A History of Art in England (9): Words and Pictures

Along with the ecclesiastical texts and historical chronicles, the late 14th century witnessed the growth of fictional literature: from French chivalric romances to Arthurian legend. Originally written to be read aloud, with Edward IV’s promotion of William Caxton and the printing press, these stories would make their way from copied manuscripts to bound books by the late 15th century.

An amazing resource to find out more is the In Our Time discussion series on BBC Sounds: for example on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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The earliest appearance of the Green Knight is in the late 14th century alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which survives in only one manuscript along with other poems by the same author, the so-called Pearl Poet. A story of love, adventure and bloodshed, this is a painting from the original 15th-century manuscript: the Green Knight is seated on the horse, holding up his severed head in his right hand.

Whilst this account of the legendary Sir Gawain was written at around the same time as perhaps the most famous Middle English author, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) was composing the series of stories that make up The Canterbury Tales – written in the vernacular about contemporary society and the characters he meets on pilgrimage to the relics of St Thomas a Becket.
In the early-15th-century Ellesmere Manuscript there’s an illustration of the author, Chaucer himself, as a pilgrim:

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Given our focus – via John Rothenstein – on painting and pictures, it’s worth turning especially to The Knight’s Tale partly because, again in the Ellesmere manuscript, there is an illustration of the Knight:

“He wore a tunic made of coarse thick stuff Marked by his chainmail, all begrimed with rust, Having just returned from an expedition…”

[The Canterbury Tales (Prologue) translated by David Wright [Oxford World’s Classics]

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Moreover, in the text of The Knight’s Tale itself – a tragedy of two brother knights fighting for the love of a princess – Chaucer describes the setting of the tournament that will decide their fate: a temporary amphitheatre commissioned by King Theseus who brings in craftsmen skilled in mathematics, artisans, portrait-painters, and carvers of images from across the land. There’s an altar to Venus (goddess of love) on the eastern side, an altar to Mars (god of war) on the western side and, on the northern side an alter to Diana (goddess of chastity). On the morning of the tournament, one knight visits Venus, one Mars and the princess Diana’s.

And Chaucer describes in detail “The splendid carvings, sculptures and pictures, The forms, the shapes, the faces and figures, That were contained in these three oratories.”

In the temple to Venus (again quoting from David Wright’s translation): “all of Love’s phenomena… Were painted in their order on the wall… indeed, the whole hill of Cytherea, Where Venus has her principal residence, Was figured on the walls in fresco paint, With all its garden and its gaiety…. The image of Venus was marvellous. She Was naked, floating in a boundless sea… With green waves bright as glass…”

By contrast “Mars’ effigy, with dire and maniacal Regard, stood armed upon a chariot… the god of war… with a wolf stood at his feet… eyes glowering as if about to eat a man. Subtle the pencil that portrayed this story In reverence of Mars, and of his glory.”

Meanwhile, in the “holy temple of chaste Diana… A painted fresco covered every wall: scenes of the hunt… and whoever painted it Grudged not a penny on colours, but Knew how to paint the life, and knew his job.”

Classical myths and stories were increasingly told in England but as far as I can find out, this is the first description – albeit fictional – of wall-paintings that present these legendary characters.

Chaucer himself had travelled widely and had a library of European literature, so may well have seen examples of wall-painting in France or Italy.

Intriguingly, at around the time of writing the Tales, Chaucer himself was commissioned by Richard II to build the structures for a tournament in London in 1390 – would these have had wall-paintings of the classics?

The legends of Troy and Thebes were favoured reading among the European nobility from the twelfth century onwards. Troy held a significant place in the royal imagination because it showcased the exploits of Trojan heroes, many of whom were believed to be the ancestors of the ruling families of Europe – the British Library tells us.

It wasn’t until the early 15th-century that translations of these histories into English were made by John Lydgate – then, as we saw in Rambling No.8, it’s Henry VIII who  deployed visual images of heroes such as Hercules and Alexander among his Field of the Cloth of Gold decorative schemes in the early 16th century.

It is Henry VIII also who commissioned a pictorial record of a jousting tournament held at Westminster in 1511 to celebrate the birth of a son – the rules for which were laid out in a document at the British Library.

The History of England website describes:

At the start of the tournament was a procession through the streets of London and Westminster so everyone could show themselves off in their finery; no doubt the Londoners gaped and cheered as they went past in all their glory. 

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The king is in the centre of course, surrounded by a host of footmen, officials and dignitaries, a mace bearer, a crowd of nobles, the officers of arms and six trumpeters.

And according to the British Library:

The tournament that followed was a great spectacle of expensive pageantry. The challengers first arrived inside a movable forest topped by a castle made of golden paper and the Great Wardrobe was ordered to produce all manner of splendid trappings, such as the new banners to hang from the royal trumpeters’ instruments.

What is fascinating with regard to the images of the royal trumpeters is that they portray John Blanke – it’s one of the earliest representations of a black person living in 16th century England, here a musician at the heart of the royal court.

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I can’t find any reference to the artists involved in the making of the Westminster Roll, but what is fascinating about these images is that they record contemporary events – albeit within royal and court circles.

As we enter the Tudor period then, it seems that under Henry VIII especially there is an expansion of picturing and visual culture in England – from religious illuminations and wall-paintings to ancient classical legend and here to representations of the present-day.

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Detail from the Westminster Roll (College of Arms) showing Henry VIII tilting in front of Katherine of Aragon.


PS. You may have seen Janina Ramirez’s fascinating tv documentary on i-player:
Medieval art historian Dr Janina Ramirez tells the incredible story of a book hidden for centuries in the shadows of history, the first book ever written in English by a woman, Julian of Norwich, in 1373.


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (9)

If you are enjoying this little series and are able even occasionally to ‘donate’ I would be extremely grateful. Many thanks and best wishes!



About TheCommonViewer

Independent Researcher: gently exploring the art and artists of early 20th century Britain (with forays elsewhere, in particular Russian Art History); the Art, Books & History Group meets monthly in Southend-on-Sea Twitter: @TheCommonViewer

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