All that glitters is gold: “The Tudors” sparkle on at CMA

This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I titled The Rainbow Portrait is one of the many art pieces currently on display in The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art

This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I titled “The Rainbow Portrait” is one of the many art pieces currently on display in “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England” collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Elie Stenson, Staff Writer

Swathed in velvet and dripping in diamonds, “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England” sumptuously displays some of the most iconic combatants in the centuries-long battle for the British monarchy. This collection, born from a collaboration between the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, revisits the short and turbulent reign of the House of Tudor, whose legacy was a popular subject amongst European Renaissance artists. Through an assemblage of artifacts including full-length portraits, suits of armour, bejewelled cups, hidden watercolours and floor-to-ceiling length tapestries, “The Tudors” weaves a story of fantastic wealth, triumph and the ruinous consequences of desire.

The House of Tudor took the throne in 1485 with the crowning of King Henry VII, a Welsh native who garnered vast political support during the War of the Roses. Following his death in 1509, the sovereignty was bestowed upon his son, the infamous King Henry VIII. Remembered most chiefly for his unconventional approach to marital commitment, Henry VIII’s reign also saw the Protestant Reformation and subsequent formation of the Church of England, the strengthening of the British Navy and the extensive reworking of the country’s orally transcribed Constitution. Upon his death in 1547, the throne passed quickly between his three children: the ailing King Edward VI who ruled for six years before dying at the age of 15; Queen Mary I, whose violent and bloody struggle against Protestantism made her unpopular with the public; and finally Queen Elizabeth I, whose 45-year reign ushered in a period of great success for the nation.  

“The Tudors” recounts the history of this exalted age with stunning visual narration. The Tudor regents were significant patrons of the fine arts, and they frequently used the medium to convey their accomplishments. The artistic conventions that they popularised were widely copied by high-status individuals connected to the court, creating a distinct iconographic canon that is now closely affiliated with the royal house. Perhaps the most recognisable example of this canon is the widely reproduced portrait of “Henry VIII” by Hans Holbein the Younger. The original painting was lost in a fire at Whitehall Castle, but many copies remain in circulation, including one likely created by Holbein’s studio around 1537 and loaned to “The Tudors” by the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. The image is immaculate, portraying Henry VIII as an irrefutable subject of power. His commanding frame is tailored with luxurious furs and fabrics flecked with gold and gems, he poses atop a Persian rug of the finest quality and the walls behind him are decorated with slabs of expensive stone. Paintings like these served as visual reminders of Henry VIII’s power as king of England and his right to rule as a man of incredible distinction, presence and natural aptitude.

Queen Elizabeth I, who achieved a level of fame that directly rivalled—if not surpassed—that of her notorious father, also relied upon art to distinguish herself as the ideal ruler. Many works in “The Tudors” celebrate Elizabeth I’s triumphs, but none so elegantly as “The Heneage Jewel” (ca. 1595-1600). The piece is a golden locket studded with diamonds, Burmese rubies and crystals featuring a carved profile of “The Virgin Queen” Elizabeth. It is likely that the miniature bust was awarded by Elizabeth I to a wealthy courtier who subsequently had it encased in the brilliant setting as a prideful display of the favor that they had received from the queen. Nearby in the exhibit is a vellum square elaborately decorated with metal threads, silk, seed pearls and glass beads to form an image of “Elizabeth I in a Garden” (c. 1590). It is complete with blushing roses in the background and curls of real human hair atop the queen’s head. The inventive nature of the piece, with its imaginative setting and impeccable craftsmanship, indicates that it may have been a prized gift given by a courtier to the queen herself.  

Other essential figures in the story of the Tudor family make recurring appearances throughout the galleries. Queen Mary I, the devout Roman Catholic, was angered by her father’s separation from the Pope and attempted to reverse it when she was Queen. However, her rejection by the largely Protestant British population greatly impeded her efforts to reconcile with Rome. Nonetheless, her short rule is remembered in the “Design for Queen Mary I’s Great Seal,” drawn in Antwerp in 1553, which uses the powerful theme of Classical architecture to commemorate her as a steadfast, dependable regent. 

Towards the end of the exhibit, the preparatory sketch and final portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger of Jane Seymour are hung side-by-side. This portrait, painted around 1536-7 of Henry VIII’s third wife and the mother of King Edward VI, is a fascinating study of the artist’s creative process. Depicted with striking realism, Queen Jane is outfitted with the usual trappings of Tudor wealth, but her attitude appears reserved and demure in comparison with those of her royal in-laws, perhaps reflecting her position as a woman ushered into power rather than one born with it.  

“The Tudors” is an extravagant affair of historic importance that presents the Tudor family as obsessed with the curated projection of power. The elegance of the exhibit is both awe-inspiring and overwhelming, emblematic of the House of Tudor itself. Yet a sense of uncertainty lurks beneath the layers of opulence. It feels like a fear of competition, aversion and reckless abandon haunted the royal family in their campaign for historic preservation. “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England” is on display in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Hall until Sunday, May 14, and Case Western Reserve University undergraduates receive free admission.