The People Who Bequeathed the Prayer Book

Through January 8
Free with Metropolitan Museum admission

The Tudors
Art and Majesty in Renaissance England

By Elizabeth Cleland and Adam Eaker
Yale, pp. 352, $65 

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Review by Richard Mammana Jr.

The internal dynamics of one small Welsh family over 120 years shaped the English-speaking Christian world as we know it between 1485 and 1603. There were six Tudor monarchs — Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I — all descendants of a French marriage with an ancient clan of Wales called Tuduriaid Penmynydd. They came to power through force at the end of the medieval period and were replaced after the death of a 70-year-old maiden queen who launched the mercantilism that became colonialism.

A breathtaking exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum gives us a sense of what this all looked like while it was happening — as the second Tudor Henry broke with Rome and took his many wives, as worship was introduced in English, during the severe Marian reaction, and in what we know now as a settlement under Elizabeth I. The exhibit is worth an entire afternoon punctuated by pauses for resting legs in the café.

The religious contexts for the several regnal changes are explained faultlessly, and illustrated with paintings, books, and objects assembled to give a comprehensive material account of the several English Reformations. The items have never been brought together in one place since they were part of their various palace and church collections more than four centuries ago, and the foremost donor to the exhibit was the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Henry VIII, ca. 1540
Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger (German, Augsburg
1497/98–1543 London) Oil on panel
Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool (WAG 1350)
Image Courtesy National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery

We see the pre-Reform splendor of Roman Catholicism in an illuminated Book of Hours from circa 1500 that belonged to Mary of France. The rise of humanism and revival of interest in antiquity is illustrated in tapestries of classical and religious topics. The comprehensive programs of religious change wedded to carefully crafted images of rule are shown over and over in priceless examples that are the immediate background for European exploration of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, as well as the fractured Protestant and Catholic worlds all Christians know today.

Standouts are hard to pin down, because one could study each object and excavate meaning from it at leisure while not attending to the whole in its assemblage. Images of Henry VIII, though, are important, no more so than in the juxtaposition of a well-known portrait by Holbein with a full suit of his armor. We see the king of the reform and one of its prime movers as he decided to be depicted, and in the very leather and steel battle clothing he wore. The effect and the immediacy of Henry’s presence to the museum visitor is powerful, giving a sense of the power of his will as he opposed the papacy and consolidated religious and temporal power in himself, in the arrangement that will be received by King Charles III at his coronation in 2023.

Another stunning object is a Henrician tapestry of St. Paul burning heathen books. We see the king’s effort to establish identity with religious reform in the New Testament, linking his work to purify the church with similar activities by the apostles themselves. The Roman clothing of the heathen is instructive and pregnant with meaning.

Field Armor for King Henry VIII
Milan or Brescia, Italy, ca. 1544. Steel, partly etched and gilded, leather
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1932 (32.130.7a–l)

From later in the Tudor period, we have a domestic object: a Chinese ewer from the Ming Dynasty that likely belonged to Elizabeth and was given by her to Sir Walter Raleigh, first Governor of Virginia. That colony, named for the Virgin Queen, cemented English claims in the New World in actions that continue to be contested by churches and communities that repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, as Episcopalians have on an official level. The reality of globalization, in progress already in about 1585, is crystallized here: a Chinese jug for bathing water or handwashing, given by a Tudor queen to a colonizer of the Chesapeake and its islands.

The exhibit is an extraordinary and seamless example of how museums are adapting to life in the midst of pandemic; it had been scheduled for October 2020. The delay allowed the museum to expand its already rich offerings of online audio tours, high-quality images of the objects on display, and even gallery title descriptions.

The accompanying exhibit catalogue is the usual very fine work of Yale University Press, which comes with a punishing price point in the museum store but can be ordered at much lower cost online. The book’s essays situate each part of the exhibit in a narrative of Tudor life, display, and after-history.

The rich published, online, and streaming audio resources of this exhibit mean it will endure as a learning resource long after it closes. They also raise the question of whether one must still go to a museum to experience an exhibit in its completeness.

The answer is a resounding yes. Just as a photograph of a fireplace gives us the feelings of warmth but not actual heat, the digital or printed experience of a museum installation is still a clean different thing from visiting on two legs. For people of the Book of Common Prayer, the opportunity to walk among the faces and clothing of the family who bequeathed it to us is an inestimable gift.

Designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Netherlandish, Aelst 1502–1550 Brussels);
possibly woven under the direction of Paulus van Oppenem (Brussels, active ca. 1510–45)
Detail of Saint Paul Directing the Burning of the Heathen Books,
from a nine-piece set of the Life of Saint Paul, before September 1539
Wool (warp), wool, silk, silver, and gilded-silver metal- wrapped threads (wefts)
134 x 216 in. (340 x 550 cm) Private collection


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