A reader, Cees de Bondt, contacted me about his research on this picture- The Death of Hyacinth. He thinks there’s a Caravaggio connection because of the inclusion of tennis rackets in the picture. For the uninitiated, Caravaggio is supposed to have gone on the run after killing a Roman in a tennis match. As Kenneth Clark famously said- “That’s taking competitive sports too far.” Cees is the author of Royal Tennis in Renaissance Italy.
A sophisticated outlook on art or the application of what Richard Williams calls “aesthetic criteria” (“Collecting and Religion in Late-Sixteenth-century England”) when looking at it does not appear in England until the late 16th century. The Tudors weren’t really collectors of art, though there is the strange episode of the Protestant Elizabeth I trying to obtain an altarpiece by the artist Quentin Metsys from Antwerp.
She failed, but eyebrows were raised. Probably, this is an example when the aesthetic and the religious combined because the Queen is said to have liked to put objects on her communion table. Another reason was that pictures could be “drained of their former religious significance” (Williams) priestly clothing and ornaments were refunctioned as everyday objects, priestly vestments turned into cushions, pyxes turned into salt cellars or toys. Still, religious images never entirely escaped from the charge of idolatry which had dogged them since the reformation of Henry VIII and the Settlement of Religion which had declared many pictures illegal.
Paintings were inevitably caught up in religious controversy and debates thanks to this climate. Thus, during the Jacobean era, we hear of James I's Catholic consort Anne of Denmark (above) jeered at by a courtier Lord Salisbury who accuses her of "loving no body, but dead pictorres in a paltry gallery." The link between Catholicism and art appreciation is peeping out from the veiled curtain of words here, but it emerges into the light with the remark of the Calvinist Archbishop George Abbot who criticised Anne for going to look at her pictures the night before she died. We must be careful here as this is anecdotal “evidence” and it can therefore be shaped to fit any argument. What we can deduce however is that the Archbishop’s damning comment clearly owes something to the backlash against images, but does it indicate knowledge of a link between connoisseurship and the state of being a Roman Catholic, in particular the burgeoning Catholic contingency at the Jacobean court?
As Albert Loomie has said, nobles at the Jacobean court would be allowed to show palpably Catholic pictures such as the Crucifixion, but outside these precincts, to display such pictures, or demonstrate a love of them would be risky to one’s career or reputation as there was growing suspicion of the Papacy in the early 1620s (“A Lost Crucifixion by Rubens”, Burlington Magazine, 1996). We hear of Sir George Calvert (above) who rose to become Secretary of State under James I despite the fact that he had been raised a Catholic in Yorkshire and been instrumental in obtaining a Crucifixion by Rubens which later was installed in the Queen’s Chapel at Somerset House before being smashed to bits by the Puritan commissioners in 1643 (“The destruction of Rubens’s Crucifixion in the Queen’s Chapel, Somerset House”, Burlington Magazine,1998). Calvert had sharpened his eyes by travelling through Flanders and the Netherlands where he may have encountered such collections as this which is a compendium of art historical styles and genres. In this intriguing representation of a Flemish picture gallery by Jacob de Formentrou , both the portraits of Rubens and Van Dyck are shown (as heads of the Flemish school) and it is a virtual panorama of Flemish art with an interesting juxtaposition of a Crucifixion and Rape of Europa- sacred and secular art.*
Calvert’s connoisseurial acumen served him well when he was dealing with this large Crucifixion. His commentary on the picture- which he politically gave to Buckingham in 1625- proves that he was thinking like a connoisseur as well as a diplomat.
“May it please yor Grace, I was this afternoon to have wayted on you, but being told you were private, thought it no distinction to committ two errors at once, the one in pressing too boldly for accesse, and another in presenting yor Grace (which was my errand) at an unreasonable tyme with a picture perhaps not worthy yor acceptation for the workmanship, though acceptable enough.”
Calvert’s ungenerous appraisal of the workmanship suggests we may be dealing with a copy or workshop piece, maybe even a Van Dyck based upon Rubens’s original designs.** This evidence of sophisticated evaluation of pictures is significant. What could be called a “discourse of connoisseurship” becomes more visible in English artistic circles in the 1620s, and maybe significantly in a decade when fear of Catholic Europe is on the rise. It is also a time when some of the most powerful people in the land are becoming knowledgeable about matters of attribution, copies and the different styles of artists. In 1623, the Prince of Wales (the future Charles I), Buckingham and Hamilton attended what Jonathan Brown has aptly called a “seminar” on art (Kings and Connoisseurs in Seventeenth-Century Europe). The English visitors were introduced to the glories of the Spanish collection, and Charles was given a number of Titians like the “Pardo Venus”, today in the Louvre. As these gifts came from Spain, eyebrows were raised and in some quarters, accusations of profanity and idolatry levelled. Overtures towards the Spanish princess by the Prince of Wales fed the suspicions of Parliament and this mode of thought may be present in the minds of highly placed officials who were obliged to take an oath of allegiance towards the King instead of the Pope, a measure that James I had created in 1606.
Something of this admixture of connoisseurship and suspicion directed towards Catholics may be present in a letter of another Jacobean individual, Sir Isaac Wake, son of a Canon of Christchurch, and Secretary to one of the most important art agents of the seventeenth-century, Sir Dudley Carleton. Carleton was ambassador to Venice and subsequently emissary to the Netherlands. He used Wake as a kind of go-between, serving clients such as the Earl of Arundel and other influential players at court. This letter reveals that Wake saw himself as an outsider, not privy to the secrets of art held by this select group of nobles which included Catholics at the Jacobean court who it seemed to him spoke their own clandestine language. Wake’s frustration at the presumption of this group of connoisseurs is clearly evident in a revealing letter of 1625 written in Venice and sent to Lord Conway.
“Some in England, who have taken upon themselves a monopolye of passing their verdict upon all things of this nature, so that if a man do not baptize his pictures and statues at the font of their censure he cannot be admitted to the church." Isaac Wake (1625).
Wake’s words drip with the sarcastic venom of somebody who not only doesn’t understand- or appreciate- the act of picture collecting, but does it also demonstrate a deep animadversion to this group of hyperaesthetic individuals with Catholic connections? It is difficult to say due to the elastic nature of religion in this period. It is known that Wake was on good terms with Arundel, and he even taught his sons the Catholic religion at university in Italy. It seems unlikely that Wake’s invective is directed towards Arundel, but what of Buckingham and his circle? In the same year, 1626, Wake was asked to choose 3 or 4 choice pictures for the Duke of Buckingham, but admitted that he was not fit to undertake this task and professed to “understand nothing in that way.” This phrase is found in the same letter immediately after his criticism of those picture fanciers in England.
Wake was not a member of this “Church” which should be understood here as the “Church of Connoisseurship” as much as the Church. More telling is Wake’s liturgical diction, especially his use of the word “baptize” which obviously means naming. The ecclesiastical term is certainly used as a metaphor for the act of passing judgement on a picture, but one suspects that Wake carefully chose this figure of speech to beat this self-styled connoisseurial elite with strong Catholic sympathies over the head. According to Wikipedia (usual caveats apply) the word “baptize” derives from the Greek word “bapto” meaning to “dip” though the washing definition seems likely to be a neologism coined in the New Testament. When to baptize became synonymous with naming works of art is an interesting question. It seems fair to assume that theologians with a passion for art would have spoken of their paintings in such terms. And it is a fact that baptize as a synonym for attributing is seen in art history writing; it is still encountered in the texts of curators and scholars nostalgic for an era in which art language had not been deprived of its religious and mystical qualities in the name of scientific objectivity or linguistic austerity. Baptism in the Roman Catholic formulation is also bound up with ideas of exclusivity: to be baptized into the Roman Catholic Church is to attain salvation.
As Edward Chaney says, this “Church” was alluded to by a female aristocrat, Lucy, Countess of Bedford (above) who mentioned “the Italian sperits” that her Northern pictures must be protected from (“The Italianate Evolution of English Collecting”). Chaney believed that “Italian sperits” might be a witty reference to those lovers of Italian art, Arundel and Buckingham. If that were the case it could also be seen as an endorsement of the Dutch and Northern art that the Countess so prized (Karen Hearn, “A Question of Judgment: Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford, as Art Patron and Collector”). Could there be some kind of Protestant/Catholic divide in the 17th century art world implied here? Possibly, possibly not. To plot religion across geographical and stylistic lines is too convenient; this was a complex network of international connoisseurs, collectors and art agents with different faiths, allegiances and ambitions.
Yet there was a Catholic constituency that was at the centre of Jacobean and Caroline society. This “Church of Connoisseurship” included such notables as George Gage and Sir Endymion Porter (both friends of the Catholic Van Dyck and painted by him); others who attended Charles I’s Catholic queen Henrietta Maria whose chapel was designed by Inigo Jones; the Duke of Buckingham, who was on good terms with the Catholic painter Orazio Gentileschi who was closer to the Queen than the King; Sir George Calvert who was working for the Archduchess Isabella of the Spanish Netherlands, and who voyaged to Newfoundland to search for a safe haven for persecuted Catholics. Then there is Arundel himself, perhaps the most outstanding art collector in 17th century England, and a man who was raised a staunch Catholic but suddenly converted in 1616 to the Protestant party. As I also mentioned in a previous post, it was also at this time Arundel purchased Adam Elsheimer’s The Finding of the True Cross. More on Arundel and religion another time.
*Calvert would not have seen this specific picture as it is signed and dated 1659. It does however include pictures dating from earlier times. Calvert is likely to have improved his knowledge of Northern art by visiting such galleries.
*.*According to Loomie, the description given by Calvert of this large Crucifixion closely matches a Crucifixion in the Louvre, shown above,- today attributed to Van Dyck. Loomie reproduces an engraving by Galle of Ruben’s original which according to an eye witness report was very likely destroyed by the Puritans, along with other religious art, in 1643.
The three essays by Chaney, Hearn and Williams, as well as lots of other helpful material, are to be found in The Evolution of Collecting: Receptions of Italian Art in the Tudor and Stuart Periods (Yale, 2003).
"The Catholic superstition, which is always the enemy of reason, is often the parent of taste."
This intriguing statement occurs in Edward Gibbon’s memoirs. He is portrayed here by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Famously as the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon outraged his family by converting to Roman Catholicism whilist at Oxford in 1753. But this sudden conversion was short-lived. Under threat of disinheritance Gibbon rapidly re-converted to Protestantism a year later, though his comment in his remembrances seems to suggest that he had discerned something of a link between art appreciation and the condition of being a Roman Catholic. What motivated this conversion? A better question would be what significance did Gibbon’s conversion hold for understanding the link between Catholicism and connoisseurship? We might be prepared to dismiss the implications of Gibbon’s remark until we learn that nearly two centuries later the man with whom connoisseurship is most associated, Berhard Berenson, repeated Gibbon’s comment in his own biographical sketch, The Making of a Connoisseur, this time to another convert to Catholicism, John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate.
Though born into a Jewish family from Lithuania, Berenson was subsequently educated by the Puritans at Harvard; but he chose to abandon that religious allegiance and convert to the Roman Catholic faith. Why? Speculation abounds, but somewhere in his corpus Berenson claims that being a Catholic helped him understand art and enhanced his ability to look at paintings. Of course this could be pure self-dramatization, an attempt by Berenson to create mystery around his life. However, perusing Berenson’s writings, especially his musings on such concepts in connoisseurship and attribution, one notes how his language verges on the ecclesiastical with its use of phrases and figures of speech gleaned from the reading of the Bible and other religious texts. One particular instance that has always struck me is when Berenson characterises a change of mind about an attribution as a conversion. His use of the word “conversion” occurs in a diary entry of 1947:
“When one has well in hand all the factors known to one regarding a given problem, a new factor may repolarize all the others and lead almost instantly to a new solution. This may account for sudden conversions, not only those of a religious nature, but in the fields of scholarship, in my case in the matter of attributions and reconstructions of artistic personalities. This procedure has its dangers, but the undoubted hastiness is more creative than the caution which is often due to a weak grasp of the facts involved.”
Is there a degree of deception, or even self –deception in Berenson’s conversion, could it be the kind of deception practiced by a non-believing priest who dresses up in sacramental robes because he is stimulated by the aesthetic possibilities, the sense of grandeur, the air of mystery, - but who ultimately does not believe? Could it be a “gesture of alignment” rather than a true commitment to the doctrines of the Catholic Church? *
I encountered the Gibbon quotation while researching my on-going course on English seventeenth-century collectors and connoisseurs, particularly the most important, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel shown here in a masterpiece actually purchased by Berenson for Isabel Stewart Gardner. The early modern scholar Edward Chaney remarks on the long line of art experts following on from Gibbon who made connections between the visual arts and the Catholic religion: men such as John Talman, Thomas Hearne, George Vertue, Henry Blundell, Charles Townley, Henry Swinburne, James Byres and the Reverend John Eustace. Amongst these the most significant is Vertue who called the Earl of Arundel “the father of Virtue in England” and who was described (Vertue), somewhat awkwardly by Horace Walpole as “..a strict Roman Catholic; yet even these principles could not warp his attachment to his art, nor prevent it making it subservient to the glory of his country.” And we must not omit to mention another leading convert to Roman Catholicism, the antiquarian and papal librarian J.J. Winckelmann whose predecessor at the Vatican library in the 17th century, Lucas Holstentius, also converted to the Catholic faith. But one of the most famous art collectors, Catholic adherent and indeed religious convert in the seventeenth-century was Arundel himself, and if we are trace the origins of this interesting link between Catholicism and connoisseurship, we must begin in his era. More of that soon….
*Compare the future director of the Museum of Modern Art, Alfred H. Barr whose deception to please his Presbyterian father is not self-deception as Barr’s dismissal of the act of communion and its cloying religiosity, music suggests.
“My father and I are not entirely agreed but I envy and admire his position which is tolerant and liberal but at the same time utterly implicit. I feel little necessity either intellectual or emotional, or of an orthodox and conventional nature. I take communion but it is more of a gesture of alignment than any inner urge which is not as it should be but I do not find the atmosphere congenial; particularly the music- ugh!”
Alfred H Barr, Letter, Dec 20th, 1923
This series will continue with a post on connoisseurship and religion at the Jacobean court.