Since the Victorian era, pictures of dead people - not pictures of people who have died, but pictures of actual dead people have usually served one of two functions; to commemorate (like Victorian corpse photographs, an interesting subject in itself) or as crime-scene records.
For a brief period in sixteenth century Scotland though, they were those things but more; a tool of propaganda - a record, an accusation, a call for justice. As such they were a symptom of the specific, complex and in many ways contradictory culture which created them and then, appropriately, when the elements that had led to their creation were replaced with something more reflective, the need for these kind of pictures disappeared.
Art, Patronage and Politics in 16th Century Scotland
Like every other period, the mid-sixteenth century was a troubled time in Europe, and the nature of these troubles - especially the Protestant Reformation and subsequent iconoclasm - had an unusually direct impact on the visual arts of the time. The act of painting itself became, on the one hand distrusted as a source of idolatry and on the other a potent weapon in the propaganda war between the Protestant and Catholic faiths. Only the art of portraiture, closely identified with the Princely courts of the time, continued more or less as before, though it was not unchanged by the upheavals in society. In Britain (anyway not exactly a world leader paintings at the time) this situation was exacerbated by dynastic problems. In England, the short, troubled reigns of Edward VI and Mary I led to a breakdown in courtly culture which didn't really stabilise until some years into the reign of Elizabeth I. The situation in Scotland was even more precarious.
The Reformation north of the border had been achieved with a minimum of violence, but the death of James V in 1542 had ushered in a period of chronic instability. A period of short regencies accompanied by inter-factional fighting was not improved by the beginning of the personal reign of James' French-raised, Catholic daughter, Mary in 1561, not least because 1560 had been the year when Scotland officially became Protestant.
After the murder of Mary's husband, Henry, Lord Darnley in 1567 and her unpopular marriage to the Earl of Bothwell shortly thereafter, the situation worsened into a state of actual civil war, where rival groups of nobles, often (but not always) divided by religion, gathered around Mary's infant son, the future James VI and Mary herself. The existence of two royal courts, neither stable enough to be based in one place for a significant length of time, was hardly conducive to the production of visual art, and indeed during these years, Scotland, which had long been part of the courtly culture of Northern Europe failed, like England, to keep abreast of the latest artistic developments which were occurring elsewhere.
The young lord Darnley and his brother, painted by Hans Eworth in 1563
The young lord Darnley and his brother, painted by Hans Eworth in 1563
It was precisely because of this troubled situation though, that a short-lived but distinctive genre emerged in Scotland; the vendetta picture. Not especially innovative in terms of technique or impressive in scale, these pictures nevertheless generally feature a vigorous, documentary realism allied to a pointed propagandist purpose, making them distinctive and sometimes intense examples of 16th century art, unique to Scotland in this period.
Hugo van der Goes' Trinity College Altarpiece
Up until the death of James V in the aftermath of the battle of Solway Moss in 1542, the Scottish court had been an active participant in the Northern Renaissance. The links of trade and marriage, especially to France and the Low Countries, had produced a body of painting, metalwork and writing, including the Trinity College Altarpiece (c. 1470) produced for James III by the Flemish master Hugo van der Goes, the 15th Century mace of St Salvator's College, St Andrews and the poetry of William Dunbar, Robert Henryson and Gavin Douglas, which was entirely comparable with that of other Northern European countries.
Under James V, a typical renaissance Prince, this achievement was extended to include large-scale building programmes. It had remained the case that major painting commissions were normally awarded to foreign (especially Dutch or Flemish) artists, but the native court artists of the king were at the forefront of fashion in the production of decorative works such as Books of Hours, illuminated manuscripts and the decoration of churches, palaces and houses. In fact, a distinctive decorative approach had evolved in this period, a recognisable 'national style' which was notable for its vigour and simplicity and for the confidence with which Scottish painters tackled large-scale commissions, such as wall and ceiling paintings.
Painted ceiling in Crathes Castle, c. 1599
This illustrative native tradition was the only aspect of the Scottish renaissance to survive the double blow of the Protestant Reformation and the dissolution of the Royal court following the death of James V. and as such it is crucial both to the study of Scottish art in the sixteenth century and to the Vendetta genre itself.
The instability of court life continued during the minority of James V's daughter Mary, ('Queen of Scots') but some important decorative schemes were commissioned by the aristocracy, notably the Regent Arran at Kinneil House during the 1550s-60s.
mural at Kinneil House c.1550s
Links with France also continued during this period, not least because of the young Queen's residence in Paris. When Mary's French mother, Marie de Guise, became Regent from 1554-60 the French influence continued, although the first half of the century also included the first outbreaks of iconoclasm in Scotland. In the 1540s, the Reformation arrived fully fledged in Scotland and religious painting all but ceased.The Reformation itself was relatively less violent than elsewhere, partly because of the weakness of the crown, which was exacerbated by a new anti-French feeling among the nobility, which undermined Marie de Guise's authority. When Marie died in 1560 the Reformers inherited the rule of the country, and even the return from France of the Queen later that year failed to fully reverse the situation.
In fact, the Royal court of Scotland was never to fully regain the stability and prominence it had had in the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, though it did recover some of its dignity post 1579, when King James VI took up his personal rule. This situation meant that, although the visual arts in Scotland didn't die out altogether, their development was, by the standards of Europe generally, severely crippled. Portrait painters, such as Hans Eworth and Adrian Vanson still came to Scotland from the Low Countries to paint the nobility, but they were isolated figures and on the whole there was not the same exchange of ideas and innovations as there had been in the previous century.
Meanwhile, the native painters of Scotland continued to fulfil the tasks of portraiture, heraldic and decorative painting in the style that they had developed in the fifteenth century, but although they looked to the emblem books of the continent for inspiration, their role as craftsmen, rather than artistic personalities and their reliance on the now relatively insular Crown and nobility for employment left them little opportunity for the kind of individual artistic growth seen throughout mainland Europe (and it's worth pointing out that the decade of the1560s alone produced iconic works by Bosch, Breughel, Titian, Veronese and El Greco).
Little is known about the training of Scottish painters in the 16th century, but it seems to have been a common occurrence for a painter to have a family background in the craft. Like any craftsman in the period, they would be apprenticed to a master, under whom they would work for a pre-arranged period (generally seven years for painters) before presenting a piece of work to their master which, if judged good enough, would qualify him to work independently. A painter also had to be admitted as a Burgess and enrol in the Guild of Wrights and Masons (there was no Painters' Guild until late in the 17th century) before they could legally work. Once enrolled, they could be employed by the Crown and nobility, as well as local town authorities on all kinds of artistic and decorative commissions as well as public celebrations.
The Vendetta picture, a work containing portrait-style representation and narrative painting alongside written inscriptions, seems to take its form from the varied commissions of these heraldic or decorative painters. The patrons who commissioned these works were themselves members of the aristocracy whose houses were commonly adorned with these emblematic decorative schemes and it seems likely that their familiarity with this type of work shaped the form they wished these pictures to take, whether they were commissioned from a local painter, or as in the case of the Darnley Memorial (more on that later), a visiting continental artist. Therefore the Vendetta picture can be interpreted as the attempt of a lively, well-established courtly tradition to cope with the demands of a darker time in which the very courtly society which formed it began to disintegrate.
Revenge in 16th Century Scotland
The term 'Vendetta picture' presupposes a society in which the concept of revenge plays a part. The religious divisions and subsequent breakdown of law and order throughout Europe in the second half of the 16th century led to widespread debate about revenge, seen most prominently in the rash of 'revenge tragedies' which began to appear in the English theatre from Pickering's Horestes (1567) onwards, culminating in the morbid plays of John Webster in the early years of the 17th century. The issues raised in such works reflected the genuine concerns of the audience. Revenge, summed up by Francis Bacon in his Essays (1625) as 'a kind of wild justice' was not only illegal, but expressly forbidden by divine authority: 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord'. This commandment was firmly upheld by Jean Calvin, one of the most decisive influences on the 16th Century Kirk of Scotland, but the desire for revenge, and the concept of the bloodfeud (more on that later too) remained strong, especially where the law was seen to be deficient or corrupt.
The seemingly clear-cut words of the bible were also complicated by the divinely-sanctioned nature of monarchy. That monarchy could override even God is seen in the bizarre English 'Bond of Association' where leading nobles signed a pledge obliging them blasphemously to take 'uttermost revenge' on anyone attempting to overthrow Elizabeth I or usurp the throne. By contrast, James VI, although famous for his elevated view of the divine nature of monarchy, which he described thus; 'Monarchie...which forme of gouernmente, as resembling the Divinitie, approacheth nearest to perfection" was nevertheless cautious about the subject of revenge. In his book on statecraft, Basilikon Doron (1599), he specifically advised his son Henry to be intolerant of 'unlawfull things, such as revenge'. This attitude is entirely consistent with James' view of himself as a peacemaker, but it perhaps also reflects the experiences of his youth, when he was used as a figurehead by a faction of nobles in opposition to his own mother. In that situation, his Royal position allowed his party to call for revenge in the name of God and the king, to the extent that the phrase Judge and Avenge my Cause, O Lord became a kind of catchphrase of the young King, appearing in several paintings, as well as becoming the refrain for a 24 stanza ballad, The Kingis Complaint, published in Edinburgh in 1570 when the King was four years old. Revenge was a potent but highly ambiguous concept, which could, despite its illegal and anti-Christian nature, be presented as not only just, but even pleasing to God.
James VI as a child.