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Art History in "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel

Updated on March 12, 2018
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When I'm not being a photographer, a dancer, or making jewelry, I write. Specifically art history. I plan on writing about other subjects.

Jumping on the bandwagon late

I knew about the television adaptation. Then I listened to interviews from people such as the person who turned the novel into a play courtesy of a BBC History Extra podcast. While listening, I found myself compelled into buying the first two books of Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell Trilogy. The first I am reviewing is, of course, Wolf Hall.

On the book overall

As I read this book, I felt this overwhelming silence. I had never felt this when reading a book. The silence continued even as characters interacted with each other. That sense of quiet stayed during scenes of Cromwell mentally contemplating his strategies.

Political intrigue has consequences

This book, plus Bring Up The Bodies, explores the cycles of intrigue and how such maneuvers end up destroying people. Cardinal Wolsey prevents Anne Boleyn from marrying Harry Percy, then the Cardinal himself loses favor with the royal court and dies humiliated. In Bodies, Wolsey's right hand man Cromwell would later manipulate a reckoning on the people who took down his mentor. Reading this, I observed that these cycles would not have happened had Wolsey and others allowed Boleyn to marry Percy. Furthermore, the obsession with preventing people of differing classes from marrying each other is fascinating and frustrating at the same time. Especially given how the people doing such scheming are condemned as low class. People in the same status eating each other so they could earn bigger scraps from the higher classes.

Italian Influences in England

Now, the art history references. The first art history reference starts right before the story begins, with the longest opening quote I have ever come across in a book. This is a book of many firsts for me. It's a quote from Vitruvius's book on architecture, explaining how different theatrical set designs accentuate the tones of different types of plays. In fact, during Boleyn's coronation, Cromwell and other ambassadors discuss Giulio Camillo's Vitruvian style presentation. Camillo is mentioned multiple times and is depicted as a forward thinker.

Given how he spent his years in Italy, Cromwell (and others I think) constantly mentions the Italian art scene throughout the book. Mantel references art patrons such as the Medici, the Farnese, and two Quattrocento era artists. Cromwell contemplates St. Peter's Basilica and its long illustrious history from its building to Michelangelo's lauded art installations. Even as England breaks from Rome, the well-to-do English covet Italian culture. Cromwell even imagines his nemesis Gardiner's adoration for "Italianate" art. When I looked up the word, I learned that the term did not come into a major style until the 1800s.

Mantel includes an amusing aside about her main character. According to her, Cromwell made art himself. While living in Italy, he remembers how he helped create a fake Roman Empire era statue and tricked a Cardinal into owning the piece.

Saint Peter's Basilica, Vatican, Rome, Italy

Sculpture of Saint Peter's Basilica
Sculpture of Saint Peter's Basilica | Source

Art in England

As Boleyn takes her place as Henry's queen, Cromwell oversees the removal of art installed amid Catherine of Aragon's reign and observes the different themes as one queen is replaced by another. Mantel portrays the art of Catherine's era as quite dour. The art celebrating Boleyn is characterized as bright, cheerful, and full of Roman goddesses that reference Anne's likeness. Mantel mentions "Vitruvian colors". It felt as though Anne was to bring about a new era similar to the Roman Empire. However, Cromwell notes that the painted goddesses will have to be altered should Boleyn not last Henry's reign.

To emphasize the point that art can easily be altered, no matter how divine, King Henry casually talks of iconoclasm as Cromwell takes down monasteries.

Since this takes place in England, St. Paul's Cathedral has a mention. London is characterized as full of Gothic looking sculpture full of strange beings. Cromwell describes a rather disreputable sounding inn with a rendering of St. Mark. Mantel does not bother to classify it as a mural or even a tapestry.
There's descriptions of tapestries (mentions one that came as far as Isfahan!), buildings of manors and palaces (Lambeth Palace), goods (such as clocks from Flanders), paintings, and of course, Hans Holbein.

All this shows that Cromwell knows and enjoys art, especially when it comes to decorating his properties, such as Austin Friars. He even uses art to compel a financial deal. Mantel describes it as "an engraving" and leaves the artist anonymous. As Cromwell takes control of England's monasteries, he muses on the deceptively confusing designs of Chartres Cathedral. Cromwell often compares people to artworks. He compares the women in his house to the sculpture of Our Lady at Walsingham and describes his offspring Gregory as an artistically rendered heavenly being.

Queen of Sheba's Journey (and other tapestries that reflect characters)

Regarding references to tapestries, the one referenced regularly depicts the Queen of Sheba (by Anselma) encountering King Solomon. As King Solomon welcomes the Queen, King Henry welcomes Boleyn with pomp, circumstance, and the dawning of a new era in English history. While the Queen of Sheba was born beyond King Solomon's realm, the characters see the French-influenced English woman Boleyn as a foreigner. To emphasize the tapestry's journey, the piece first belongs to Wolsey, then to King Henry, and then finally to Cromwell. Similar to the Queen of Sheba, Boleyn encounters Wolsey, then marries Henry, but later meets her fate with Cromwell.

The parallel is not lost on the characters themselves as Hans Holbein creates a smaller version for King Henry.

When Cromwell sees Jane Rochford (while dealing with Boleyn family drama), he describes the tapestry near her as this whimsical scene of nature full of minor Greek goddesses dallying about.

Contraband Bible Translations

The Protestant Reformation is in full swing as manuscripts full of translations not approved by the Catholic Church are being smuggled in. People who hide books by Tyndale sees the printing press as the dawn of the modern world. Holbein contemplates a brand new English Bible, and wants to flatter King Henry by decorating the monarch on the manuscript. As England shrugs off Rome's control, one reads Cromwell showing disdain (and skepticism) for reliquaries that are supposed to hold objects and parts belonging to Biblical figures.

He does love books, such as his enjoyment of Summa de Arithmetica, and describes the author's portrait, right down to what type of engraving. Mantel uses the word "woodcut", but that word was not used until long after Cromwell's death. Cromwell mentions that Venetians gave it to him, and of course, citizens of a city that worships and romanticizes mathematical design in its architecture would do that.

Venice, Italy

The Arches of Italy
The Arches of Italy | Source

"Portrait of Thomas Cromwell" Hans Holbein, 1532-33

{{PD-US}} | Source

Holbein as a character

Hans Holbein figures prominently in the novel, but he doesn't say much. When he speaks, the book does depict him as direct. He comes in and out of the story whenever an artistic endeavor of his is mentioned. I don't know if Holbein is a friend to Cromwell, but he is mentioned having dinner with him at Cromwell's main house. Mantel characterizes Holbein as someone who wants to stay out of the major cultural shifts and avoid people who can't decide whether or not they should commit iconoclasm. He does have strong opinions about how Lucas Cranach depicts people. Besides painting portraits of King Henry and Queen Anne Boleyn, he acts as an interior decorator/coronation designer for the king.

In fact, Holbein is being stretched thin due to him having to hold on to finished paintings so he can use them as networking tools for more noble patrons. Mantel mentions other paintings by Holbein that were difficult to find with a search engine. For example, Cromwell contemplates a double portrait Holbein made that's not The Ambassadors. I have searched for the painting, but I found nothing.

Near the end, Mantel devotes a small chapter to Holbein's portrait of Cromwell. Cromwell believes his portrait's inner thoughts would be impenetrable to the viewer. He also notes how unflattering he looks, and come to think of it, I wonder if this will act as an ironic portent to Holbein's famous depiction of Anne of Cleves. The series shows Holbein having a tendency to smooth over people's flaws in his portraits. Obviously not a big fan of Verism, and possibly another bit of foreshadowing of Cromwells' fate.

Despite some issues, I enjoyed Wolf Hall.


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