Behind every monarch, an art alliance
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Behind every monarch, an art alliance
A detail of “Saint Paul Directing the Burning of the Heathen Books,” a tapestry designed by the Flemish artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst in the 1530s at the Metropolitan Museum in New York on Oct. 3, 2022. “The Tudors” shows how the English Renaissance was the work of wily leaders and enterprising foreigners. No dynasty has better captured the modern imagination. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Jason Farago

NEW YORK, NY.- The labels beside seven objects in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition of art from 15th- and 16th-century England have a credit line that slightly jars: “Lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.”

In one sense, the credit is accurate. Elizabeth was alive and well when the keepers of the royal collection in London approved the loans to the Met — and so, in tribute to her, the museum has decided to leave the labels as written. But the drawings and paintings are Charles’ now, and the obsolete credit line underscores how the modern state grinds on from one reign to the next. Barristers are updating their business cards from Queen’s Counsel to King’s, but no one needs a fresh appointment at the bar. A new pound is being minted, with a new royal punim, but it’ll be worth just the same as before. (Well, less, but that’s more the new government’s fault than the new king’s.)

The crown is continuous, it passes in a breath. But what do you do when the succession is not so clear: What then for art, and what then for statecraft?

“The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England” returns us to a less stable period for the throne, when the claim to hereditary power was dubious and heirs were in short supply. The century after 1485, when Henry VII took the crown from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, would see England break away from the church in Rome and grow into a mercantile powerhouse. The throne was never fully secure, though, and sometimes a queen’s blood had to spill to secure it. One of the Elizabeth II loans here (stamped with the insignia of her great-grandfather, Edward VII) is a drawing by Hans Holbein, depicting a woman with downcast eyes and a slight double chin. It’s a demure Anne Boleyn, her head still attached to her neck, and it hangs next to another Holbein drawing of her rival and successor, Jane Seymour.

Delayed two years by the pandemic, “The Tudors” is handsome, classical, full of prestigious loans, and maybe a little royalist for its own good. Its exhibition design echoes a Tudor palace, and its tone feels closer to a plummy BBC voice-over than the sleek narration of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall.” The exhibition takes its pleasures in courtly fashion and high living — one section of the show is simply called “Splendor” — and American fans of the British monarchy, more numerous than I thought on last month’s evidence, will have a very fine time here. (The show has been organized by Elizabeth Cleland and Adam Eaker, curators, respectively, of decorative arts and of European painting; it will tour in 2023 to the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.)

What “The Tudors” does best is to underline the cosmopolitan cultural currents of the “English” Renaissance, and to integrate painting — almost of all it made by foreigners, Holbein first among them — with the often superior tapestries, furniture and metalwork of the same era. A monumental bronze candelabrum, weighing more than half a ton and meant for the tomb of the lavish cardinal Thomas Wolsey, was cast in London by an immigrant artist from Florence, Benedetto da Rovezzano. A stupendous walnut banqueting table, carved by French craftsmen and tricked out with chimerical beasts (dogs’ heads, swans’ wings, fish tails), was once owned by Bess of Hardwick: the four-times-married champ of Tudor social climbing, who was born into genteel poverty and died richer than anyone save the monarch.

The Tudor era begins with the conclusion of the Wars of the Roses, when the Lancastrian Henry Tudor marries Elizabeth of York and at last ends England’s decadeslong civil war. Henry VII appears in the first gallery here in his most famous portrait — a small panel painting by an unknown Netherlandish artist, and on loan from the National Portrait Gallery in London — gripping a rose.

The rose was the supreme emblem of the Tudor dynasty that Henry was hastily fashioning. Roses with twinned white and red petals (the York and Lancaster colors, united) recur throughout, in dense engravings of family trees, ceremonial cloaks and carpets, and intricate field armor of gilded steel.

Arrayed behind Henry, on free-standing panels, are the four subsequent Tudor monarchs. Henry VIII sits in pomp in a painting by Holbein. His son Edward VI, crowned at 9 and dead by 15, bears a rose of his own in his portrait. Last come Edward’s two older half sisters, by two mothers, of two faiths: Mary and Elizabeth, Catholic and Protestant, England’s first two queens regnant. The portrait of Mary, painted from life in 1554 by the Flemish artist Hans Eworth, depicts the Catholic restorer with an overt jeweled crucifix at her neck, before a background of suitably gory red. Elizabeth, in her 1583 portrait by Quentin Metsys the Younger (another Fleming), is in more Protestant black; a globe symbolizes her naval exploits, and a sieve, a symbol of virginity, dangles from her left hand.

Between their reigns England would pass from brutal religious warfare — Mary burned around 300 Protestants during a reign of just five years — to something like peace and prosperity (though Elizabeth executed a few heretics of her own, and had a healthy spy service at her disposal). An immense Flemish tapestry from Henry VIII’s reign depicts Saint Paul burning pagan books, the smoke represented by rich silver thread. Stained glass that Henry commissioned from Antwerp depicts Old Testament religious strife, with Jewish martyrs going to their death. Still, because “The Tudors” is much more about artistic beauty than political history, “Bloody Mary” here gets an uncommonly generous shake. Two richly detailed gold medals, made after her marriage to the future Philip II of Spain, depict Mary in proud profile, with painstakingly chased details of her lace collar and embroidered coat.

As for the first Queen Elizabeth, portraits across her 44-year reign map her development from a young woman with an uncertain claim to power to a European leader at the head of a Virgin Queen personality cult. Her earliest surviving full-length portrait (the so-called “Hampden Portrait,” after the peers who owned it), dates from the early 1560s and has the frankness of a dating app profile pic: a riot of pomegranates and pears behind her advertises her youth and fecundity. In the later “Darnley Portrait,” from around 1575, her red hair is gathered under a pearl diadem, and her sunken cheeks and narrowed eyes suggest a monarch sure of her rule.

By the 1590s, Elizabeth has grown into an ageless, almost sacrilegious icon, clutching a rainbow in her outstretched hand. In the final portrait here — done by an English painting studio and of no great technical distinction; even by 1599 the locals were still pretty clumsy — she stands upright, with stiff, wired wings like a guardian angel, wearing a dress embroidered with all the world’s flora and fauna. She has become the source of all life, and blessed herself with life everlasting.

Not really, though: Elizabeth died four years later, depressed and tormented in her palace at Richmond. The Tudor dynasty died with her, and her cousin James came down from Scotland to sit at last on the English throne. But the Stuarts have never captured the modern imagination quite like the Tudors still do, with Paul Scofield kneeling before the executioner in “A Man for All Seasons” and Cate Blanchett dancing the volta in “Elizabeth,” with their doublet-ripping soap operas and timbered facades in Great Neck or Los Feliz.

My own favorite Tudor indulgence, even more than “Wolf Hall,” is the big confrontation scene in Friedrich Schiller’s play “Maria Stuart,” where Elizabeth faces down her Scottish rival in an operatic queen-on-queen showdown (they never met in real life). Mary is the prisoner, but Elizabeth is the one who is not free — and beneath the jewels and the face paint she knows it. “What we appear is subject to the judgment of all mankind,” Schiller’s Elizabeth regrets, “and what we are, of no man.”

“The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England”

Through Jan. 8, 2023, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, 212-535-7710;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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