When teaching Tudor art it can be a struggle to explain to students why the images look so different from Italian masterpieces of the same date. In English painting we find few of the hallmarks of the Renaissance: multi-figural classical narratives or history scenes in naturalistic perspectival settings. Some images of this kind did make it to England, notably a weaving of Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles tapestries purchased by Henry VIII in the 1540s, but their impact on visual art, painting in particular, seems to have been limited. Even the most renowned artists of the Elizabethan court had a shaky-at-best grasp on the principles of geometric perspective and illusionism.
In the past, historians have attempted to explain these English quirks in various ways, particularly with reference to Reformation concerns about the acceptability of images. And yet, throughout the sixteenth century English people referred to their artworks as ‘lively’: a term of praise. What did they mean by it? This is the question I set out to answer in my book, Tudor Liveliness: Vivid Art in Post Reformation England.
In the sixteenth century, the word ‘lively’ was associated with the most powerful technique of persuasion, known as enargeia. In rhetorical theory, the set of guidelines for effective communication inherited from classical texts, one of the best ways to win over an audience in the senate or the courtroom was to describe things so vividly that they could be pictured clearly in the mind’s eye. This could trigger powerful emotions and encourage audiences towards a desired conclusion. Recommended techniques for creating vividness or ‘liveliness’ in speech included complete and copious narration of events, appeals to multiple senses, and the use of the present tense. Parallels can be found for all these techniques in the visual art of sixteenth-century England: the rhetorical theory of realism offers the key to a lost model of Tudor aesthetics, one based not on illusionistic naturalism, but on principles of variety, fullness and sensory appeal.
We see this particularly in the decorative arts. Wall painting, tapestry and embroidery often depict multi-figural narratives, deploying a range of visual strategies to make their subjects seem vivid for viewers of the sixteenth century. Two window cushions at Hardwick Hall are embroidered with Old Testament scenes of the sacrifice of Isaac and the judgment of Solomon. Yet despite the stories’ ancient origins, the figures wear ruffs, doublets and hose, fashionable costume of the later sixteenth century. This technique, common in narrative scenes throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, enhances the immediacy of the scene – just as, in rhetoric, the ‘historical present tense’, when the present tense is used to narrate past events, makes a narrative seem more vivid. [Henry VIII’s tapestries don’t seem to survive but here’s a link to one from the Sistine Chapel]
In portraiture, poets had long lamented (or gloated over) the painter’s apparent inability to go beyond surfaces and represent intangible qualities such as ancestry. But portrait painters also found ways to represent non-physical features through the inclusion of symbols. Many portraits include heraldry: coats of arms that demonstrate the sitter’s lineage and family connections. In status-driven Tudor society, ancestry was everything. The inclusion of such information in a portrait mimicked rhetorical advice for the vivid representation of a person, in which circumstances of birth and parentage were a major topos of praise. The portrait of Sir Francis Knollys painted c.1572, the year he became Lord Treasurer of Elizabeth I’s Household, includes his achievement of arms encircled by the Garter. Even allowing for Knollys’s impressive black hat, his arms take up the same amount of the panel as his head, demonstrating their importance within the image.
Aspects of character and personal philosophy could also be represented through symbols. The impresa, a combination of motto and image expressing some idea or sentiment, was a common device for communicating meaning beyond the physical. Found in large-scale portraits and miniatures alike, the impresa was felt to express something of the sitter’s mind. The miniature of A Man Holding a Hand from a Cloud (1588) bears the motto ‘Attici amoris ergo’: Attic [or Greek] because of love. Some historians have interpreted this as a reference to male friendship, or a more coded intimation of homosexual (‘Greek’) love, identifying the other hand as a man’s. However, ‘Attici’ may also refer to the Attic or Greek style of oratory, widely recognised as the most concise and therefore best manner of speaking. In this case, the hand descending from a cloud may represent that of the lover who inspires the sitter’s eloquence, or perhaps the divine hand of Calliope, commonly identified as the muse of rhetoric. Either way, it would have offered its original viewers an insight into the sitter’s inmost thoughts.
Besides the fine arts of oil and miniature painting and the decorative arts found in the home, liveliness was also a feature of more practical imagery. Publishers of educational handbooks concerning anatomy, botany and chemistry prided themselves on their woodcut illustrations, which were frequently touted as ‘lively’ in the accompanying texts. Some images went to extreme lengths to evoke realism: an anatomical print included at the front of post-1559 editions of Thomas Gemini’s anatomical textbook Compendiosa Totius Anatomiae Delineatio presents a man and a woman half-nude in a tiled room. The curious viewer can lift the flaps of paper representing their torsos and reveal layers of ribs, lungs and intestines. Such a visceral, interactive experience allowed the viewer to ‘know thyself’, as the print promised. Its sequential unveiling also mimicked the hands-on experience of a real anatomical demonstration in paper form. In rhetorical theory a description that appealed to more than one sense offered greater immediacy for audiences: by engaging the hands as well as the eyes, the lift-the-flap prints presented viewers with a lively experience of their own body’s workings.
Find more examples on the Wellcome Collection website here.
As an aesthetic principle, liveliness offers insights into Tudor values that take us beyond the traditional stereotype of ‘inferior’, ‘anti-naturalistic’ English art. It reveals principles of realism independent of the highly artificial conventions of Renaissance Italy and later art movements, instead privileging copiousness, variety, sequential narration and multi-sensory appeal. By attending to the testimony of people at the time, we can begin to approach the visual art of the period on its own terms, rediscovering the lively appeal that it had for contemporary viewers.
About the Author
Christina Faraday is a research fellow in art history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker. Her first book Tudor Liveliness: Vivid Art in Post-Reformation England is published by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and available from Yale University Press
About the Book
A groundbreaking approach to the problem of realism in Tudor art
In this wide-ranging and innovative book, Christina Faraday excavates a uniquely Tudor model of vividness: one grounded in rhetorical techniques for creating powerful mental images for audiences. By drawing parallels with the dominant communicative framework of the day, Tudor Liveliness sheds new light on a lost mode of Tudor art criticism and appreciation, revealing how objects across a vast range of genres and contexts were taking part in the same intellectual and aesthetic conversations. By resurrecting a lost model for art theory, Faraday re-enlivens the vivid visual and material culture of Tudor and Jacobean England, recovering its original power to move, impress and delight.
Distributed for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art