Tag Archives: Teaching

The Great War Remembered

With the centennial anniversary of the commencement of the Great War, World War I, occurring yesterday perhaps Americans will become more conscious of the commemoration that has been underway in Europe for some time. Or perhaps not–we might wait until 1917. This was a war that was so momentous, so global, so total, that there are many ways to recall and remember it–literary, visual, material: the detritus of the Great War will be with us forever. I’ve read many World War I poems, by soldiers who died and survived, seen many World War I films, made close to its time and farther away, seen many examples of “trench art”, and touched medals, bullets and helmets. Whenever I have to teach this War (which for me happens only in broad world and western civilization surveys, so I don’t have much time), I rely on examples of the stunning (in a horrifying way) photographs of life on the front (my key source for these is the Imperial War Museum in London) and recruiting posters, which can represent themes and issues relevant to both fronts: “over there” and home. As it happens, Swann Auction Galleries in New York City is auctioning off a large collection of vintage 20th century posters next week, including some amazing (in terms of both art and message) World War I recruiting posters, and the online catalog is comprehensive, annotated, and extremely educational. Here’s a small sample–in chronological order:

M29589-30 001

M28269-31 001

M29589-5 001

M29140-2 001

M29027-9012 001

M29589-15 001

M29589-3 001

1. SAVILE LUMLEY (1876-1960) DADDY, WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE GREAT WAR? 1915. The classic “shame” poster–pretty powerful! 2. A.G.R. (DATES UNKNOWN) CANADIENS FRANCAIS / VENEZ AVEC NOUS DANS LE 150IÈME BATAILLON C.M.R. 1915. A bird fight! 3.A.O. MAKSIMOV (DATES UNKNOWN). [WAR LOAN / FORWARD FOR THE MOTHERLAND!] 1916. One of the last Tsarist appeals before the Russian Revolution. 4. JAMES MONTGOMERY FLAGG (1870-1960) WAKE UP, AMERICA! 1917. 5. DAVID HENRY SOUTER (1862-1935) IT’S NICE IN THE SURF BUT WHAT ABOUT THE MEN IN THE TRENCHES / GO AND HELP. 1917. An Australian version of the shame poster. 5. RICHARD FAYERWEATHER BABCOCK (1887-1954) JOIN THE NAVY. 1917. This might have been the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove! 7. EDWARD PENFIELD (1866-1925) YES SIR – I AM HERE! / MOTOR CORPS OF AMERICA. 1918. So many World War I posters reflect women’s service during the war; this is a rare Edward Penfield image.

One young American man who could not wait until 1917 was Allan Seeger (uncle of Pete), who volunteered for the French Foreign Legion almost immediately after the hostilities began in Europe and died at the Battle of Somme (July-November, 1916) alongside a million other men. He left behind this prescient, poignant poem, which was first published in 1917, just as his fellow Americans were heading “over there”:

I Have a Rendezvous with Death, Alan Seeger:

I have a rendezvous with death/At some disputed barricade,/When Spring comes back with rustling shade/And apple-blossoms fill the air–/I have a rendezvous with Death/ When Spring brings back blue days and fair/ It may be he shall take my hand/And lead me into his dark land/And close my eyes and quench my breath–/It may be I shall pass him still/I have a rendezvous with Death/On some scarred slope of battered hill,/When Spring comes round again this year/And the first meadow-flowers appear./God knows ’twere better to be deep/Pillowed in silk and scented down./Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep/Pulse nigh to pulse and breath to breath/When hushed awakenings are dear…../But I’ve a rendezvous with Death/at midnight in some flaming town./When Spring trips north, again this year,/And I to my pledged word am true,/I shall not fail that rendezvous.

 

 


One Powerful Painting

I’m still processing the subject of my graduate institute–the enduring fascination and evolving image(s) of the Tudors, collective and individual–even though it ended on this past Friday afternoon. The week was pretty intense: a lot of history, prints, portraits and plays, films and discussions of all of the above. The students were great: many of them were high-school and middle-school teachers who are always fun to teach. I don’t think we had any problem figuring out the towering and projecting figures of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, but the perpetual pull of the three beheaded ladies (Anne Boleyn, Mary, Queen of Scots, and Jane Grey, the “Nine Days’ Queen”) seems a bit more complex, especially the latter. While Anne’s and Mary’s lives were longer and their impact greater, young Jane still captivates, and I think this is largely due to one powerful painting– Paul Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833)–and its impact on the Victorian era and our own.

Jane execution

Paul Delaroche, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, 1833; National Gallery, London

Lady Jane Grey, the grand-niece of Henry VIII, was proclaimed Queen following the death of Edward VI in 1553, as part of a short-lived coup initiated by her father-in-law John Dudley, The Duke of Northumberland, to avoid the succession of the Catholic Mary Tudor, who had a more legitimate claim. She ruled for only nine days (until July 19) and was executed for high treason in February of 1554. Over the centuries, Jane has transcended historical-footnote-status for several reasons: she can be seen as a Protestant martyr or an innocent (feminine) pawn, depending on the time and place. But Delaroche transformed her into more a romantic heroine, grasping for her “headrest” in the dark, clothed in some semblance of a satin wedding dress! With all the anachronistic details, Delaroche took Jane out of her own time and placed her in his, enabling future portrayals to follow suit. The painting was apparently a sensation when it was first exhibited, and inspired many sentimental depictions of Jane and her end over the nineteenth century–and after. It was donated to the National Gallery in 1902 but forgotten for much of the twentieth century after it was feared lost in the Tate Gallery Flood of 1928. After its rediscovery in the 1970s, it was restored and re-installed at the National Gallery, where it was the subject of a 2010 exhibition, Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey, which seems specially timed to coincide with the “Tudor-mania” of the past decade. That same year, Victoria Hall produced her own portrayal of Lady Jane, or (more accurately) Delaroche’s Lady Jane.

Jane 18th c

Jane Last Moments

Jane Tower Grant

Jane 2010 Victoria Hall

Lady Jane Grey before Delaroche (anonymous etching and engraving, late 18th century, British Museum) and after: Hendrik Jackobus Scholten, The Last Moments of Lady Jane Grey, The Tower of London; William James Grant, The Tower (The Relics of Lady Jane Grey), 1861, Photo © Peter Nahum at The Leicester Galleries, London; Victoria Hall, After Delaroche, 2010.

 


Bloomsbury Tudors

My upcoming summer institute is as much about Tudorism as it is the Tudors, and as I have studied the reception and appropriation of the Tudors in the ages that followed their rule it has become increasingly clear to me how influential children’s literature has been in this ongoing process, particularly from the Victorian era onwards. This is perfectly understandable as there is lots of “merry” history to emphasize over off with their heads, a boy king, and Elizabeth is always adaptable. It’s certainly understandable to me, as a royal picture/poetry book first peaked my interest in the Tudors: Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Kings and Queens, which was first published in 1932 and re-released in a facsimile edition by the British Library a few years ago to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee. This is the most enchanting book, with clever little verses about each and every English king and queen paired with striking illustrations by Rosalind Thornycroft–the monarchs appear poised to leap off their pages! Even Oliver Cromwell is included, which I don’t think would happen now. Along with the Farjeons, Rosalind was part of the Blooomsbury set: she also had a romantic relationship with D.H. Lawrence and apparently inspired Lady Chatterley’s Lover! Of course I didn’t know that when I first set eyes on this book many years ago, but somehow this little fact (rumor?) makes it even more interesting. Here are Thornycroft’s Tudors, with a little context–I’m surprised Mary isn’t “Bloody”.

Bloomsbury Tudors Henry 7

Bloomsbury Tudors Henry 8

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Bloomsbury Tudors Mary

Bloomsbury Elizabeth

KingsQueens Farjeon

 

 

 

 


Taking on the “Hot” Tudors

I am deep into the preparations for my summer graduate institute next week: “The Tudors: History, Media and Mythology”. As I’ve got the history and historiography down, my preparations encompass watching lots of videos! This will be the first course that I’ve taught which extensively uses film and focuses on representations as much as historical realities, but I decided to take it on for several reasons. After this last decade or so of Tudor mania it has become increasingly clear to me that many, if not most, of my students’ historical perspectives were shaped first and foremost by popular culture, so I have to address these interpretations and depictions more directly rather than just leaving them on the side. And there are so many! As Cynthia Herrup notes in her 2009 article in Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s magazine, “Students have always come to class with firm ideas drawn from fiction, but now they have multiple visualizations that convince them, on the one hand, that they “know” the history, and on the other hand, that the historically accurate Elizabeth (or Mary, or whoever) is infinitely malleable.” Several of my colleagues have been teaching World War (s) history and film courses for a while, and why not me (and the trendy Tudors?) And lastly, our summer institutes are intense, one-week courses that meet every day, all day long, which is a good format for showing films and clips and having discussions.

So these are the themes that I am pursuing now (subject to change until right up until Monday morning): the absence of Henry VII, the first Tudor: why isn’t he hot? I certainly think he is. The interplay of Tudor projection (through histories, portraits, plays) and modern representations. I like to see the past and present connect (sort of) through projection onto representation. The development of a veritable cults devoted to Mary, Queen of Scots (one of Edison’s earliest films pictures her execution!) and more recently, Anne Boleyn. All sorts of Elizabeth sub-topics: I could have devoted the course entirely to her. And I would also like to demonstrate and discuss the transition from “public television history” to “premium cable history” and back again: after all, The Tudors was produced for Showtime but also broadcast on the BBC (despite David Starkey’s fierce objections).

Tudor Themes & Representations, in images:

Tudors 1

Tudors White Queen

The newly-crowned Henry VII! In stills from the 1972 BBC mini-series The Shadow of the Tower and the last episode of the 2013 BBC/Starz mini-series The White Queen (with his mother Margaret Beaufort, who has somehow made her way to the Battle of Bosworth).

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Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons

Tudors Eric Bana

Projection: Petworth House copy of Hans Holbein’s incredibly-influential portrait of Henry VIII (© National Trust images/Derrick E. Witty), creating very big SHOULDERS for Robert Shaw (in A Man for all Seasons, 1966) and Eric Bana (The Other Boleyn Girl, 2008) to fill!

THE TUDORS

Tudors Jane

Tudors Mary

The Beheaded Ladies: Anne Boleyn (as played by Natalie Dormer in The Tudors, 2009), Jane Grey (as depicted by Paul Delaroche, 1834, National Gallery, London) and Mary, Queen of Scots (whose execution was captured by a Dutch artist in 1586, National Gallery of Scotland). Why are we so continually fascinated by these romantic “martyrs”?

elizajesuscollege

Tudors Elizabeth Davis

Eternal Elizabeth: Queen Elizabeth is (relatively) ageless during her own lifetime, but age is definitely an issue in her afterlife! Portrait of the Queen c. 1590 (Jesus College, Oxford University) and Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, 1939.

 


Fighting the Great Salem Fire

I do apologize, in advance, to all of my worldly readers and followers: I must focus on the Great Salem Fire of 1914 for much of this week: after that, I will be able to let it go. Despite the name of my blog, I strive to be both parochial and cosmopolitan, but the centennial anniversary of the fire that destroyed a third of our city a century ago has has held me in its grip for some time, and there is more that I want to explore and show: about three more posts, I think, and then I’m going to get out of town! Salem always has this effect on me—I feel the weight of the past here keenly all the time, but sometimes it is particularly pressing, and this is such a time. Here are the bare facts: the Salem Fire burned for 13 hours, commencing in the early afternoon of June 25, 1914 and ending in the early morning of June 26, 1914. It began in a district of tanneries in the northwestern part of the city and ended at Salem Harbor, destroying 1376 buildings in its path and leaving nearly 20,000 people homeless and half that number jobless. As I have considered the Fire over the past year or so, I’ve always focused on its aftermath–the architectural and infrastructural devastation, the relief and rebuilding efforts–rather than on the conflagration itself. I always thought this was because I was more interested in humanity rather than mere destruction, but I didn’t fully realize that firefighting is of course one of the most heroic displays of humanity. Several things have brought this rather obvious point home for me in the past week or so: a rereading of one of the primary sources of the Great Fire, Arthur Jones’ Salem Fire (1914) which really emphasizes the firefighting, the wonderful presentation by Margherita Desy, principal historian of the USS Constitution, at this past weekend’s Conflagration symposium, and some recently digitized photographs from the collection of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum. It was also interesting to see some of the vintage fire engines on Derby Wharf this past weekend, including one which was used in the Great Salem Fire a century ago.

Firefighting PEM-001

Firefighting Derby

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 Salem Fire Department Engine One hooked up to a Lowry Flush Hydrant, 1914, Phillips Library at Peabody Essex Museum; Manchester-by-the-Sea Fire Department Seaside 2 Returns to Salem this weekend (Manchester was one of 22 towns and cities that responded rapidly to the Salem Fire in 1914, and the Manchester firefighters brought this very engine!)

Firefighting Bridge Street

Firefighting Margin Street

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Firefighting 4

Firefighting on Bridge, Margin and upper Broad Streets during the Great Salem Fire, June 25, 1914; news clipping from a scrapbook about the fire, labeled “Post, June 26.”  with caption: “Firemen seeking relief in puddles of water. Many firemen were overcome by the intense heat. They laid down in puddles of water until revived, when they went back to work.” (it was 93 degrees that day)  All images from the collection of the Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

 


Monarchs and Monkeys

When you teach with a lot of images, as I do, you’ve got to be ready to answer all sorts of questions, because students will notice every little thing and be much more interested in the margins than the focal point. I have been rendered answer-less on more than one occasion, so I always try to be prepared. When discussing queenship in my Tudor-Stuart class, for example, I would never, never, never show them two of my favorite portraits of queens, Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout and Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck, because I know that their attention would almost immediately move away from the women and turn to the monkeys. Why would these two dignified Queens have their portraits painted with monkeys? Well, it varies with the Queen, so let’s start with Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, whose miniature portrait by Lucas Horenbout was painted in 1525, just about the time that Henry began the long process of attempting to annul their marriage, a desire that would eventually result in the severing of ties with Rome and the English Reformation.

PicMonkey Collage

Katherine panel

I’m featuring several versions of this image: the original miniature (from the Duke of Buccleauch Collection), doubled for effect, and a later and larger copy on wood panels, featuring a younger Katherine and a clearer view of her monkey and its message–because there is a pretty obvious message here. Like her father-in-law, Henry VII, and several other contemporary royals, Katherine probably enjoyed having a monkey as a pet (and it was said to hail from her native Spain), but the pet has a purpose in this image: he (or she?) holds a Tudor rose in one hand and is reaching for Katherine’s crucifix rather than the coin she is offering to him. While medieval monkeys could represent all sorts of negative things–the Devil himself, foolishness, vice–the monkey of Katherine’s time was more likely a symbol of exotic worldliness and an imitator of man. A tethered monkey, like Katherine’s, can therefore represent ascetic discipline, which is reinforced by his gesture towards the cross: faith over greed. This is the message Katherine is sending out there, just as (and after) Henry is replacing her.

So now let’s look at two other depictions of royals and their monkeys: Daniel Mytens’ posthumous portrait of Katherine’s sister-in-law, Margaret Tudor, the Queen Consort of Scotland (Royal Collection), and Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, with “her” dwarf Jeffrey Hudson and a monkey (National Gallery of Art). What a contrast between these two royal portraits, which were painted at about the same time (1620s-1630s, though Mytens’ painting harkens back to an earlier era). The monkeys have lost their message and been reduced to mere exotic pets, especially in the extravagant depiction of Henrietta Maria: here the monkey is still tethered, but to the dwarf rather than the Queen. This is a woman whose extravagance (and Catholicism) would contribute to the intensifying division between the King and Parliament, a division that would soon lead to the English Revolution. So perhaps I can teach with these particular portraits–if the depictions of monkeys can open up a larger discussion of events as significant as the English Reformation and the English Revolution, why not?

Margaret_Tudor_-_Daniel_Mytens_-_1620-38

Monkey and Henrietta Maria Van Dyck

 

 


Spring Semester 2014: Tudors and Trials

Classes started last week, but I really don’t get my mind focused on teaching until after the long MLK weekend, which marks the commencement of the spring semester just as Labor Day cues the fall. The administrative work of my other role as department chair is continuous, which makes teaching even more special: a regular break from the tedious. I get three course releases for being chair, which means I am reduced to teaching just one course (Tudor-Stuart England) per semester, but this particular semester I’m also teaching a graduate course (Topics in European History: the European Witch Trials): this particular combination of content and community will make for an interesting semester, I am sure.

The Tudor-Stuart class is always filled with the best and the brightest students, not only among our History majors but also English and Theater majors. The Tudors have been so consistently topical in popular culture over the last decade or so that my students will feel that they “know” them; the Stuarts are more elusive. We’ll cover all the big events, most prominently the English Reformation in the sixteenth century and the English Revolution in the seventeenth, but two of the course texts will (hopefully) enable my students to get a bit more into the homes and heads of Tudor and Stuart people. I’ve never used Orlin’s text in class before (but what could be more essential than privacy?), but Friedman’s subject matter–cheap print–opens up a much wider window into the Revolution.

PicMonkey Collage

I teach two courses on the European witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one undergraduate and one graduate, and I much prefer the latter. The reasons why more than 100,ooo people were tried for witchcraft in this (early modern) era are complex, and I find that undergraduates want them to be simple. They don’t have the background, the patience, or the time (or inclination, really) to read all the texts they need to read in order to figure out all the factors that went into this frenzy. But graduate students read: we go through at least one book (or series of scholarly articles) a week in my class. It’s a dynamic field, so there are always great titles to choose from: I always start with a few texts on the fifteenth century to lay the foundation, and then take a regional tour around those areas that experienced intensive witch-hunting. There are definitely some universal causes of the witch hunts in this era, but the catalysts are more local, even personal, so this is a topic that can be well-served by case studies such as Carlo Ginzburg’s Night Battles, a classic study of counter-magic in northern Italy, Thomas Robisheaux’s Last Witch of Langenburg, and James Sharpe’s Bewitching of Anne Gunter.

Tudor Book 5

PicMonkey Collage

We will try to understand sensationalistic cases of demonic possession in France (through Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France), some of the anthropological and psychological factors present in the region which experienced the most intense witch-hunting in Europe (through Lyndal Roper’s Witch Craze. Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany), and one of the last major European series of trials (30 years before Salem, through P.G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Abundance of Witches. The Great Scottish Witch-Hunt). I always try to switch out the books every time I teach a class to keep everything “fresh”, but two perennial texts for this course are Friedrich Spee’s Cautio Criminalis (1631), a plea for judicial caution and against torture by a Jesuit confessor and poet who had witnessed (and participated) in the worst trials in Germany and Charles Zika’s The Appearance of Witchcraft. The image of the witch, projected far and wide through the relatively new medium of print, is one of those universal factors I was referring to above, and Zika’s visual analysis is masterful.

800px-Friedrich_Spee_von_Langenfeld_Briefmarke_zum_400._Geburtstag

Tudor Book 4


Blood Sugar

Sugar has long been a connecting commodity, linking various global communities in networks of supply and demand. In both my world and western history courses I have long stressed its importance: as a key factor in the expansion of Europe from the Crusades on, as a major cause of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, as an initiator and indicator of the increasing globalization of trade and consumerism over the early modern era. From the moment I discovered Sidney Mintz’s classic text Sweetness and Power. The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985), sugar has been one of my portals into the early modern past. Because of the inextricable connection between sugar and slavery, I thought I was familiar with the term “blood sugar”, as used by abolitionists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in much the same way that we would use “blood diamonds” today, but I never really understood the full ramifications of that term until I was viewing a current exhibition at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University: Sugar and the Visual Imagination in the Atlantic World, circa 1600-1800. “Blood sugar” can refer metaphorically to the blood, sweat, tears, and lives of the slaves who were sacrificed on the altar of the ever-increasing consumption of sugar in the western world, but also literally to use of cattle blood in the sugar-refining process. Several sources in the Sugar and the Visual Imagination exhibition make the explicit connection between sugar and the blood shed by people and animals, including the fascinating 19th century abolitionist “picture book” aimed at children, Cuffy the Negro’s Doggrel Description of the Progress of Sugar  (1823).

Blood Sugar

This might seem like a very graphic association for children, but British abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (like their counterparts across the Atlantic) were not known for their subtlety. The most popular pamphlet of the 18th century, William Fox’s Address to the people of Great Britain on the propriety of abstaining from West Indian sugar and rum (1791) went much farther and set the tone for much of the debate:  Nay, so necessarily connected are our consumption of the commodity the misery resulting from it, that in every pound of sugar used, (the produce of slaves imported from Africa), we may be considered as consuming two ounces of human flesh.The Sugar and the Visual Imagination exhibition explores this “Cannibalism” angle and its role in making sugar distasteful for everyone–including the royal family, who were pictured in several contemporary caricatures trying to wean themselves off the substance. Below, a rather grotesquely caricatured Queen Charlotte (who was said to have African blood herself) weighs tiny pieces of sugar on a scale for her guests while King George III says he can leave it altogether.

Blood Sugar BM

Isaac Cruikshank, The Gradual Abolition of the Slave Trade, or Leaving of Sugar by Degrees, 1792, British Museum.

Even (long) after the abolition of the slave trade in both Britain and America, sugar continued to foster connections, criticism and conflict. It became a focal point for critics of both economic and political imperialism, as illustrated by the 1906 Puck cover below (from the Library of Congress), criticizing U.S. economic policy in the Philippines. Much more recently, I came across the headline “Coca-Cola Distances itself from Blood Sugar Farms” in Cambodia.

Blood Sugar Puck 1906


Bloody Mary

Today marks the death day of Queen Mary I, the unfortunate and undisputed first Queen of England, and thus the beginning of the “golden” age of Elizabeth. When I teach the Reformation, as I am doing now, I have to reveal my Protestant bias to my students, but even I can admit that poor Mary Tudor’s reputation has suffered from a hatchet job: she has been “Bloody Mary” from almost her own time and has somehow been transformed into a paranoid, desperate dwarf in ours. She was certainly a pious and intolerant Catholic, but in her time toleration was not an attribute: while almost 300 Protestants were executed during her reign the Chambre Ardent (“Burning Chamber”) of the French King Henri II killed far more. I see her primarily as a victim of circumstances and a woman of her time: the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was in a position to make a glorious and early marriage, but fell from favor during her parents’ divorce and was declared illegitimate. She was reinstated in the order of succession to the throne in 1544, and succeeded her half-brother Edward VI in 1553, but her religion and the “Spanish Marriage” to the future Philip II contributed to her unpopularity, along with the economic depression and military losses that characterized her brief reign. Several false pregnancies seem to indicate the presence of severe tumors or possibly even cancer, and she died in pain and in misery on this day in 1558, aged 42.

NPG 428; Queen Mary I by Master John

NPG D18729; Queen Mary I when Princess Mary after Hans Holbein the Younger

Mary Tudor: as Princess Mary in 1544, by Master John; Engraving after Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1700, both National Portrait Gallery, London.

A passionate circle of Protestants, generally called the “Marian Exiles”, left England during Mary’s reign and upon her death they returned, with a vengeance, as their movement had been strengthened by the martyrs who chose to stay behind. Even their new Queen Elizabeth, whom they had idealized as a perfect Protestant princess, would not be pure enough for them, but her sister was thoroughly demonized, most consequentially by John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Days, first published in 1563. This book (which is treated as more of an “event” than a mere book by historians) chartered the history of Christian persecution back to the days of Nero in five volumes, but its successive reprints (as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs) and abridgement increasingly focused on Mary, and transformed her into the Bloody Mary of the seventeenth century and after. It didn’t help Mary’s historical reputation that her successor sister’s reign was so golden by contrast, as exemplified by the triumphant victory of England over the “invincible” Spanish (Catholic) Armada in 1588.

The British Library- G 12101 t/p

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Title page of 1563 first edition and colored woodcut illustration from John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments online at the University of Sheffield, which has all four Elizabethan editions.

It just gets worse for Mary as Britain’s triumphant Protestantism is associated with its imperial strength (and democratic government) in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. And the contemporary popular obsession with the Tudors seems to have contributed to the deification of Elizabeth and the demonization of Mary: the first Elizabeth film (1999) being a particularly blatant case in point. Despite some recent historical revisionism (there is a succinct review here), I’m not sure Mary I can ever be viewed in her proper historical context:  “Bloody Mary” seems to have taken on a life (several, really) of its own.

Bloody Mary

“Teaching” Mary: a flash card from the 1920s, NYPL Digital Gallery.


Ringbearers

As part of their midterm exams last week, I gave my Renaissance students several images to analyze, including one with a very earnest brown-eyed man holding–no, bearing a ring:  was he mourning a deceased wife or fiance, was he himself a lost husband, or more mundanely, was he a goldsmith advertising his wares? These are the usual interpretations, and my students came up with more interesting ones. There are a surprising number of these ringbearing portraits, maybe not enough to classify as a sub-genre, but certainly more than I realized. Most art historians seem to think the portrait below depicts Bolognese goldsmith and painter Francesco Francia.

Francesco del Cossa. Portrait of a Man with a Ring 1472

Francesco del Cossa, Portrait of a Man with a Ring, c. 1472-77, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

There is also a theory that this ringbearing young man was a member of the prominent Este family of Ferrara, which means he might be related to this other Francesco below, appearing in this striking portrait by Rogier van der Weyden. Franceso d’Este bears a ring and a hammer, which the curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art believe might be jousting prizes or symbols of power. I had not thought of jousting prizes before, and while the hammer looks powerful, not sure about the ring.

Ringbearers van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden, Francesco dEste, c. 1460, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This has got to be a northern Renaissance device/motif that found is way to Italy, like oil painting in general and portraits in particular. The earliest ringbearing portraits I could find were painting by Jan Van Eyck and one of his “followers”: the first painting is Van Eyck’s incredibly intimate portrait of Bruges goldsmith Jan de Leeuw, and the second is simply titled Young Man Holding a Ring. I have always found the de Leeuw portrait strikingly modern. The curators at the National Gallery of Art in London, whose collection the latter painting belongs to, explain the ring rather conventionally in terms of trade and/or impending marriage, but there is an inscription here (Lord, Let it Pass) so maybe things were a bit more complicated?

Jan_van_Eyck_-_Portrait_of_Jan_de_Leeuw_-_WGA7609

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Jan Van Eyck, Jan de Leeuw,c. 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Follower of Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Ring, c. 1450, National Gallery of Art, London.

Don’t get me wrong–I think it’s enough that these goldsmiths are being “captured”: such a great example of the relatively egalitarian and aspirational aspects of Renaissance society and culture. I just wish I knew the whole story behind these interesting portraits. I’m the most curious about the sole woman in this group: the mysterious and beautiful subject of Lorenzo di Credi’s Portrait of a Woman (c. 1490-1500). Most likely the widowed daughter of a goldsmith, or perhaps the widow of the artist’s brother, she is clearly not showcasing her own creation but rather commemorating a relationship.

Ringbearer Lorenzo di Credi

Lorenzo di Credi, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1490-1500, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Two other images speak to the Renaissance fascination with jewelry and jewellers, which I think might be both literal and symbolic:  one is my absolute favorite painting, Petrus Christus’ St. Eligius as a Goldsmith, variantly titled A Goldsmith in his Shop (1449) in which a couple are pictured in a goldsmith’s shop, presumably about to purchase a ring (with onlookers outside, as well as US). There’s a lot going on here: one of the acts associated with the early medieval St. Eligius was the gift of a gold ring to his contemporary Saint Godeberta before she took her religious vows. Petrus Christus might be portraying Godeberta torn between worldly and holy marriages-and she appears to be reaching towards the latter.

Saint Eligius as a goldsmith by Petrus Christus 1449

Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

And finally there is the symbolic signature (after 1508) of another Northern Renaissance artist. Lucas Cranach the Elder: a crowned black serpent bearing a gold ruby ring. This heraldic device, which also served as Cranach’s coat of arms, appears in many variations (which you can see here) but no one seems to know precisely what it means–perhaps the artist simply thought it looked cool. I’ve always thought that Cranach was the most interesting and enigmatic of northern Renaissance artists, working closely with Luther to advance the cause of the Reformation visually while simultaneously maintaining commissions from the Catholic Church. Throughout his life, he always seemed to be reaching for the brass ring.

signature_of_louis_cranach_the_elder


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