When one thinks of Renaissance or Baroque art we think of Italy, the Flanders, the Netherlands a few will also think of France and Germany, but why is England always left out? I have been thinking about this for years, now I made up my mind and decided to describe why briefly in this post.
Religion played a huge part in this. We have to remember that England underwent a Reformation after 1534 when the Anglican Church was formed and in the following years, but more especially during the English Civil War, much English Medieval and Renaissance art went missing because of iconoclasm; because of Calvinistic theology some Anglicans and Puritans literally smashed and destroyed over 2/3 of English art, most of it being religious. However, there is also another reason, the same reason why generic texts tend to focus on Italian, Flemish, Netherlandish and to an extent German Renaissance, whereas in fact France and Spain or England for that matter are really not. However, England did develop its own Renaissance art. As in the continent there were two main kinds of commissions in Renaissance England: the Church and private individuals, works commissioned by the latter tend to survive. England, especially the south-east, maintained strong relationships with the Flanders and Florence through its important wool-trade, the prime exporter in Europe, while England exported wool, it often took back art from Italy and the Flanders, often it also exchanged some back. This is one way in which English art was inspired by continental one during the Renaissance.
Probably, the most known example of 15th century art is the Wilton Diptych at the National Gallery in London; an early 1400s portable diptych, commissioned by King Richard II to an unknown English master, it incredibly survived the Reformation and Civil War and it is painted on both sides, with Saints John the Baptist, Edmund and Edward the Confessor presenting the Monarch to the the Virgin and Child on the other side, surrounded by a company of angels. On the other side, the King’s coat of arms and the white hart. It is a superb work which shows how they knew exactly what was going on in the continent in terms of art; the gilded background inspired by International Gothic art, yet the plasticity of the figures, even the angels wings’ colors show that England was developing its own art at the time and it could indeed be refined.
We can trace the beginning of English Renaissance Art to the mid-13th century, most parish churches at the time were divided by a sort of partition between the sanctuary and the nave, it was known as the rood screen, it was literally a screen that divided the people from the sacredness of the altar. It was usually surmounted by a “rood” a Crucifix, with statues of the Virgin and of Saint John.
The panels on such screen were decorated with Saints, Angels, Martyrs or doctors of the Church. During the mid to late 15th century this particular kind of art flourished. The style can be defined as a fascinating metamorphosis between earlier English art and Flemish art; a plasticity in the figures, a particular “Renaissance” iconography were already evolving, a trademark of English Renaissance art of the 15th century were unusually long feet. Most surviving rood-screens are now found in the beautiful East Anglian countryside. A notable example being St. Helen’s Church, Ranworth.
Also during the 15th century, another characteristic of early English Renaissance Art in parish churches is the series wall paintings that survived the Reformation, in the most fascinating cases, representing the Final Judgement; the Revelation, Christ sitting on clouds judging the whole of humanity to eternal salvation or damnation with angels and demons fighting each other over souls in scenes set in imaginary lands with the heavenly Jerusalem in the background, oddly enough looking like any Medieval English town. The dynamics, the plasticity and the frenzy of these scenes show us how this particular paintings were well into their own kind of Renaissance. Here is the splendid example of a Doom Painting at St. Thomas’ Church in Salisbury.
As in Italy or the Flanders, the quality of art and masters also depended on the commissioners, it is not a surprise that while being fascinating these works don’t quite count exactly as masterpieces. Towards the end of the 15th century, art in England was mutating, it was strongly being influenced by continental works, probably also under the patronage of the Tudors, especially King Henry VII, a great appreciator of French and Italian art. English sculpture, especially on ivory and alabaster was also one of the specialties of the English, with some great examples being at the Bargello Museums in Florence at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Two notable examples of wall paintings that come to mind are the refined works in Chichester Cathedral and Eton College Chapel, both by great English masters of the time. The chapel at Eton was decorated during the 1490s by William Baker and other English masters, the wall paintings are highly inspired by the Flemish style of the same time, on one side are stories of the Virgin Mary, patron of the chapel, on the other, in the true Renaissance rediscovery of Europe’s classical past, scenes from the life of a mythical empress.
The wall paintings at Chichester were executed by Lambert Barnard in the 1530s and show how English art had developed up to that point, they were commissioned by Bishop Robert Sherborne, which is also interesting because it shows there were patrons of the arts among the clergy just like in the continent and just like the continent these are a precious example of power and political propaganda; the Bishop is in a conversation with Henry VIII asking the monarch to preserve the cathedral after the Reformation, on the other side a scene of the foundation of the cathedral. Just like in the continent, the dynamic scenes were enclosed in classical frames known as grotesques and here and there you get exotic animals such as monkeys, you can’t get any more Renaissance than that!
Of course, the English’s true specialty was architecture, we must not forget that England had developed by then probably the most fascinating form of Gothic: Perpendicular Gothic, with examples such as Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey and Kings College Chapel in Cambridge, a spectacular spacious building with a remarkable and intricate fan vault and a Renaissance quire carved in the Italianate style.
England was also the excellency in the entire European continent for Opus Anglicanum, a particular style of needlework and embroideries that were highly popular throughout Europe, they were usually made for liturgical vestments, altar frontals but also personal clothes. In the Renaissance this form of art truly flourished and also reflected the style of painting and sculpture, it was often used as a diplomatic gift but also important churches throughout the continent requested vestments from England, notably Bologna and Rome (st. Peter’s Basilica) requested hundreds of these glorious works during the 15th century. Recently, I saw an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and I was stunned by these amazing embroideries.
Another form of art is indeed music; English Renaissance music, which developed its own style, is considered to be among the most refined of its kind in Europe; thankfully it survived the Reformation and was also commissioned afterwards, Queen Elizabeth I was a great appreciator, I am sure you have heard the likes of: William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons… Their Te Deums and Magnificats and Motets and Services are still sung in every English cathedral and college chapel and are one of the greatest treasure of that green and pleasant land.
How not to mention the superb English Renaissance stained glass, from the early works found in most cathedrals to the superb elaborate works in York Minster; the grand east window designed by John Thornton in the early 15th century, the greatest stained glass window in the entire world, it shows the Christian journey from the Scriptures, from the Genesis to the Revelation, each detailed window shows a style unique of England at the time. English stained glass evolved dramatically during the Renaissance, reaching its apotheosis during the 1500s with the magnificent windows at Kings College.
Secular art under the Tudors included land and naval battles scenes, hunting scenes, etc. in the continental style. However, perhaps the most famous English form of Renaissance art is the incredible number of portraits commissioned to great continental masters such as Hans Holbein, the official “Portrait Maker” of the Tudor court. Portaits of Thomas More, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I are world renowned masterpieces.
In the following century, England fully turned Classical; English Baroque can sometimes be remindful of a neo-Classical style, but it definitely was England’s own kind of Baroque. Already by the end of the 16th century English architects were exploring continental architecture. The Gate of Honor at Gonville & Caius College in Cambridge is a perfect example, Inigo Jones’ porch at Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London could also be in any church here in Rome.
During the first half of the 17th century under Archbishop William Laud and other high church bishops of the time, churches, cathedrals and chapels saw a new rebirth of the arts; from painted panels to new stained glasses; there is an excellent book on this subject: the Arts of the Anglican Counter-Reformation by Graham Parry. The Stuarts really boosted the “Baroquization” of England; they commissioned great art and architecture, they brought Orazio Gentileschi from Italy, his art was strongly inspired by that of Caravaggio, he worked for the Quirinal Palace in Rome and great basilicas such as Saint Mary Major or Santa Maria della Pace, he also worked extensively throughout England and truly opened the doors to continental-style, he worked for both the Stuarts and the Dukes of Marlborough, where his Allegory of Peace and of the Arts is truly a breathtaking case of delicate Baroque taste, perfect for the English. Another grand example of Baroque art in the British isles is the Banqueting House in London, commissioned by Charles I is a great example of Mannerist extravaganza.
However, its ceiling is the real masterpiece; Charles I commissioned its decoration to no less than Peter Paul Rubens, one of the greatest masters of Baroque Europe, who executed one of the greatest Baroque follies ever produced: the Apotheosis of James I. England had nothing to envy from the continent at the time and those who commissioned this art knew it well.
England’s Baroque age was a time of great glory, of great art and of rebirth, with musicians of the caliber of Henry Purcell, equally known for church and secular music, his Funeral of Queen Mary is probably one of the greatest musical works ever produced; Georg Frederich Handel later followed… his Messiah is probably one of those works even the least acknowledged person would recognise as classical and Christian and it doesn’t end here! Architecture, architecture, architecture! After the fire of London in 1666, Sir Cristopher Wren designed many churches and the great Royal Hospital Chelsea with its great paintings; the ascension of Christ by Sebastiano Ricci in the chapel and the great murals by James Thornill. However, his masterpiece is one of the greatest church of Christendom in the English Baroque Style, it is one of the most photographed and discussed buildings in the world which inspired so many to come, it’s this one.