In this blog series, our curators, archivists, conservators and learning team will be bringing together works of art from across the Collection under one theme. From armour and jewellery, to portraits and porcelain, read about some of the most fascinating and marvellous pieces in the Collection here.
In this week's blog, we explore some of the more spookier themes found in the Collection... Go forth at your own risk...
Delaroche, Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower, 1831
In Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, the murder of the young Edward V and his brother Richard, Duke of York, in the Tower of London is described by a henchman, rather than shown on stage. However, their deaths are dramatically visualised in this painting, a version of a much larger picture now in the Louvre, Paris.
Edward and Richard were locked up in the Tower of London, reading the Bible, which Richard holds open on Edward’s lap. Their dog, possibly a King Charles Spaniel, has noticed the arrival of the murderers and stands looking alert towards the door to the bedchamber. Beneath the door appears an ominous shadow. The young king looks away, unaware of the approaching threat. Yet, his brother seems to listen intently, having perhaps noticed the impending danger. The drama and tension of the scene are almost theatrical and convey to the onlooker the horrible events that are about to unfold.
Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, The Witches in Macbeth, c.1841–2
The subject of the painting is taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and depicts the gathering of the three witches, also known as the Three Weird Sisters. The three witches have gathered around a cauldron, hanging over a blazing fire in the middle of a dark room, with the light of a ghostly white moon slipping through the window behind them. Their terrifying figures are illuminated by the flames, revealing their contorted faces. The first witch kneels on the floor spurring the fire on, the second prepares to add a toad to the ghastly contents of the cauldron, and the third raises her arms above her head in a dramatic gesture.
Subjects such as this one provided powerful and inspiring alternatives to the traditions of French classicism and offered young artists new dramatic subject matter. Decamps’s interpretation conveys a strong sense of otherworldliness, while his depiction of the three women gives them a sense of evil. It reflects the audiences’ beliefs about witches, as women who harm animals and use gruesome ingredients to make their spells. It leaves no doubt as to their connection with evil.
Lion-mask pauldron, North Italian, c. 1530–50
Armour was an essential part of Renaissance life. Not just equipment for fighting, armour was also an elaborate form of costume. It could be used to hide the mortality of the wearer, to express his personality, or to transform him into something heroic, frightening or even God-like.
Greek and Roman history and mythology was a hugely important source of inspiration for artists, summoning up images of superhuman heroes and infernal monsters. Using these sources, Renaissance armourers worked steel into dynamically expressive forms. One of the most popular was the lion-mask, designed to invoke the Greco-Roman hero Hercules, who wore the skin of the invulnerable Nemean Lion. More generally, the lion-mask symbolised nobility, power and ferocity.
This lion-mask pauldron (shoulder plate), a fragment of a lost armour in the ‘Heroic’ style, is a good example of the motif. Interestingly, the quality of the workmanship is so beguiling that, perhaps in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, the piece was modified (large holes cut in the eyes and smaller holes punched to take a head band) so that it could be worn as a face-mask, at some forgotten court festivity or mask ball.
Pierre Reymond or his workshop, Limoges plaque with The Last Judgement, mid-16th century
This dramatic depiction of The Last Judgement resonates with the Christian origin of Halloween in All Hallows’ Eve, when traditionally the dead are commemorated prior to All Saints Day itself, on which the saints are honoured.
Sixteenth-century Limoges was renowned for painted enamels on copper and Pierre Reymond’s workshop was one of the most prolific. In depicting the scene in grisaille (monochrome) the enameller has been faithful to his source, the final print in Dürer’s Small Passion woodcut series, but enriched it with gilding. Christ sits in judgement, flanked by trumpeting angels, his head between a lily and a sword, symbolizing purity and justice respectively. The Virgin, accompanied by John the Baptist, petitions on behalf of the souls being judged. Below, angels usher the saved towards heaven while devils push and drag the reluctant damned into hell, its entrance depicted as the gaping jaws of a wild-eyed canine.
Hendrik Hondius the Elder, Death and the Huntsman, 1625
A man on horseback is confronted with Death. In addition to his two hounds, the huntsman is also surrounded by other animals including a toad, a turkey, a porcupine, a goat, and a bull, the latter two poking their heads through the edge of the composition while other unidentified beasts lurk in the background. Their great detail put Hondius the Elder’s draughtsmanship on display. The man’s lifted gloved hand, where a bird sits, is mirrored by Death’s raised skeletal arm. Death points a menacing dart at the huntsman and holds an hourglass in from of him. All the while, twisted around a tree, a serpent offers him an apple, a symbol of sin. It is a momento mori – a reminder of one’s own death.
This is a preparatory drawing for an engraving that formed the title page of a set of nineteen prints titled Momento Mori. They depicted skeletons of animals, some of them found all hided and coated in the drawing, accompanied by Latin inscriptions about the passing of time and inevitability of death.