Sunday, 7 July 2013

"Not Eternall" - The Vendetta Picture in 16th Century Scotland (Epilogue)

The End of the Feuding Society

Corrupt or not, the peaceful resolution following the Bargany case was to become the norm during the latter part of James VI's reign, and was a fulfilment of his own personal philosophy.

After nearly half a century of violence and lawlessness which had on many occasions during his minority, centred around the helpless figure of the young King himself, James could say with pride, relief and perhaps some surprise that "The matter of feudis is not eternall, bot may be removed and not transmitted to posteritie."

With the passing of the feauding society of the 16th century the end of the Vendetta picture naturally came to a close, but as previously mentioned, its various elements lingered for a while in subtly altered forms.

Mary Queen of Scots; the Blairs College Portrait c.1605

Superficially this posthumous portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots shares many features with the Vendetta pictures already discussed. The picture was commissioned in Antwerp by Elizabeth Curle, one of Mary's ladies in waiting, in around 1605. Curle, along with Mary's other servant, Jane Kennedy, had been present at Mary's execution at Fotherighay Castle in February 1587 (almost 20 years to the day since the murder of Darnley), both ladies helping the Queen with her preparations for the event itself. At some point early in the 17th Century (an inscription in the painting refers to James as 'King of Great Britain' dating the picture to some time after 1603) Curle, then resident in Antwerp, commissioned this memorial of the event from a local artist.

Like the Darnley Memorial, the painting tells the story of Mary's execution in the manner of a history painting, with inscriptions and inset scenes arranged around a large central image, in this case a full-length painting of Mary clutching a bible and crucifix. At the top left are the Royal arms of Scotland, establishing Mary's status as Monarch. At the top right, an extensive, if slightly misleading inscription tells of how Mary looked to her cousin, Elizabeth I for aid, but was instead imprisoned due to her Catholic faith.

At the left centre is an inset scene of Mary's execution, based on an engraving of 1587 from a book by Flemish martyrologist Richard Verstegan (although as with the the Darnley murder, the execution of Queen Mary generated documentary drawings made at the scene). An inscription again stresses Mary;s status and heritage as well as informing the viewer of the details of the execution, including that three blows of the axe were required to sever Mary's head, plus the time, place and a list of those present.

Finally, on the right of the central figure, which is perhaps dressed in mourning costume and can again be seen as a kind of painted effigy, stand the small figures of the servants, Jane Kennedy holding the cloth with which she had covered Mary's face.

At the foot of the painting is a dedication to the Scots college in Douai to which the picture was presented, plus a reminder of Mary's assertion before the execution that she "always was, and is, a daughter of the Roman Church".

This painting is, like the Vendetta pictures, clearly an image that includes elements of portraiture, documentary and propaganda, in this case the presentation of Mary as a martyr to the Catholic cause. What makes this a significantly different kind of painting though, is the lack of any kind of call for revenge.
This would have been inappropriate for several reasons: firstly, as the painting states, Mary's son James was now not only King of Scotland, but of Britain, more in fact than Mary herself could ever have hoped for.

Secondly, in the early years of his reign as King of Great Britain, James began to rehabilitate the reputation of both of his parents, culminating in the lavish marble tomb he had built for Mary in Westminster Abbey in 1612. In addition, as heir to both the Stewart and Tudor dynasties, and a Protestant himself, James venerated the memory of his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth, making any calls for vengeance both inappropriate and politically awkward.
The idea of revenge was also ultimately irrelevant to the Catholic ideology of martyrdom, which stressed Christlike sacrifice, rather than the secular act of murder. The same is true of the similar images which were produced following the execution of Mary's grandson, Charles I in 1649, although this was a more specifically sectarian cause.

The Vendetta picture, like the act of bloody revenge itself, could only flourish for as long as legal redress for grievances was unavailable because of corrupt or weak leadership. As such, the genre is a memorial to a turbulent and unhappy period in Scottish history but it is also valuable in demonstrating the extent to which the visual arts, like the literature of the time, were employed by the ruling class not only as a means of projecting their wealth and status but also as an effective weapon in their struggles to maintain that status.

Despite the humble standing of the artists and craftsmen of Scotland compared to their continental counterparts, this genre, along with their better-known decorative works, demonstrates that their art not only recorded the people and events of the society in which they lived, but also helped to shape it.

The quotes in Scots & so forth come from these books:

Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, Vol. V
Anon. A Diurnal of Remarkable Occurents that have Passed within the Country of Scotland since the Death of King James the Fourth Till the Year MDLXXXV (Edinburgh, 1833)
Calendar of State Papers Relating to Scotland Vol. 1 (London, 1858)
Calendar of State Papers (Scottish) Vol 3 (Edinburgh, 1969)
Calendar of State Papers Vol. X (Edinburgh, 1936)
Anon. A Chronicle of the Kings of Scotland from Fergus I to James VI in the Year MDCXI (Edinburgh, 1830)
The Bannatyne Miscellany Vol I (Edinburgh, 1827)
The Basilikon Doron of King James VI (Edinburgh, 1944)
The Minor Prose of King James VI (Edinburgh, 1982)
D. Moysie, Memoirs of the Affairs of Scotland - MDCII (Edinburgh, 1830)
R. Pitcairn, Criminal Trials in Scotland Vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1830)
T. Thompson (ed.), Historie and Life of James the Sext (Edinburgh, 1825)
J. Row, Historief the Kirk of Scotland 1560-1637 (Edinburgh, 1842)
R. Watson, Historicall Collections of Ecclesiastick Affairs in Scotland and Politick Related to them, including the Murder of the Cardinal of St Andrews and the beheading of their Queen Mary in England (London, 1657)

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