Day 61 – …the Virgin and Child

Sir Peter Lely, …the Virgin and Child, 1664, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Last Monday we looked at Sir Anthony van Dyck’s Cupid and Psyche painted for Charles I (Picture Of The Day 54), which I suggested was quite possibly more than a little sacrilegious from a Catholic point of view. My precise words were ‘It’s entirely outrageous’. So this Monday, I wanted to balance that out with something altogether respectable from the Stuart Court, this painting of the Virgin and Child, glowing with health and happiness, by Sir Peter Lely. 

Like most great British artists of the time, Lely wasn’t British at all, having been born in the Netherlands in 1618. He trained in Haarlem, and was accepted as a Master of the Artists’ Guild there in 1637. It seems more than likely that he would have known Judith Leyster (POTD 34), who became a Master of the same guild four years earlier, when Lely would have been 15 and presumably already well into his apprenticeship. He arrived in London some time around 1643, and his talent meant that before long he was painting portraits for Charles I. Then, when Charles, for obvious historical reasons, had no head for portraits, he carried straight on painting Oliver Cromwell. With the Restoration in 1660 Charles II knew that, to be accepted as King, he had to look like a King, and people had to know what that looked like – so one of the first things he did on his return to England was to appoint two Royal Portraitists – Lely became Principal Painter in Ordinary in 1661.

Painting the Virgin and Child seems like a curious choice for Lely, a Dutch artist, who grew up and trained in Protestant Haarlem, and who was now working in a Protestant court – even if both old King and new had Catholic wives. It’s an especially lush image, though, the rich blue of Mary’s cloak glowing with the clarity and wholesomeness of a Madonna by Sassoferrato, the Italian Baroque artist whose work constituted a Raphaelesque revival. The parallels with Raphael can be seen here too: the Madonna and Child lean towards each other, creating the pyramidal composition typical of the High Renaissance. This is strengthened at the base by the blue horizontal of the cloak, reaching from Mary’s knees to the folds by her hips. Her posture – upright back and horizontal left leg – echoes the verticality of the fluted classical column and the horizontal cornice or capital on which Jesus rests his feet. All of these compositional devices serve to frame him better. He must be supported by his Mother’s left hand, as his feet barely touch the surface. They reach towards each other with touching affection, but look out to us, subtle smiles on their lips – and maybe a slightly sleepy look in Mary’s eyes. Well, I’m sure that even holy babies can keep you awake.

I first saw the Virgin and Child at the end of January in the British Baroque exhibition at Tate Britain, which sadly closed a month before it was due to, for obvious reasons.  A pity – it was a revelation. The Lely was hung next to the painting on the right here, and not so far away from the one on the left. The latter is the not-so-obviously Catholic (from this portrait, anyway) Catherine of Braganza. She arrived from Portugal in 1662 to take up her position as Queen, and she and Charles were married twice – a secret, Catholic ceremony followed by a public, Protestant one. This might make it look as if Charles had appointed two Court artists before one wife, but the contract had already been signed the year before – not that she was present at the time. But then, negotiations had begun during the reign of Charles I: by the time he was beheaded in 1649 she was still only 10. When finally married, at the advanced age of 23, her dowry included Tangiers and what was then called ‘The Seven Islands of Bombay’ – the British Empire started here, effectively. She was allowed to practice Catholicism, and even had her own Chapel. She also had her own artist, Jacob Huysmans, who painted both of these portraits. Again, as a great British artist, he was Flemish – and so Catholic – having been born in Antwerp in 1633.

Catharine’s portrait shows her in that guise favoured by more than one Queen, the Shepherdess. After all, she would be able to look after her flock: Charles’s subjects were now her own. It was painted early in her reign, and is packed full of symbols of her hoped-for fecundity – the ducks in the bottom left, the lambs, the flowers carried by the cherub, the cherubs themselves (there are more in the background), and especially the orange blossom in her hair. She calmly strokes the head of a particularly docile lamb, the implication being that she is equally meek and mild: this sweet girl provides no militant Catholic threat. OK, so it’s a very low-cut dress, but her first official portrait was so square-laced it looked as if she would never fit into Charles II’s court.

But what is its relationship to the other painting? It depicts John the Baptist as a rather gawky teenager, complete with long, lustrous and above all healthy Stuart hair. You wouldn’t get hair like that on a diet of honey and locusts. He has the softest of camel skins wrapped around his right arm, with an off-the-shoulder blouse of the subtlest royal purple, matched with a pale pink cloak. In the crook of his left arm is a bamboo cross wrapped round with a small scroll bearing the greeting ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ – ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ – with which John greeted Jesus. Another docile lamb (clearly one of Huysman’s specialities) sits cross-legged beside him. His right hand points, as if illustrating the word ‘Behold’, but he doesn’t seem to have the energy to lift it up high enough to point at the lamb. Typical teenager. Despite this diffidence, I suspect that somewhere in the background Huysman’s inspiration was Caravaggio. And however you interpret whatever I’ve just said, I do think it’s a rather elegant painting, and really rather surprising when you read what has been painted in the top left hand corner: ‘Duke of Monmouth’. Who was he? You may well ask. He was James Scott, and in case that doesn’t help, he was the son of Lucy Walter. Still not helping? He was the eldest illegitimate son of Charles II, and this was painted at the earliest in 1663 just after Charles had ennobled his son, and even gone as far as bestowing him with the Order of the Garter. Evil to him who evil thinks! From this point onwards he was regularly seen in the company of the King and Queen – a thorn in her side, perhaps, but it’s a very clever portrait. According to the Bible, John the Baptist was asked if he was the Messiah, to which he replied that he was a voice crying in the wilderness ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’. The relevance to the contemporary situation would have been clear: the Duke of Monmouth was not the King’s legitimate heir – but one was on the way, thanks to Catherine. Having him painted by Huysmans – her artist – makes it look like she was totally happy about it. Tragically, despite several pregnancies, none of Catherine’s children lived. She must have led a very difficult life.

But why did the curators of the British Baroque exhibition hang the portrait of Monmouth, dressed up as John the Baptist, next to Lely’s Virgin and Child? Is it simply to fulfil the promise of the scroll, ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ by putting a painting of Jesus next to it? Come to think of it, is a little unusual for Jesus and Mary to have such dark shiny hair – unless you’re in Spain – you could even argue a family resemblance with John the Baptist, I suppose. Well, maybe I should give you the full title of this painting. Naughty of me not to have done so before, really:

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles FitzRoy, as the Virgin and Child

So yes, that’s the reason – like James, Duke of Monmouth, as St John the Baptist it is another portrait of someone playing a role, someone in fancy dress, a genre which was rather popular in portraiture during the Stuart dynasty. But who was Barbara Villiers? The favourite mistress of Charles II in the 1660s. And Charles FitzRoy? Well, ‘Fitz’ comes from the French ‘Fils’ meaning ‘son’, and ‘Roy’ comes from ‘Roi’, meaning ‘King’ – Charles, son of the King. So this is the King’s favourite mistress, and one of his illegitimate sons (to be honest they don’t even know which one) dressed as the Virgin and Child. And if that’s not ‘entirely outrageous’ I don’t know what is. 

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “Day 61 – …the Virgin and Child

  1. Richard, I can’t thank you enough. Have only just discovered your blog and am hoping lockdown will last long enough for me to read and digest it. It is a tour de force, introduces us to unfamiliar paintings and re-presents us to the ones we thought we knew. A triumph.
    Do you remember Novgorod and the partying bus driver?
    More thanks and v best wishes
    Robin Wells

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Richard, if you ever do find out what happened to Sasha, please let me know. I often think of him and how funny it was at the time but worrying for his future and he was such a lovely man.


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