Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Informal thoughts

This is a letter from Brett Dolman, Curator of Collections at Hampton Court who states that these are his informal thoughts ;

Dear Mrs. Mostyn,

Thank you for your letter of the 27th.January, regarding the Sawston Hall portrait of a lady in black, now at Sotheby's; I am so sorry it has taken so long to reply. I was hoping to have found the time to see the lady herself by now - hence the delay - but my work at Hampton Court has prevented me from getting to Sotheby's before Easter. I hope to be able to arrange a visit very soon, but I thought that you deserved at least a short letter in the meantime.

I am afraid, however, that I have very little to add to what I've already said to Christopher Wickham and to Canon Russ on the telephone. I am not convinced that this is a portrait of Mary l, and I generally take the position that without a 'smoking gun', clear identifications are all but impossible. It is not fair to say to-day, I think, that experts are too quick to dismiss supposed identifications of portraits; it is more the case that in the 19th century, many portraits seem to have been assigned identities on no other evidence than passing physiognomic or costume resemblance to another (often equally uncertain) portrait. We remain susceptible to this urge, as we are frustrated that we lack portraits of key figures from important periods of history, whilst the potraits that do survive are in many cases unidentified. The temptation to fit the portraits with our preferred list of candidates is huge, but unless there is intrinsic evidence in the painting itself (a contemporary inscription, a specific jewel perhaps, or a traceable physical link to another portrait) or independent evidence (a document that describes the painting or the commission) then all such identifications remain suspect.

I was, nonetheless, extremely interested to read the proposed allegorical symbolism in detail, but I am afraid much of this remains elusive (I cannot see much more than an outline of a man in the column on the far left of the sitter) and there is a more general problem with artistic intent here which I think is worth making: I don't think it would have occured to an artist of this period to producea portrait with this amount of hidden iconographic detailing. It remains possible that he was instructed so to do, but without idependent proof of the sitter's identity, we cannot draw too many conclusions. Morover, iconographic or allegorical symbolism is usually far more obvious - otherwise it wouldn't work: if the commissioner of the portrait intended such an essay on religious faith or truth, then, I think, he would have done so more explicitly. I certainly don't think that an artist of this period would have constructed such a detailed symbolic essay with the intention that no-one would discover what he was up to. This is the opposite of what paintings were meant to do: Even if the commission was a private one, intended to voice concerns about the Henrician settlement, then you would expect more obvious (even if symbolic) additions to this portrait to signify this.

In response to some of the suggested allegorical signifiers in Canon Russ' notes, I would again state that most of the details in this painting have many and varied possible meanings. Overall, there is no explicit and unequivocal message of Catholic or even an overt religious message of any sort: each and every one of the possible details could mean something else or nothing at all. The pillar is a common symbol of strength (often spiritual but not exclusively so); the chipped masonry often an expression of an artist's command of realism, and much of the architectural detail simply a reflection of contemporary design. The 'ruins' in the background are certainly interesting and unusual, but it is difficult to say more than that: I would be particularly reluctant to say anything about the significance of colour and tone without knowing a little more about the painting's physical history (how many times it had been overpainted over the last 500 years: is this background indeed original?)

The Sawston lady could, despite all these reservations, be a portrait of Mary l; although the date of 1537 is very problematic as the dress of the sitter makes this highly unlikely, we know very little about portraits of her as Princess beyond the presumed 'Master John' portrait of 1544. If so, I think it could date from the early 1550's and be just about reconcilable with later portraits of Mary as Queen. On balance, however, I would say that this remains unlikely.

But, the Sawston portrait remains a very rare and very interesting full-length portrait. In a way, for me, the game of indentification is unfortunate, as it suggests that this is all that matters, and detracts more than a little from an appreciation of the painting itself.

Friday, 16 April 2010

A Summary - Shade and Light

The clear concept of allegory had to wait to the nineteenth century but its usage goes back at least to the Gospels. In an allegory everything means something else.

Moving from left to right, the first column represents the teaching of the Pope; the darkness represents the mystery of God; the clear light means man’s capacity to apprehend truth; the red brick wall represents man’s destructive capacity, and the last column represents clearly apprehended truth. The great decorated column represents the pillar of truth and the grey bridge from that column to the column of clearly apprehended truth represents the working world of theology whereby one truth is related to another. The clear light represents the light of intellect meeting proportionate being, and the shaded light represents the light of intellect meeting mystery. The chips indicate the passage of time. The laces around the lady’s neck may indicate embryonic or future man, the gold button royalty and so power, and the dented clock may indicate of truth-shaped time. The floor pattern combines with the laces to echo Leonardo’s geometric picture of man.

The question occurs, may the lady in black not be an historical figure at all. Might she simply be an allegory of truth?

The background of the picture is full of full daylight, which I am assuming represents the light intellect and what it can attain. I see the far right column as representing this attainment, but I have just noticed that it has a shadow side which turns away, as it were, from the pillar of truth. So the pillar of truth is confronted, as it were, by the best of rational attainment.

Meantime, the pillar of truth falls into near blackness as it faces the pillar of rational attainment. This contrast accentuates the problem facing Christendom. I do not know whether this is just a happy accident or whether intended by the artist. It does, though, remind me of dear Pio Nono, a nineteenth century Pope who said “L’Eglise – c’est moi”. There is a lovableness here for those on his side but a decided darkness, an incapacity to communicate for anyone who is not in communication.

The bridge builders have a deal of work to do!

The base oft the Pillar - a strange addition

At the base of the pillar of truth there is a strange extension which would appear to be ornamentation on the pillar. I suspect this is not allegoric, but at the first level, a sort of signature or self-portrait of the artist. There is a huge mouth at the base level, capable of a grin but going the other way. In 1536 or so Michelangelo did a self-portrait in his picture of the last judgement (in much the same position relative to the whole) and in Holbein’s picture of Christina of Denmark (1539) he has discernibly presented himself (again on the lower right hand side) in the folds of her dress. We may have a clue here to the painter, but if this is what is going on, we have left behind the allegorical meaning of things and come to a literal level.

Further scrutiny of what appear to be two feet protruding from the base of the column suggested the tomb of a knight.

I looked into the visor of the knight and to my astonishment saw a newborn baby, eyes and nose, looking up.

My mind at the time was following the motto of Mary Tudor “Truth, the daughter of time” and so, being pious, I thought what we were dealing with is Jesus, Christmas. Prof. J.J.Scarisbrick suggested it was Edward Vl, born 1537. His mother died giving birth and Mary Tudor was the chief mourner. He is on the side of orthodoxy being baptized. He is male and legitimate and so supplants Mary Tudor in his claim to the throne, whatever her status.

I think one of the signs that one is reading a secret correctly, is the element of surprise: one is seeing what one does not expect to see.

Architectonics of dress

The photographs are illustrate the wording in red italics.

There are three items of dress which may join the allegorical nature of the things in the painting. There is, first, the gold button which in a discreet way may indicate loyalty. If we are dealing with Mary Tudor in 1537, she has just agreed that she is illegitimate and so not royal, so discretion is the order of the day.

She carries what I assume is a watch (which is dented). If truth is the daughter of time, then truth is also the mother of a time, an order, a civilisation that lives in truth. The watch may be a sort of small globe representing a gathering of man in time living by truth – in Christendom amended and restored.

The third item worth noting is the slightly strange arrangement around the lady’s neck. There appear to be four laces whereas I suspect there are only two. One lace terminating more exactly than one would expect appears to make two buttocks out of Mary’s flesh. One other, also terminating exactly, may indicate an arm. Two others in synchronisation not to be expected may make another arm. An embryonic head is created by the lady’s ruff. We are dealing perhaps with man in embryo.

Several people looking at the picture have noted this. It was Leonardo who set the complete man in a geometric pattern. The lady stands on the floor with a geometric pattern. If this is the same pattern Leonardo used, this would be confirmatory that the work with the laces and with the clock is envisaging a new age. The golden button indicates power maybe.

The circumference of the watch equals the side of the square, so that if you put the shape of the watch in the square you get Leonardo’s shape in which he portrayed the perfection of the human form, a circle in a square.

The Darkness

The Lady in Black is in the shade and surrounded by darkness. This is a remarkable artistic feat but if the darkness is symbolic what is it a symbol of? If light is a symbol of truth one might expect darkness to be a symbol of evil. Could the darkness though be a symbol of God, whose ways are not our ways, who is shrouded in mystery and who strangely allows evil, even the evil signified in the blood red wall. Christian theology sees God as allowing evil so that the greater good may come, but this is quite an alarming feature in the ways of providence. As with Job he might allow countless evils destructive of one’s natural happiness. Together with the tolerance of evil, God is Himself mysterious. Theology, which making use of analogy reaches positive conclusions – “God is good” – moves to an apophatic realisation of His transcendence. To the darkness of God’s providence as it touches mortal life there is apophatic darkness which waits upon the beatific vision. There is further the truth that man’s understanding is in personal and historical development.

The human subject then has to cope with the darkness of God’s providence allowing physical and moral evil, the darkness of His transcendent nature, the darkness arising from a limited historical development – a darkness being experienced in Europe with the emergence of the reformation.

A symbol may of course, combine opposites but I sense in this picture that the darkness surrounding the lady is ultimately benign.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Architectonics - The Bridge

The artist, in an inchoate way, is aware of the problem facing Christendom. There is the pillar of truth, which is at once supported and threatened by the Papacy. There is the pillar representing “modernity” and the power of the mind to discover things. When things break down in sheer power and lies, you get the blood red wall.

What is the solution to the problem? The artist is aware of wonderful theologians like John Fisher or perhaps more significantly Erasmus (patron of Holbein). It was said Erasmus (who held the respect of both Catholics and Protestants) that if he had accepted to be a Cardinal he might have resolved the Reformation issue. The solution to the issue then is a bridge between a pillar of truth and the pillar of naturally known truth. The artist has constructed stone bridge moving betwixt the two pillars. A couple of the stones are pointed and make a point towards the pillar of truth – or perhaps point to it.

The word for priest – one of them – is pontifex, Bridge builder. In that time, theological truth belonged especially to priests. Yet the grey bridge in the area of the main column is already in full light. The light of intellect has its autonomy. In the picture it ascends as a bridge to meet the column of modernity just where he picture ends.

I recall reading my father’s diary for 1939. Disaster looms. The mind pulls together everything that might make a solution. Hope springs eternal.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Pope's column

To the left side of the picture there is a square column which is part of the same building as the pillar of truth. I first thought of it as the Pope’s column because in the chip in the column some have seen a face with a crooked triple tiara.

The Pope’s column therefore has a role with regard to the pillar of truth. In contemporary language he exercises the Magisterium of the Church. It is his duty to see that the revealed truth is preserved and proclaimed and that error is suppressed. In Christendom heresy was not only condemned but penalised by death exercised by the state, the temporal arm of Christendom. The Pope was also a temporal ruler who sometimes led armies into the field of battle. His task then while essentially concerned with the “pillar of truth”, was full of distortions which is why perhaps his column is physically distinct from the Column of the Truth.

I am going beyond architectonics to the area of secrets when I confess to not having seen the triple tiara but to have discerned a wolf above the face.

As Christendom is in danger of splitting, the Papacy is perhaps being presented as essential to things, yet in need of reform. This would square with the year 1437.