Get to know royalty in ‘The Tudors’ at the Cleveland Museum of Art
While current depictions of royal life are just a click away online, in Renaissance times the grandeur wouldn’t have been widely seen. But, the opulence is on view now, a few hundred years later, in “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England” at the Cleveland Museum of Art.
“The Tudors had a legitimacy issue,” said Cory Korkow, curator of European paintings and sculptures at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “It wasn't without question that Henry VII should be king. And so, as someone who was trying to project legitimacy, art is an incredibly powerful tool.”
Organized with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “The Tudors: Arts and Majesty in Renaissance England” features more than 90 artworks, many on loan from Europe. The exhibit runs in Cleveland through May 14.
The art created for the Tudors is wide ranging and offers a look at the lives of this royal family, which began its rein in the late 1400s. The dynasty includes the infamous King Henry VIII, known for his many wives, and Queen Elizabeth I, one of England’s first ruling queens.
The portraiture is one way to glean details about this royal family. For instance, one from shortly after Elizabeth took the throne depicts her as a “marriageable beauty,” Korkow said.
“She's set against this elaborate backdrop of fruit and flowers, suggesting her fecundity, fertility, the potential heir that might be the product of this union,” she said.
Elizabeth did not get married or have children, instead dedicating herself to England. Later portraits of Elizabeth in the exhibit carry a different tone.
“She always presents herself as someone who is quintessentially English,” Korkow said.
Another portrait, Hans Holbein’s depiction of Henry VIII’s only son, demonstrates how artists manipulated imagery well before Photoshop.
“We know that he was a really frail child, but you would not get that sense from the portrait,” Korkow said. “What better way to curry favor with your major patron than to give him a portrait of his long-awaited male heir?”
Holbein was also thanked for this portrayal with a gold cup and cover, she said.
Even as these portraits may captivate people today, the tapestries would have claimed the spotlight in Renaissance England.
One tapestry on view in the exhibit dramatically depicts the burning of books. Another was part of a historical event, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a display of two kings’ wealth, which included lavish textiles woven with gold thread.
“Henry VIII went into huge amounts of debt in order to pay for all of this extravagance,” Korkow said.
While it may seem like the armor, dresses and furnishings are truly of another world, aspects of the Tudors’ lives are timeless and relatable.
“For instance, the idea of losing a mother at a young age, or the idea of trying to reinvent yourself. The stress … I think that Elizabeth had of being the queen and trying to convince people that she wasn't an impostor,” Korkow said. “Those are the kinds of things that a lot of us can identify with.”