In early modern England the population was expanding incredibly rapidly and massive inflation led to the deterioration of living standards for many of the lower sorts. In contrast, changes in income tended to increase the number of middling groups in society, those merchants, artisans and gentry who benefited from rising property prices. In the west country, the prosperous cloth trade and various mercantile enterprises meant that the middling sorts had money to invest in the arts. You are perhaps already aware of the National Portrait Gallery’s current exhibition on Elizabeth I and her People, and if that is your sort of thing, there are lots of paintings at the RAMM too, including ‘The Armada Portrait’ of Elizabeth I; several from the school of Holbein; numerous works by Exeter’s most significant artist to date, the miniature-painter Nicholas Hilliard; and a huge piece that tells the story of the arrival of Armada in the South West in 1588. Click on images for enlargements.
All are deeply impressive, but the artistic accomplishment of the south west is also to be found in the crafts – in the production of jewellery, elaborate drinking vessels, church plate (more on that in tomorrow’s post), household utensils, decorative plasterwork, moveable furniture, architectural stone and woodwork, and fine needlework. Some of these were functional, but all displayed the taste, wealth and status of their owners in this society.
Two of my favourite objects in the exhibition seem to be less about status, but certainly fall within the category of the decorative arts. They are a set of boards with an image painted on each them. Both are reasonably small – perhaps the size of an A3 sheet of paper – and one depicts Moses, the other Job. Each has a scriptural extract painted above the image. On loan from the V&A, they are part of a series of Old Testament figures. The drawings are plain but relatively accomplished: Job wears a long red tunic, cinched at the waist with a belt with a tasseled pouch hanging from it. He has a long brown pointed beard and wears a small turban and long boots, an interesting suggestion of ethnic stereotyping. He looks as if he is walking somewhere, and his hands are together and raised in supplication. The figure stands on some scraggly grass, and it is against a black background, in contrast to the scriptural text in black letter against a white background that forms a strip across the top of the board. It reads: ‘I ame sure that my redemer liveth and that I shall rise [oute?] of the earth at the latter day. Job [19?].’
Moses wears a white tunic and his extra long, brownish belt flaps around his legs as if in a breeze. He has tights tucked into his high brown boots, and wears a warm looking hat. He has a brown beard, much shorter than Job’s, and he also looks like he is walking. In his arms is a large tablet divided in two, dashed lines across it representing the Commandments. There is a skull between his feet, and I was intrigued to see that Moses is blindfolded – I am assuming this represents the Lord’s impartial justice but would be delighted to hear of other examples of this. His inscription reads ‘The Lord will stirr up amonge the brethren a Profet, like unto me. Deutrinomy 18’.
The RAMM’s information card informs us that the boards might have been displayed in a church or private house near Plymouth, but immediately my little grey cells started humming. I doubted that it was the latter in Elizabethan England, where the work of iconoclasm in parish churches was relatively complete. To me, these images were a surprise – what were images of scriptural figures doing here, in an era when images had been rejected by the reformers as leading to wrong belief and wrong practice?
The scholarship on visual culture in early modern England can help to answer this question, as it has been rapidly developing in recent years. Earlier historians had to an extent been won over by Patrick Collinson’s argument that throughout Elizabeth’s reign, English Protestantism became less, not more popular in character. Crudely summarised, Collinson asserted that the first generation of Protestant publicists and propagandists made polemical use of cultural vehicles (songs, drama, cheap print, the visual arts), using these forms to transmit the evangelical message with the aim of converting the English people to Protestantism. Protestant plays were written and produced, godly ballads were published and sung, images were used to attack Catholicism and to commend their own religious beliefs and values. But around 1580 Collinson thought that a new generation of evangelicals began to reject visual and performative culture, judging it to be unsuitable for their religious message. This later generation of Protestants thought that plays, songs and images were distracting the audience and confusing the religious message. Worse, the arts mixed sacred ideas with filthy ‘popular’ forms, doing violence to religious truth by associating it with base, bawdy and inappropriate behaviour and language. In this new world, Collinson argued that Protestants came to completely refuse any appeal to the senses in religious matters. All images were ‘Popish’, most Elizabethan and Jacobean bibles therefore had no illustrations, the only decoration in the parish church was to be the Royal Arms and perhaps a table of the ten commandments. England had moved from iconoclasm in the first stages of reform (rejection of abused, dangerous and false images), to complete iconophobia (rejection of all images).
And yet…, whilst Collinson’s argument is enormously useful in thinking about the continuing repercussions of religious change, it is perhaps more useful for thinking about reforming clergymen than it is English society more broadly. Objections have been raised, and work is afoot to provide a corrective to the ‘iconophobia’ argument. It is easy to point to the continued existence of images in England – British Printed Images to 1700 is a website that hosts a database of several thousand printed images produced in Protestant Britain, and much decorated medieval furniture can be found in parish churches across the country to this day (though of course some of this may have been restored during a later era). Our Moses and Job boards are of course another example of later imagery.
So how can we explain Moses and Job? Are these a rare surviving example of something from the bottom of the Tessa Watt’s ‘ladder of sanctity’ – inoffensive Old Testament figures that Protestants were comfortable displaying in a secular context? Watt has taught us that those scriptural figures who were the least sacred in the Catholic tradition, those that did not have cults associated with them and who were therefore unlikely to be the focus of devotion, were often still depicted in post-Reformation England. Moses and Job fit the bill – they are Old Testament figures, and both are strongly associated with moral teaching and practices. You are not meant to worship them but to learn from their stories and they were probably a new element of visual language in the post-Reformation church – there are no wall paintings of Job in Anne Marshall’s excellent catalogue of medieval wall paintings, and only one of Moses – which was painted after the Reformation.
Watt’s theory therefore helps us to explain images that survived in the face of fierce criticism of the Catholic use of imagery in worship. It seems that the purposes of post-Reformation images were usually didactic, images were used symbolically to recall to mind important beliefs or Christian principles. Here the scriptural texts above the images suggest that these figures were intended as an aid to memory, representative of bigger theological and moral truths. Job stood for the trials, temptations and suffering that an ordinary family man might face in everyday life, the text the hope of release from them. Moses would call to mind the Ten Commandments (perhaps displayed for all to see in the parish church) and their importance as the basis of Christian morality and behaviour. Both are eminently suitable for display in a secular sphere such as the household, reminders of everyday Christian beliefs that could comfort and guide people as they went about their lives. Incidentally the British Printed Images database throws up eight images of Moses and two of Job, all from the seventeenth century, suggesting that these images might be less suitable for publication than for display in the household. Often these images are found in the frontispiece: Drexel’s School of Patience (1640) has an image of Job with the caption ‘Patience’; in Francis Quarles 1646 collection of miscellaneous reflections Boanerges and Barnabas Moses represents justice (in opposition to mercy) and wears a similar outfit to that depicted on our boards (see below); whilst a 1695 edition of Richard Allestree’s Works shows the prophet wearing a veil. Does the latter represent squeamishness over showing Moses’ face, or is it just because the book contains a section on the topic of veiling?
It appears then that Moses and Job need not have been out of place in the Elizabethan south west after all. Tara Hamling’s recent work on domestic decoration supports such an interpretation, and these boards indeed suggest that Elizabethan England ‘still contained many images to help its inhabitants in converting the words of the Protestant religion into a visualised experience’, as Tessa Watt has argued. These images were complementing and supporting preaching and reading, those activities more traditionally seen as the heart of Protestant practice. The physical environments that people inhabited had also been changed as a result of reform, reconfigured to encourage the development of the Godly society that the evangelicals strove to create.
In tomorrow’s post: musings on the impact of the Reformation, goldsmiths and contemporary urban redevelopment.
‘West Country to World’s End: the South West in the Tudor Age’ runs until 2 March 2014 at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum. You can find all the details about the museum, it’s opening times, it’s wonderful café and more here.
Patrick Collinson, ‘From Iconoclasm to Iconophobia: the Cultural Impact of the Second English Reformation’, The Stenton Lecture 1985 (University of Reading:1986). Reprinted in Peter Marshall (ed.), The Impact of the English Reformation (London, 1997).
Tessa Watt, Cheap Print and Popular Piety (Cambridge, 1991), chapter 4, ‘Idols in the frontispiece’.
Tara Hamling, Decorating the ‘Godly’ Household: Religious Art in Post-Reformation Britain (London, 2010).