Holbeins, tapestries and a ‘Sea-Dog’ table
Now that the Queen is dead and Charles has been proclaimed King, the Met couldn’t think of a better time to stage “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England,” a show that’s been in the works since 2016. Think about it. as a warm-up for next year’s coronation of the new monarch, and a throwback to another tumultuous political era.
You don’t have to be a Tudor monster or a “Wolf Hall” fan – or even an Anglophile – to appreciate the material culture and artistic splendor that reigned during the dynasty, which lasted from 1485 when Henry VII seized the throne until 1603, when Henry VIII’s daughter, Elizabeth, died.
That makes five monarchs in total: Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI (Henry VIII’s only legitimate son, who died aged 15 and was borne by third wife Jane Seymour), Mary I (daughter of Henry’s first wife , Katherine of Aragon, known as the Bloody Mary for her execution of Protestants) and Elizabeth I (daughter of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, known as the Virgin Queen and nicknamed Illegitimate and Worst Because her father defied the Catholic Church and married Boleyn).
On a recent tour of the exhibition, co-curator Adam Eaker, a specialist in European painting, remarked that the exhibition aims to show the stuff of the Tudors through media – there are paintings , tapestries, clothing, armor, ironwork, woodwork, sculptures and manuscripts which are the work of a very cosmopolitan ensemble frequented by the English royal family, their wealthy courtiers and their relatives.
The walls and display cases are full of Flemish paintings and weavings, Florentine velvets and sculptures, as well as a multitude of portraits of the German master Hans Holbein the Younger, with materials like Indian mother-of-pearl and Chinese porcelain added to the overall mix.
Tudor court lifestyle
It’s an immersive experience, with more than 100 exhibits arranged in spacious yet intimate spaces meant to resemble the interior of a Tudor palace. The curators, Eaker and sculpture and decorative arts specialist Elizabeth Cleland, aim to simulate the lifestyle of the Tudor courts – in other words, to bring to life what it means to be ‘born in the way’ and surrounded by Holbeins and of luxurious furnishings and appointments, much of it is portable so it can be transported from property to property depending on the occasion.
The exhibition opens with a giant bronze candelabra (1529-40) and two angels (1524-29) by Benedetto da Rovezzano, remains of a tomb of Henry VIII that was never completed. The works are presented together for the first time since the 17th century and serve as a prelude to a parade of masterful pieces.
Portraits of monarchs, in particular a small painting of Henry VIII by Holbein (circa 1537) and the many iterations of his daughter Elizabeth I, are dazzling statements of wealth and power, intended to impress foreign royals and project strength and legitimacy.
“The Ditchley Portrait” of Elizabeth by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (c. 1592) is one of the Queen’s most iconic likenesses. (Eaker noted on his tour that the painting is so iconic of the monarch that it appears on the cover of his copy of the Norton Anthology of English Literature – mine too, seventh edition, volume 1.)
The largest full-length portrait of the Virgin Queen, “Ditchley” is a highly stylized depiction, featuring a very stiff Elizabeth standing on a map of southern England, against the backdrop of a bifurcated, half-stormy sky ( reminiscent of his predecessor reign of Mary), half-sunny (representing his own golden reign).
There is nothing natural in this painting, except perhaps the queen’s face, which shows signs of aging (the following copies indeed had to be airbrushed to conceal unflattering attributes). Her Majesty wears a very exaggerated costume with a hoop skirt known as the farthingale; her collar resembles a pair of wings, as if she could take flight at any moment.
We get the general impression that she’s no mere mortal — not a mere queen — but has almost god-like supernatural powers. She is the mistress of everything she roams, a kind of 16th century superheroine.
And this idea is found in other interpretations, such as “The Rainbow Portrait” attributed to Gheeraerts (c. 1602), in which Elizabeth literally holds up a rainbow and wears a coat decorated with eyes and ears – because, yes, she sees everything, hears everything and knows everything clearly.
Decorative arts enthusiasts will delight in the panoply of objects intended to please the eye and enhance the generous coffers of their owners. The “’Sea-Dog’ Table” (circa 1575), a rare survival from the 16th century, was made in France for the English Countess Bess of Hardwick and her husband, Lord Shrewsbury. According to a video on the museum’s website, this banquet table was supposed to be taken apart – disassembled into seventeen pieces – and then reassembled wherever the party was taking place, whether at the owner’s house or another large house.
“Sea wolves” are heavy mythical creatures that function as table legs; they have the bodies of fish and the scales and heads of dogs, each one very particular. They rest on turtle-shaped legs and support the top, which still has some of the original gilt silver ornamentation and Italian marble inlays.
It’s fit for a king or queen.
WHERE: The Met Fifth Avenue, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Gallery 899.
WHEN: Until January 8.