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Exhibition displays projection of power by the Tudor dynasty

The Tudor dynasty was exceptional at projecting power, creating a visual legacy that transcended the relatively short time it ruled England.

The recently closed exhibition The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England at the Metropolitan Museum of Art included more than 100 objects that showed how between 1485 when Henry Tudor became Henry VII until 1603 when his granddaughter Elizabeth I died childless, the Tudor dynasty helped build a political image.

A selection of three gold medals show how artists translated power on a small scale. As The Burlington Magazine pointed out in its review of the exhibit, it is emphatically not just an exhibition of paintings, as a variety of objects, big and small, are included.

The organizing curators conceived of the show in 2016, just a few months before the Brexit referendum, and it was installed soon after Queen Elizabeth II’s death. As the curators told The New York Times, they figured the Tudors’ intrigues would connect with visitors familiar with more recent dramas in the royal family, such as Charles’s marriage to Diana Spencer and subsequent divorce, Prince Harry’s withdrawal from royal duties, and Prince Andrew’s involvement with financier Jeffrey Epstein, which led his royal highness to lose his title.

Henry VIII and his six wives would give today’s media a field day. The show focuses on how the Tudors were careful in managing the way that they were seen, knowing that these visual representations would impact their legacy.

Take Queen Mary I, who ruled from July 1516 to November 1558 and was known as Mary Tudor, and “Bloody Mary” by her Protestant opponents. She needed to legitimize herself since there was little precedent for a single female ruler, so she used imagery to present herself as the rightful heir to the throne.

A cast gold portrait medal of Queen Mary I features an allegory of peace on the reverse, and was cast in gold in 1554 by Jacopo da Trezzo. The gallery label shares, “A fortuitous consequence of Mary Tudor’s largely unpopular marriage to the future Philip II of Spain was access to her husband’s court artists,” and her portrait with its strong profile is inspired by Roman coins.

The reliance on non-English artists to craft these images is a reminder of the role that Italian and Flemish artists had in creating “English” art, as the Tudor dynasty relied on imported talent in their image fashioning.

The catalog is more direct, characterizing her marriage as a political misstep, but the resulting medals prove “there were undeniable artistic compensations.” The reverse’s allegorical depiction of a figure embodying peace has “facial features not unlike Mary’s own,” and references her restoration of Roman Catholicism as the official English religion. Additional symbolism include scales of justice, clasped hands showing unity, and a cube representing stability.

Placed next to it in the exhibit case is a portrait medal depicting Queen Mary I of England and Philip, Prince of Spain, likely produced in Antwerp in 1555 by Jacques Jonghelinck, where “Trezzo’s psychological heft is eclipsed by gorgeous surface detailing.” On the latter the catalog writes, “what is lost in terms of the portrait’s psychological heft is gained in gorgeous surface detailing,” praising Jonghelinck’s attention to Mary’s gown and collar.

These cast medals were made with expensive raw materials, and producing them was a challenging, multiphase production. While the designs were reusable and adaptable, the medals themselves were highly coveted gifts. 

Queen Elizabeth I

Mary I was succeeded by her half-sister and successor Elizabeth I, who was also keenly aware of the power of image, so much so that she issued a draft proclamation that no one could make unauthorized portraits of her. Like Mary before her, Elizabeth exerted tight control over her image, which often focused on flattened, decorative surfaces and close attention to the depiction of textiles and jewels, depicting her as an ageless beauty.

Especially impressive is the bold frontal Queen Elizabeth I portrait medal with an allegory of dangers averted, given to Nicholas Hilliard and cast in gold around 1588. The catalog writes that her frontal gaze on the “daringly unconventional” medal feels “strikingly, arrestingly direct when compared with the classically inspired portraits in most sixteenth century medals,” citing the Trezzo profile medal as a more typical depiction.

Hilliard came from a family of goldsmiths and had apprenticed with the queen’s jeweler, making him well-skilled to create this medal that looked at Elizabeth’s Great Seal, “discarding the seal’s extraneous details of setting and armorials to pull the focus directly to the monarch’s head and upper torso, drawing in her arms just enough to show the orb and scepter in her hands.” A Latin inscription translates as “There is no richer circle in the world.”

The medal’s reverse emphasizes England’s “safely isolated abundance,” representing the nation as an island in a bay with a laurel tree. The medal was likely produced to celebrate England’s 1488 defeat of the Spanish Armada and a ring on the top suggests that it was originally suspended from a ribbon or chain.

A few rooms over is a portrait of the monarch, called The Rainbow Portrait from around 1602, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, painted at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, which ended at her death in 1603. The gallery labels state that it “presents her as an ageless and unreal beauty, swathed in symbolic attire,” showcasing her as “a supernatural ruler with the sun’s ability to shine light on her subjects.”

Her clothing symbolism includes a large embroidered serpent on her sleeve that represents wisdom, and eyes and ears on her cloak that remind the viewer that she is all-seeing. The label informs viewers that despite their fanciful nature, this imagery was based on documented items that Elizabeth received during visits to courtiers’ country homes, and it shows the blend of truthful observation and image construction seen on art and medals of the period.

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