Allegory of the Old and New Testaments (ca. 1530s).
At the outset of this exposition of Tudor dynastic self-fashioning, the curators introduce one of their essential arguments by way of a massive bronze candelabrum and two angels (ca.1524–40) cast by the Florentine sculptor, Benedetto da Rovezzano, for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, which Henry VIII appropriated for his own tomb. These monumental Italian Renaissance works instantly demolish the stale idea that England was a backwater blind to Renaissance art and culture. In fact, many objects in the exhibition were made in England by sophisticated foreigners who came there for reason of opportunity or to escape religious persecution. So much of the elite Tudor visual world was imported, in fact, that the curators pointedly indicate when English work in a medium like embroidery surpassed that on the continent.
It is therefore ironic that some remnants of English royal splendor are found in foreign collections. This is partly because the English Civil War (1642–51) liquidated so much of that legacy at home. Among other marvels, we find an astonishing covered cup of rock crystal, enamel, and gilded silver (ca. 1511–12), today used as a sacred reliquary at San Lorenzo in Florence, but once an ornament for a Tudor table. Other scarce works managed to survive in place for centuries, notably a curious piece of French wooden furniture, the Sea Dog Table (ca. 1575) from Hardwick Hall, so-named because its tabletop is supported by fantastical aquatic creatures with the heads of hounds. Luxurious textiles are everywhere: sumptuous armorial rugs to cover tables and expanses of shimmering tapestries shot through with gilded thread. Such works impel us to rethink our folksy, wattle-and-daub caricatures of the period.
In the second half of the exhibition, courtly identity, and therefore portraiture, becomes the show’s central theme. It is here that one makes instructive comparisons with last year’s Medici exhibition. Both shows focus on dynasties for which a core of portraits by Bronzino and Holbein are iconic fare. They both take their respective dynasty’s imagery to be central to its power, subordinating most everything else to this political angle. But whereas the Medici exhibition could feel heavy-handed, the present show is subtly open-ended. There are also glimpses of the wider world. Although England’s first forays into exploration are largely passed over, we do find a portrait of the ambassador from Morocco (1600), who sought an alliance with Elizabeth against Spain. On display are pieces of Chinese porcelain in silver-gilt mounts (ca. 1585), probably exotic possessions of Sir Walter Raleigh, the adventurer who named Virginia in honor of Elizabeth, his famously chaste queen.
Reflecting the dynasty’s two female rulers, this exhibition is sensitive to issues of female imagery and period debates about the proper conduct of women. And, therefore, the viewer will not be surprised to find a group of portraits of Elizabeth balancing Holbein’s portraits from her father’s reign. Being celebrations of Elizabeth’s virtue and power, these iconic portraits combine allegorical symbols and naturalistic details with gorgeous surface effects. A wall text reminds us that Tudor portraiture was less about internal character than about personal appearance, wealth, and status. But there are places where that statement appears too sweeping. Among the portrait miniatures, many by English masters, the viewer discovers individuals who seem to reveal something of their interior selves. In Nicholas Hilliard’s cryptic portrait of the daydreaming Henry Percy (ca. 1590–95), for example, one finds a romantic and disheveled youth spread out on a lawn, his head supported by one hand. On what thought he dwells (perhaps mysteries symbolized by the objects around him), we might never know. What can be said is that, while miniatures were certainly one way to advertise rank or embody alliances (Elizabeth made private displays of her portrait miniatures part of her diplomacy), they also spoke in intimate dialogue with their possessors, proving the alternative powers of the represented likeness in the period.
Ultimately, this visitor was struck above all by how consistent elite Tudor visual culture appears with that of other Renaissance locales. Considering Francesco Salviati’s symbolic portraits shown at the Medici exhibition, Elizabethan portraiture, which teems with Italianate allegory, seems like a characterful extension rather than a radical departure from contemporary practice elsewhere. And if you were to claim that the English went further than others in the juxtaposition of naturalism and artifice or observation and allegory, it is far from clear whether you could carry the argument. Indeed, you might say that these tensions were fundamental to much art throughout the world of the sixteenth century—just think of how Mughal painting spiked Persian convention with European naturalism to produce its own imperial metaphors. All that said, Tudor artists, native or imported, did not merely make copies of things taken from elsewhere. Whatever the influences, many of their essential images share an interest in surfaces, wherein everything—faces, clothing, bodies, landscapes—participates independently in an overall ornate patterning. The Tudors may have taken what they needed from others, but the admixture looks all their own. You might come to see how the Tudors used images politically, but you stay to piece together the subtleties of elite Tudor aesthetics in their broader dimensions.