Questioning the Categories: The Medieval Religious Background to the Tudor Portrait

Gervase Rosser, St. Catherine's College, Oxford

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Constraints upon the study of Tudor portraits to date have been certain categorical assumptions, including the supposed distinctions between 'medieval' and 'Renaissance', between 'sacred' and 'secular', and between 'the cult image' and 'art'. Some scholars have begun the necessary work of problematising these received binary models: this project deserves to be taken further.

Tudor portraits in general retained an affinity ­ whether this was perceived consciously or unconsciously by contemporaries with images of the saints in Catholic culture. Before the Reformation, people treated images of the saints in modes of address which could be very intimate ­ as though these were powerful family members in positions of great influence. Christian iconography of the saints at its genesis had owed much to the secular portraiture of late Antiquity, which itself had been linked to the cult of dead ancestors. The close link between secular and sacred portraiture was both problematised and defended in the course of successive debates on images during the following centuries. Tales told by iconodules, of portraits made by God himself (the face of Christ in the Veronica cloth) and by St Luke (various depictions of the Virgin Mary) lent prestige to the painter who continued to create such images of holy protectors.

The prevalent language of Christian images infused medieval responses to secular portraits, as poems by Petrarch and Guillaume de Machaut indicate. Notwithstanding the advent of Protestantism in sixteenth-century England, that discourse of sacred images did not cease to influence responses to portraits. Shakespeare both exemplified and commented on this in the closing scene of The Winter's Tale.

The naturalism of late-medieval figurative art was rooted in a sense, reinforced by theologians and preachers from the thirteenth century onwards, of the deity's incarnate presence in the world within each of his human creations. In this spirit, artists renewed their repertoire of portrait types by observing figures from the life, subsequently to incorporate them as players in illustrated sacred narratives. Religious drama communicated the same idea, as holy figures were represented by secular artisans. The same artistic tendency to naturalism in human depiction was also encouraged by the increasing importance attached to the salvation of the individual Christian soul and the resurrection of the body at the Last Judgement.

The Protestant Reformation, where and when it came, did nothing to diminish either the sense of the divine as a leaven informing all aspects of life, or the Christian's concern for the body's recovery at the Resurrection. It was an assumption of early modern Protestant culture no less than of Catholic that an individual's outward appearance, whether in life or in a portrait image, was a manifest sign of inward grace. A large complex of religious assumptions and practices concerning the making and purpose of portraits was inherited from the previous millennium of Christian imagery, and was carried forward by its own momentum into the new age.

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