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Thomas Wolsey and his Patronage of Italian Artists

Thu May 4, 2017

By William Aslet

Philip Mould &Co. have recently added to their website an intriguing portrait of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and Henry VIII’s ill-fated Lord Chancellor of England. The portrait is a late-16th century head-and-shoulders repetition of Wolsey’s only surviving painted portrait-type, probably executed during his lifetime in c.1515-20. The handling of the paint and sensitive rendering of Wolsey’s facial expression suggest it was probably painted by an Italian artist, and an old wax seal on the reverse indicates it may once have been in the collection of a family of Florentine bankers.

Portrait of Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal of York, late sixteenth-century Italian School

Wolsey was a lavish and sophisticated patron of the arts and many continental artists gravitated towards him, eager for his support and influence. One of these was the Italian sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano (1474-c.1552). Benedetto had worked with Michelangelo, having finished his now-lost 1508 bronze version of David. In 1524, Cardinal Wolsey commissioned Benedetto to design and execute his own tomb. In an act of daring self-promotion, Wolsey seemed openly to compete with the king, stipulating in the contract that his tomb should exceed in quality Pietro Torrigiano’s double-tomb for Henry’s mother and father. Wolsey’s vast sarcophagus was to be surmounted by his effigy in bronze by Benedetto and surrounded at the corners by four candle-bearing angels. It was to have been one of the most opulent funerary monuments that the country had ever seen.

Sadly for Wolsey, this magnificent celebration of a career that had seen a butcher’s son catapulted to the some of the highest offices in the realm was not to be his final resting place. By 1526, Henry had become infatuated with Anne Boleyn and by 1527 was making moves to annul his first marriage. Wolsey was in charge of securing the much sought-after papal annulment, but faced with an intransigent pope, ultimately failed. Wolsey’s death from natural causes in 1530 likely saved him for a more painful departure at the hands of executioners; his tomb in Leicester is now lost.

In the aftermath of Wolsey’s death, Henry seized the prelate’s monument to act as a replacement for his now-aborted double-tomb with Katherine. Wolsey’s effigy was melted down. Not content to have the tomb of a mere cardinal, by now head of the Church of England, busily pursued plans to enlarge it for his own use. Yet, his vision overreached itself and the tomb remained incomplete on his death in 1547. Henry was eventually buried in an inappropriately modest tomb in the crypt of St. George’s, Windsor.

Our portrait photographed by renowned interiors and lifestyle photographer, Simon Bevan.

However, the tomb proved to outlive both Wolsey and Henry as, in a sense, it had been intended to be. Following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the British nation chose to express its debt of gratitude to Admiral Horatio Nelson by burying him in the vacant black marble sarcophagus in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Other elements of the tomb were dispersed and have only recently been identified. Four bronze candelabra are now in St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent and two angels that were discovered at auction in 1994 were recently joined in the Victoria and Albert Museum by the second pair, which had been in use as gate posts at Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire, now a golf club.