Thomas Cranmer

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Thomas Cranmer

by Gerlach Flicke
oil on panel, 1545-1546
38 3/4 in. x 30 in. (984 mm x 762 mm)
Transferred from The British Museum, London, 1879
Primary Collection
NPG 535

On display in Room 1 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

  • Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), Archbishop of Canterbury. Sitter in 47 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Gerlach Flicke (active 1545-died 1558), Painter. Artist or producer associated with 8 portraits, Sitter in 1 portrait.

This portraitback to top

Cranmer holds the Epistles of St Paul, while on the table before him are a letter and two books, one of which appears to be St Augustine's De fide et operibus (Of faith and works). This portrait was painted by the German artist Gerlach Flicke, who was working in England between 1545 and 1558. Recent analysis using infrared reflectography has revealed that several changes were made to the composition during both the planning stages and the painting process. Cleaning revealed three areas of broken glass in the window behind Cranmer which are probably symbolic, but whose exact meaning is now unclear. Also revealed was the word 'rot' (German for red) beneath the paint layers on the red cushion at the lower right of the painting, written as a reminder to the artist.

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Tudor Portraits Resource Pack, p. 14
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 112 Read entry

    Thomas Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 and secured Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon later that year. In the reign of Edward VI, he was charged with compiling an aid to the rituals of Christian devotion in the vernacular. The first English prayer book was issued in 1549, and although it would be repeatedly revised, Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer became one of the most widely read books to be published in English. Cranmer was deprived of office under the Roman Catholic rule of Mary I and was ultimately executed for heresy and treason. Cranmer is shown holding the Epistles of St Paul, with a letter and two books on the table before him, including St Augustine's De fide et operibus ('On faith and works'). The significance of the broken panes of glass in the window is unclear; it may illustrate the need either to repair the moral fabric of the church or to break it down in order to build a new Protestant church. The cartellino (an illusionistically painted small piece of paper) on the left gives Cranmer's age and the date: 'Anno etaj 57 Julij 20'; this dates the portrait to either 1545 or 1546, depending on whether the inscription was intended to mean that Cranmer was fifty-seven years old or in his fifty-seventh year. The composition was likely influenced by Hans Holbein the Younger's depictions of Desiderius Erasmus and William Warham, which provided a commentary on the sitter's status and state of mind through the careful placement of objects.

  • Bolland, Charlotte, The Tudors Passion, Power and Politics, 2022, p. 57
  • Bolland, Charlotte; Cooper, Tarnya, The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered, 2014 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12th September 2014 to 1st March 2015), p. 67
  • Cooper, John, Visitor's Guide, 2000, p. 19
  • Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 207
  • Cooper, Tarnya; Fraser, Antonia (foreword), A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 2012, p. 43
  • Gittings, Clare, The National Portrait Gallery Book of The Tudors, 2006, p. 19
  • John Cooper, National Portrait Gallery Visitor's Guide, 2006, p. 19
  • MacLeod, Catharine, Tudor Portraits in the National Portrait Gallery Collection, 1996, p. 14
  • Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 42
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 34
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 34 Read entry

    Cranmer became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533 and drove through the ecclesiastical reforms associated with the English Reformation, including the introduction of the Book of Common Prayer in 1548. This portrait shows him engaged in devotional reading of the Epistles of St Paul, with one of St Augustine's works lying on the table. The artist was Gerlach Flicke, who worked in the tradition of Holbein but with an even more meticulous attention to surfaces and materials, evident here in Cranmer's lawn sleeve and the decoration of the Turkey carpet on the table. Also, two further, slightly unexpected details have been revealed during conservation: the broken panes in the casement window and the word 'rot' (meaning red) on his cushion.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 151
  • Schama, Simon, The Face of Britain: The Nation Through its Portraits, 2015-09-15, p. 353
  • Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, p. 54
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 38 Read entry

    Appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Henry VIII in 1533, it was Thomas Cranmer who secured the King’s annulment from Katherine of Aragon later the same year. Deeply committed to religious reform, Cranmer was responsible for the first Book of Common Prayer, published in 1549, the 1552 revision of which is still in use today. Deprived of office and imprisoned under the Roman Catholic queen Mary I, Cranmer was tried for treason. He recanted, acknowledging papal supremacy, but reverted to his original position and was executed.

    This portrait was commissioned from the German artist Gerlach Flicke (d.1558), whose presence in England is first signalled by this painting. The Archbishop is seated in a fashionable interior holding the Epistles of St Paul and with St Augustine’s treatise De fide et operibus (On Faith and Works) on the table before him. Cleaning revealed three areas of broken glass in the window behind Cranmer, which are probably symbolic although the exact meaning is now unclear. Also revealed was the word ‘rot’ (German for red) beneath the cushion, as a reminder to the artist or his assistant.

  • Waterhouse, Ellis Kirkham, The dictionary of 16th & 17th century British painters, 1988, p. 90

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1545back to top

Current affairs

The French fleet makes an invasion attempt on England. The pride of the English fleet, the Mary Rose warship is sunk during the engagement with the French, killing over seven hundred men.

Art and science

The artist John Bettes the Elder paints A Man in a Black Cap. The artist's nationality is emphasized in the inscription faict par Johan Bettes Anglois (made by John Bettes, Englishman).
The Dutch artist William Scrots arrives in England and becomes the principal court painter.
The first botanical garden in Europe is established in the University of Padua.


The Council of Trent convenes. Summoned by Pope Paul III and running until 1563, the council reasserts the doctrines of the Catholic Church in answer to the Protestant Reformation. It is one of the principal events of the Counter-Reformation.

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