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The King's Bedpost: Reformation and Iconography in a Tudor Group Portrait.

Margaret Aston takes a painting of King Edward VI and the Pope (now in the National Portrait Gallery, London) as her starting point, constructing around this work a complex story of iconoclasm, artistic exchange, and political scandal. The painting itself had been discussed by Roy Strong and others as a product of the early Tudor period based on the inset views of image destruction, the figures of Henry VIII on his deathbed, and Edward VI on the throne. Aston suggests, however, that this is not a contemporary representation of the earlier religious change but rather a history painting made in the reign of Elizabeth as a potent reminder of earlier reforms.

The convincing argument for this re-dating of the picture is based on a discussion of the details of the image and the broader context present for a contemporary viewer. The unknown artist of this small panel used prints by the Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck as one source for the painting, all of which suggest that it was made in the second half of the sixteenth century. Yet Aston throws her net far wider, seeking to restore a voice to an image which had become silent - and therefore only partially understood in recent time. As is the case with many Tudor allegorical or narrative paintings, the allusions are no longer readily available to a modern audience.

In a series of short vignette-like chapters, not unlike the episodic organization of the painting itself, she presents related information on such themes as the use of Hezekiah as an Old Testament exempla for both Edward VI and Elizabeth, attitudes toward the idolatry of Rome, and the relationship to images in the revised edition of John Foxe's Acts and Monuments of 1570. Each of these excursions into the religious or political background are directed toward the proposition that this painting was intended to instruct a particular viewer.

Two of the possible audiences for the painting may have been either Queen Elizabeth or Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk. In either scenario the painting would have served as a persuasive warning to stay the Protestant course following the example of Edward VI and the earlier reformers. If the painting was intended to be seen by Elizabeth then it may have been a caution to reject the use of the cross as a popish sign. Or it may have been a warning to Thomas Howard not to contemplate marriage to Mary Queen of Scots. Aston allows for either possibility, and makes a more general point that it was the watershed events of the 1560s which would have inspired any such admonition.

A theme throughout the book is the close tie between England and the Low Countries in the visual arts and in the general intellectual culture. This is exemplified in the figure of the Haarlem humanist Hadrianus Junius, whose English connections and time spent there rounded out a circle concerned about the renewed Catholic sympathies.

Readers may well disagree with what are at times tenuous connections between a painting - when little is known of its early history - and the particular relation to monarch and nobles. Minor objections, however, should not detract from this important contribution to the study of Tudor art. One purpose of this book is not to fix any one particular meaning but rather to propose a matrix of interpretive possibilities. Margaret Aston sees this painting as an active participant in the religious and political debates of Elizabethan England. Through references to both visual imagery and historical events, with attention paid to art's effective potential, the author suggests how images in England could serve as a focus for contemporary debate.

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Author:Anderson, Christy
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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