Worcester Cathedral Tombs

Worcester was our choice for a day out this week for some mid January therapy, and I thought, for a change, it was time I wrote about stone again. Memory was an important concept in the Middle Ages for church decoration and Worcester Cathedral is full of commemorative art. The architecture of the Cathedral is stunning, but we concentrated our visit on two particular memorials which commemorate interesting figures of Plantagenet blood.

King John’s tomb (mid 13th century) in the choir at Worcester Cathedral

King John’s tomb dominates the choir. The stone base conceals the tomb and is decorated with Plantagenet heraldry (the original three lions anticipated by Geoffrey De Plantagenet) and is topped with a life size effigy of John in purbeck marble. The effigy from the mid thirteenth century was one of the earliest to reflect the actual likeness rather than the more normal baronial type of representation. By his side is an unsheathed sword and on his shoulders are his two saints, the patron saints of Worcester; Wulfstan and Oswald. At his feet is a richly carved lion representing regal power.

Tomb of Arthur, Prince of Wales, elder brother of Henry VIII (16th century) in Worcester Cathedral

Just a view yards away on the north side of the high altar is the tomb and chantry chapel of Prince Arthur, elder brother of Henry VIII, the first born of the new Tudor dynasty. The tomb holding the fifteen year old heir is highly decorated stone with the heraldry of the English Sovereign with lions and fleur de lys, still revealing aspirations in French territory. The chantry chapel with it’s altar were adorned with numerous statues before a later iconoclasm (Edward VI) caused much damage. The richness of the decoration, however, clearly befits such an important heir and the fan vaulted roof is exquisite. Decorating the north exterior wall of the chapel is an array of significant emblems ranging from the white and red roses of the warring cousins, the combined Tudor rose, the portcullis emblem, adopted by parliament, the Yorkist fetterlock and the pomegranate representing Catherine of Aragon, Arthur’s wife.

North front of Prince Arthur’s chantry chapel at Worcester Cathedral showing emblems of the Yorkist, Lancastrian, Tudor and Aragon dynasties.

“What might have been?” There are many times throughout English history when that question may have been asked and these two tombs in Worcester Cathedral show how unlikely events can swing the history of a nation. It is enthralling to sit in spaces like the great gothic choir of Worcester Cathedral and ponder on these events. 

View towards choir and altar looking east, Worcester Cathedral

King John was the youngest of five sons of the first Plantagenet, Henry II. But for the rebellious nature of his elder brothers, all meeting premature deaths, he would have probably led a quiet life in some backwater in Ireland or France. Instead his own treacherous nature led to his taking the crown of England and nearly losing it disastrously, very nearly losing England as well. The subsequent reigns of Henry III, crowned at the age of nine at Gloucester, and Edward I probably led to the nation becoming more English than at any time since the legendary King Arthur.

And Prince Arthur? Following the final demise of the Plantagenets at Bosworth, the new dynasty depended on the legitimacy of the royal blood through Elizabeth of York, to support the usurper, Henry Tudor. Arthur was the first born, whose task was to finally bring a close years (maybe centuries) of Plantagenet wars and a herald a new glorious age. He died unexpectedly at fifteen, his younger brother ,Henry, married the widowed Catherine and the rest, as they say, is history…

Monet and St-Lazare

To accompany my Painting of the Month (Turner – Rain, Steam, Speed, 1844) I have a new header series of paintings by Claude Monet from the third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. They represent views of St Lazare Railway Station in Paris and were the most talked about at the exhibition. The view on the middle right is La Gare St-Lazare, 1877, which is in the National Gallery in London.

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Rain, Steam, Speed – JMW Turner

JMW Turner, Rain, Steam, Speed, The Great Western Railway, 1844, The National Gallery, London

The Great Western Railway in the 1840s must have been both exciting and a subject of huge trepidation. Steam power had been established for some years by the time Turner painted this view in 1844, which is my ‘Painting of the Month’ for January. The public railway was quite new though, especially in southern England, maybe 10-15 years at most. What people must have thought of the prospect of thundering down from London to Bath at 40 miles per hour who knows. Nearly two hundred years on the railway is so much part of our life and landscape it becomes headline news when fares go up.

Maybe the acceptance of the early railways has similarities with the internet. The technology is well established and understood but the power and consequences of the internet fill traditionalists with fear and trepidation while the forward looking acknowledge the opportunities and benefits to be realised.

What did the great English painter, Turner make of it? He certainly anticipated the Impressionists in finding comfort in painting scenes of modernity and nothing represented the modern better than the railway. Turner’s image is universally recognised as Maidenhead railway bridge with the old “Bath Road” stone bridge on the left. The view is towards Taplow and London but it is difficult to see quite where Turner’s perspective was looking down on the train.

The train will be hauled by one of the early steam engines to appear on the railways coughing out fire, steam and smoke and of course noise. The bridge, completed in 1839, is one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpieces, still the largest brick arch in the world. The centres of the arches are so wide that the brickwork is virtually horizontal making it such a fantastic feat of architecture / engineering.

Turners painting style is instantly recognisable in the painting and picking up detail is difficult but look out for the hare running alongside the train. What is the hare telling us. Is it simply running away from the noise? Is it Turner telling us how fast the train is travelling? To reach the speed of a racing hare in 1844 was indeed quite an achievement. Is it more subtle – maybe the traditionalists saying modernity is all very well but nature still produces faster transport. Maybe a short sited view, to be proved untrue only a few years later, akin to not appreciating the power of digital technology.

I never fail to be inspired by Turner’s atmospheric paintings and seeing this great representation of burgeoning modernity in the National Gallery is always a treat. Do see the original and not the numerous copies in station waiting rooms the length and breadth of the West Country.

Rain, Steam, Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844, William Mallord William Turner, The National Gallery, London.

Seasons Greetings from White Box Art

To compliment The Adoration of the Magi I have chosen another Christmas image popular with artists through the centuries. The Annunciation to the Shepherds recalls the angels appearing to the shepherds above Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus. (Luke 2: 8-14).

I have chosen a modern version, the lithograph from the Penrith Portfolio in the Tate Gallery by John Piper (1903-1992) from 1973. I think it represents the simplicity and highly charged emotion of Piper’s work. His contribution as a painter, stained glass designer and printer to twentieth century British Art is immeasurable, especially as a war artist recording bomb damage to churches including Coventry Cathedral.

Adoration of the Magi – Fabriano

Gentile da Fabriano, The Adoration of the Magi, 1423, The Uffizi Gallery, Florenc

(Don’t worry if you have already read this – I have reviewed format)

In the Christian calendar this is the season of Advent, the Nativity and the Epiphany. In our modern times it is easy to forget just how important the Christian calendar was to all walks of life in medieval Europe. I have chosen The Adoration of the Magi as this month’s painting as one of the most commonly painted scenes in medieval churches from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries. My version, and one of my favourite paintings is Gentile da Fabriano’s altarpiece from around 1423. Originally commissioned for the rich Strozzi family of Florentine bankers in the Santa Trinita Church, it now resides in the Uffizi Gallery.

The altarpiece consists of the main panel which shows several different views of the journey taken by the Maji culminating in their worshipping the Christ Child in Bethlehem. The procession looks like the wealthy and famous of fifteenth century Florence adorned in their rich renaissance clothes. Look closely and you will see the patron, Palla Strozzi, in the red hat in the foreground, and his father as the falcon trainer behind the Kings.

Look also for the beautifully painted exotic animals that Gentile adds in the procession. The style can be considered the high point of the International Gothic seen all over Europe just prior to the Italian Renaissance. The frame, like many early altarpieces, should also be considered a work of art in its own right. It is constructed of poplar wood and gold leaf with three cusps contains tondos, or round images of worship and three pradellas (small historic views) at the bottom depicting scenes selected by the patrons. In this case the Nativity, the Flight to Egypt, and the Presentation at the Temple.

The Flight into Egypt, detail from pradella from The Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423.

One of the masterpieces of early Italian art before the realism of Brunelleschian perspective would render the gothic quite primitive looking. Still one of my favourites and you can see a wonderful tapestry copy in Hawling Church in Gloucestershire.

The Adoration of the Magi

I have updated my Painting of the Month to add a bit of Christmas spirit to the blog. My December / January painting for you to enjoy is the fifteenth century Italian altarpiece by Gentile da Fabriano; The Adoration of the Magi, which is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Select the “Painting of the Month” tab and enjoy.

Tate Liverpool – Fernand Léger

Fernand Léger and Liverpool seem such good companions. Léger, the great twentieth century avant-garde artist and Liverpool, home of the Beatles and the sixties cultural revolution. Although Léger died in 1955 you feel he would have been absolutely at home in that great artistic decade where, if you did not know better, you would have thought multi media and optimism were invented. That is the theme I took away from the Tate Liverpool’s show, “Leger – New Times, New Pleasures”

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New Name

Hi all regulars and new readers alike. I have rebranded the site slightly and also adopted a new name. I think White Box Art Channel reflects more the commentary aspect of the blog, rather than a dibble about in a new ideas tub. Hopefully its original aims are retained; that of commenting on historical and contemporary art to an appreciating audience. Hope you continue to enjoy. Gordon.