The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England

Elizabeth I by Quentin Metsys the Younger

Wikipedia
Elizabeth I by Quentin Metsys the Younger (1583)
An exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A new exhibition provides the clarity necessary to understand this complex historical period fraught with intrigue and relationships that were driven by the desire to remain in power.

Wikipedia

The Tudor Rose, Henry VII’s clever melding of a red and white rose joining symbols from two antagonistic political factions, the families of Lancaster and York, became in effect a logo for the Tudor dynasty.

 

The hit Showtime television series, The Tudors, that aired from 2007-2010 may have created some sense of familiarity with the characters who brought to life the historical period overlapping the Italian High Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation–but don’t depend on this TV series for the facts. As executive producer Michael Hirst said, "Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history. … And we wanted people to watch it.”

The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will go far to set the record straight. Here, the story of 16th century England is told through the lens of the artwork and craftsmanship fueled by the influential Tudor royal dynasty, rather than the sexual exploits, multiple marriages, and beheadings under the reign of King Henry VIII that were the focus of the TV series. The House of Tudor, beginning in 1485 with the assent of Henry VII to the throne, ended in 1603 with the death of his granddaughter, Elizabeth I. It heralded the end of civil war, known as the War of the Roses that had been fought for control of the Kingdom of England. The Tudor Rose, Henry VII’s clever melding of a red and white rose joining symbols from two antagonistic political factions, the families of Lancaster and York, became in effect a logo for the Tudor dynasty. It appeared like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval in everything from paintings to engravings, textiles, and architecture.

Surprisingly, this is the first American exhibition to present Tudor artistic influence on English cultural heritage. Conceived and organized by Elizabeth Cleland, Curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and Adam Eaker, Associate Curator of European Paintings, the exhibition features over 100 objects, going beyond iconic painted portraits to embrace sculpture, tapestries, manuscripts, and armor creating a picture of the thriving world inhabited by the international group of artists and craftsmen supported by Tudor patronage. The audio guide for the exhibition has incorporated first-hand accounts extracted from original documents using the actual words of the same colorful characters made familiar through books of historical fiction, plays, and the aforementioned TV series.

Westminster Abbey, Henry VII Lady Chapel
Wikipedia

Westminster Abbey, Henry VII Lady Chapel

Anne Boleyn
Wikipedia

Anne Boleyn

Edward VI as a child
Wikipedia

Edward VI as a child

Elizabeth I
Wikipedia

Elizabeth I

Enrique VII de Inglaterra
Wikipedia

Enrique VII de Inglaterra

Henry VIII of England
Wikipedia

Henry VIII of England

Jane Seymour
Wikipedia

Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour's cup
Wikipedia

Jane Seymour's cup

The Tudors poster
Wikipedia

The Tudors poster

The exhibition is constructed like a novel, a lesson in storytelling that provides the clarity necessary to understand this complex historical period fraught with intrigue and relationships that were driven by the desire to remain in power. We are introduced to the first major player in the saga, King Henry VII at the age of 48 in a marvelous 1505 portrait by a talented anonymous painter. Henry’s assent to the throne was marred by assertions of illegitimacy. The Tudors' desire to counter these questions of their authority and right to rule was a prime motivator in their show of luxury through their art commissions and acquisitions of the finest textiles and decorative artifacts throughout their reign. The portrait of Henry VIII has multiple functions: it is a likeness, a display of wealth, and a document. It served as an unsuccessful proposal of marriage between Henry and Margaret of Savoy who would have been the king’s second wife. In his right hand, the King holds a Tudor rose.

Henry VII looked to enshrine his majesty forever in the design and completion of the Lady Chapel, which was to house his and his heirs' tomb in Westminster Abbey. In the sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Cleland describes the Lady Chapel as “something of an oversized jewel box, combining stained glass, carved masonry, gilded bronze, and shining paving, and it leaves no doubt as to whose memory it glorifies, with every surface encrusted with Tudor roses and Beaufort portcullises, accompanied by Welsh dragons, English lions, and French fleur-de-lis.”

The Swiss/German artist Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) is one the most celebrated painters from this period although he was not the highest-paid artist in the Tudor court. He received the patronage of Anne Boleyn and became the preferred painter of King Henry VIII whose iconic portrait painted by Holbein around 1537 has come to represent the pomp and the power we associate with his time on the throne. Holbein, known for his precise realism also painted Edward the VI as a Child (1538), Henry VIII’s only son. Holbein is represented by more pieces than any other single artist in the exhibition. His delicate drawings of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, and Elizabeth Dauncey seem almost contemporary. It was enlightening to see the range of other design work Holbein completed for the royal family. Included in the show are a pen and ink watercolor of Jane Seymour’s Cup and an elaborate Chimneypiece Design complete with flaming logs, among other decorative items.

 

No fewer than twelve works in various media feature the image of Queen Elizabeth I, the longest reigning and last of the Tudor monarchs.

No fewer than twelve works in various media feature the image of Queen Elizabeth I, the longest reigning and last of the Tudor monarchs. The striking Sieve Portrait (1583) by Flemish painter Quentin Metsys the Younger is used as the signature image for the exhibition. Here the Queen is depicted as a Vestal Virgin, an image of chastity that she cultivated throughout her childless reign. Her flawless white skin, framed by the delicate lace ruff is in stark contrast to the black, probably velvet, gown, making for a dramatic showstopper.

Elizabeth I, The Ditchley Portrait, painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger is surreal in its depiction of the Queen. The distortions of her body, exaggerated by the impossibly small-waisted garment and insect-like puffy sleeves make the Queen appear immobile, stuck against a sky that is both night and day. Apparently, Elizabeth was not happy with this interpretation, mainly complaining that the artist’s realistic rendering of her aging face was too harsh. The painting remains a fascinating, otherworldly interpretation of the monarch who came to symbolize the entire epoch.

The Elizabethan Era, the time of Shakespeare, England’s Golden Age, was idealized in American popular culture. But credit must be given to the Queen who managed to circumvent the many plots against her to usher in a period of relative peace and prosperity that helped to form the modern English society we recognize today. This exhibition helps us understand how that was accomplished through the powerful image projected by the artwork they commissioned and the objects that defined their status.

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

Subscribe to our free e-letter!

Webform

Latest News

Mel Kendrick on Seeing Things in Things

The title of sculptor Mel Kendrick’s…

SCAD at Design Miami/

Encounter an inspiring design collaboration.

SCAD collaborates…

9 Indigenous Art Accounts to Follow on Instagram
This list includes Indigenous artists, groups, and galleries from across the…
As Gagosian Looks Ahead, Let’s Look Back

At 77 years old and after much…