In a gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, paintings of a father and daughter hang face to face. Larger than life, the monumental portraits present competing conceptions of royal power. The father, Henry VIII, looks directly at the viewer, conveying aggression through his wide stance, bulging leg muscles and excessively padded clothing. The daughter, Elizabeth I, is more coy, refusing to meet the viewer’s gaze and relying on layers of symbolism to allude to the strength of her rule.
Painted decades apart by artists of different generations, Elizabeth’s likeness is clearly in conversation with Henry’s. “Her whole body has been padded and shaped to create a silhouette that echoes … her father’s, and she’s actually wearing a series of ‘truelove’ buttons that she inherited from [him],” says Adam Eaker, a curator in the Met’s European paintings department. “She’s working within a very different idiom as an unmarried, childless woman to create an iconography that will position her as the heir to her father’s throne.”
Both of these works—a portrait of Henry by the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger and Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s Ditchley Portrait of Elizabeth—testify to the rapidly evolving artistic landscape of Tudor England. From Henry VII’s usurpation of the throne in 1485 to the death of Elizabeth in 1603, Tudor monarchs relied on paintings, sculptures, tapestries and other art forms to legitimize their nascent dynasty. “The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England,” on view at the Met through January 2023, showcases this opulent era through more than 100 objects, including a Holbein sketch of Anne Boleyn and an intimate portrait miniature of one of Elizabeth’s favorite courtiers.
“The highest caliber of artistry is being acquired and shared in the Tudor courts,” says Elizabeth Cleland, a decorative arts curator at the Met. “[It was] really this wonderful moment when they are soaking up as much as they possibly can, from travel and trade going to Europe and beyond.”
Co-curated by Cleland and Eaker, “The Tudors” doesn’t simply provide a visual “who’s who” of 16th-century England. Instead, the show examines how the eponymous rulers strategically used art to shape their image both at home and abroad. From Henry VIII’s attempts to outdo French king Francis I, whose court boasted such renowned artists as Leonardo da Vinci, to Elizabeth I’s development of portraits that asserted feminine authority in a male-dominated world, the Tudor period’s culture was inextricable from its political intrigue.
Below, learn about key figures in Tudor art, from the monarchs themselves to the artists who portrayed their world.
How Henry VII, founder of a dynasty, legitimized his rule
The first Tudor king, Henry VII, had a tenuous claim to the English throne. A member of the House of Lancaster, he seized the crown from Yorkist king Richard III during the Wars of the Roses, a decades-long civil war between two rival factions of the royal Plantagenet family. To cement his grasp on power, Henry married Elizabeth of York (Richard’s niece and the eldest daughter of Edward IV), uniting the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York to form the enduring symbol of a red-and-white Tudor rose.
Once in power, Henry legitimized his rule by suppressing rebellions and proclaiming his links to the European continent. According to Cleland, the king, who’d spent his youth in exile abroad, recognized the importance of art in underscoring such ties. Taking inspiration from Edward IV, who spent around 10 percent of England’s annual revenue on tapestries from Flanders, a historical region spanning modern-day France, Belgium and the Netherlands, Henry invested in a range of decorative arts. Chief among these commissions were tapestries: Mainly depicting mythological and religious scenes, the enormous artworks were woven with silk and gold thread, making them valuable, highly visible examples of courtly magnificence.
In an era when the court was often on the move, traveling around the kingdom to increase the king’s visibility among his subjects, “portable splendor” that could be rolled up and easily transported between palaces was key, says Cleland. “Henry VII realized that this was a path which could yield fruit, that by creating an aura of majesty, [he] would help bolster his legitimacy and air of kingliness.” Just a few years after his ascension, Henry purchased a series of Flemish tapestries recounting the Trojan War; a surviving panel from the sequence is included in the exhibition.
To elevate his fledgling dynasty on the international stage, Henry arranged marriages between his children and the heirs of Europe’s royal houses. The king’s eldest son, Arthur, married Catherine of Aragon, only to die shortly after the wedding, while his eldest daughter, Margaret, wed James IV of Scotland. (Catherine would later marry Arthur’s younger brother, Henry VIII, upon his ascension to the throne.)
After Henry’s own wife died in 1503, he, too, looked for a bride abroad, commissioning a portrait of himself as part of marriage negotiations with the House of Habsburg. Painted by an unknown Netherlandish artist around 1505, the work underscores Henry’s ties to the Order of the Golden Fleece, a selective group of Roman Catholic nobility. In doing so, says Eaker, it “positions England in relationship to the continent very self-consciously, … as a peer to the dukes of Burgundy and to the Habsburgs.”
The portrait—a relatively simple likeness showing the king dressed in furs against a blue background—failed to secure a marriage match. But it and other artworks commissioned or collected by Henry helped set a precedent for future Tudor monarchs.
“He’s doing what some of his predecessors did before but on a much grander scale,” Cleland says. “And then, of course, his son Henry VIII just runs with that.”
Henry VIII, a Renaissance prince–turned–tyrant
Long before he devolved into a violent tyrant, Henry VIII, who took the crown in 1509 upon his father’s death, was renowned as one of the most cultured kings in Europe. Perhaps the best example of his appetite for unmitigated extravagance and artistry was the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a 1520 celebration co-hosted by Henry and France’s Francis I. For two and a half weeks, the rulers competed to “outdo the other in splendor and military prowess,” as historian Tracy Borman told Smithsonian magazine in 2020. Hosting feasts, tournaments, dances, masques and performances, the summit cost an estimated $19 million in today’s dollars. Documentary evidence of the Field of the Cloth of Gold is scarce, as the spectacle and all of its accoutrements were explicitly designed to be temporary.
Today, says Franny Moyle, author of The King’s Painter: The Life and Times of Hans Holbein, “We place value in permanence. We want a painting by a famous artist that we can have and hand down to our children.” In Tudor times, however, “there was as much importance placed on the impact, though temporary and transient, that a breathtaking event could make. It goes into memory, even if it itself disappears.”
Cleland and Eaker initially planned the Met show to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the Field of the Cloth of Gold in June 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed these plans, but the underlying goal of channeling the summit’s spirit remains. “[We aren’t] staging a competition between different media, but rather we wanted to present visitors with the symbiosis of these different media that you would encounter if you visited a Tudor palace,” Eaker explains.
As Moyle adds, “Every moment of the day was wrapped up in some form of public display of the king’s magnificence, from his getting up in the morning and his toilet in his reception to his clothes. He was literally a man who was bejeweled.” In the exhibition, Italian textiles, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, satin furnishings, tapestries, Chinese porcelain and silver vessels work in concert with paintings and sculptures to convey this grand vision of royalty.
How court painter Hans Holbein shaped visions of Tudor England
While contemporary observers tend to rigidly categorize artists as painters, sculptors, architects and the like, such definitions were “far more fluid” during the Tudor period, says Moyle. “The role of the artist was much more centered around his genius, [which formed] the basis of work across all sorts of disciplines.” Holbein, for instance, designed jewelry, intricate metalwork and armor, in addition to staging pageants and painting portraits. According to Eaker, Tudor aristocrats “largely valued [objects] because of the splendor of the materials and the skill of the craftsmanship, but the idea that you were seeking out a specific named artist or maker would have been largely alien to them.”
Henry VIII and his children reigned during a period of religious turmoil, with the Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther (not to mention Henry’s own break from the Catholic Church in 1534) prompting individuals on both sides of the conflict to seek refuge abroad. London emerged as a cultural hotspot for migrants, with figures like Holbein “seeking out freedom of conscience [or] fleeing lack of economic opportunity, particularly in the wake of [Protestant] iconoclasm,” says Eaker. As religious art declined in popularity, secular art—especially portraiture—took its place.
Holbein, a German-Swiss artist who rose to prominence under the patronage of philosophers Erasmus and Thomas More, arguably shaped Tudor portraiture more than any other painter. “His portraits of these people have become definitive,” writes Moyle in The King’s Painter. “It is almost impossible to imagine Henry VIII and his entourage through anyone else’s eyes but Holbein’s.”
Much of Holbein’s fame stems from his highly realistic likenesses, which he complemented with complex symbolism perhaps best represented by The Ambassadors. In the 1533 portrait, a distorted skull offers a reminder of life’s fleetingness, while an odd assemblage of objects references religious discord, scientific progress and countless other topics. During the Tudor period, says Moyle, portraits were “costly commodities” that were often kept behind curtains and dramatically revealed by the patrons who’d commissioned them. Onlookers viewed such unveilings as rare events, eagerly discussing their interpretations of symbols that evoked sitters’ ancestry, tastes and allegiances.
Holbein’s most significant undertaking was the Whitehall mural, an emphatic declaration of the Tudors’ dynastic power. Painted in 1537, the work depicted Henry and his third wife, Jane Seymour, standing in front of his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The composition reminded viewers of the unbroken transfer of power from father to son, in addition to not-so-subtly suggesting that the younger Henry, who adopted an intimidating, wide-legged stance and arms akimbo, had surpassed his predecessor’s achievements. Some visitors to Whitehall Palace found Henry’s portrait so lifelike that when they encountered it, they momentarily feared they’d walked in on the king himself.
“Imagine a culture where verisimilitude hadn’t been very high on the agenda for many years, and the skill to deliver it certainly wasn’t [readily] available,” Moyle adds. “When someone like Holbein walks in, he shows you a painting and you do a double take, because for a second, it’s as if you’re looking at the real thing. This had immense value, not least for a Renaissance king who wanted his own court to be seen in the light of the great stories of the ancient world, [where] painters … could paint with such verisimilitude that birds couldn’t tell whether [painted] grapes were real or not.”
A 1698 fire destroyed the mural. But copies of the work, as well as a cartoon, or preparatory drawing, of the two kings, survive. Interestingly, the cartoon finds Henry turning his head to the side rather than meeting the viewer’s eyes head on, as he does in the mural. The finished work is, in comparison, unnerving, presenting a moment of confrontation rather than observation. A cropped copy of the mural produced by Holbein’s workshop is now the most well-known image of Henry, synonymous with royal authority and might. It’s this likeness, on loan from National Museums Liverpool, that stands across from The Ditchley Portrait of Elizabeth at the Met.
The making of Edward VI, a king in miniature
Henry VIII’s quest for a male heir famously led him to abandon one wife and behead another. The king’s third wife, Jane, provided him with a son but died in the process, leaving Edward to be raised by a succession of stepmothers.
From his birth in October 1537, Edward was presented as the natural continuance of his father’s reign, charged with carrying on the glorious legacy of the Tudor dynasty. He stepped into a “ready-made iconography [as] the male heir whom Henry had longed for for so many years,” says Eaker. “He’s really fashioned in his father’s image from the cradle.”
In 1538, Holbein painted a portrait of the infant prince, whose regal red tunic and statuesque pose belie his youth. Shown raising his right hand as if about to make a decree, Edward is a king in miniature; the only nods to his age are his chubby cheeks and a gold rattle clutched in his left hand. For those who miss the heavily implied visual connection between Edward and Henry, the portrait contains a Latin inscription that translates to “Little one, emulate thy father and be the heir of his virtue. … Do thou but equal the deeds of thy parent and men can ask no more. Shouldst thou surpass him, thou hast outstript all kings the world has revered in ages past.”
The prince took the throne as Edward VI upon his father’s death in January 1547, reigning for just over six years before his own death at age 15 in July 1553. Per the exhibition catalog, his brief time in power “generated a surprising number of portraits, including … copies and variants produced posthumously to perpetuate the Protestant cause in opposition to the Catholic reign of his sister” Mary. Some of these portraits directly emulated Holbein’s imposing portrayal of Henry in the Whitehall mural, showing a richly attired Edward standing with his legs apart and arms at his hips. Others acknowledged a far older tradition of depicting subjects in profile, as seen on ancient coins and medals. “[A] profile portrait invested its subject with allusions to the mighty rulers and mythological heroes of the classical world,” notes the catalog.
Though Edward’s advisers were eager to present him as the natural successor to his powerful father, the realities of their reigns were vastly different. Inheriting a kingdom scarred by religious strife, the Protestant monarch introduced sweeping reforms and sanctioned the brutal suppression of Catholic uprisings. The main qualities he shared with his father, according to historian Borman, were his tyrannical tendencies.
How Mary I turned back the clock
Following Edward’s death in 1553, his Protestant cousin, Lady Jane Grey, ruled briefly as a puppet queen installed by her domineering father-in-law. But support for Jane was limited, and after just nine days on the throne, she was supplanted by England’s rightful heir, Mary I. The daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, Mary had seen her fortunes rise and fall at the whims of her mercurial father, yet she remained beloved by the English people. Such was Mary’s popularity that upon her ascension, a chronicler wrote, “It was said that no one could remember there ever having been public rejoicing such as this.”
As the first woman to rule England in her own right, Mary had to “improvise [her] own iconography,” says Eaker. Whereas Edward had simply followed his father’s lead, Mary needed to invest her public image with “female authority in a world habituated by masculine rule,” per the catalog. A 1554 portrait by Netherlandish artist Hans Eworth reveals how the queen accomplished this goal, showing her adorned in resplendent fabrics, furs and jewelry—all the trappings of royal decadence. To declare her dedication to the Catholic faith, Mary wore a reliquary and a cross owned by her Spanish mother.
“Mary’s project when she assumes the throne is really a kind of rehabilitation or restoration of the world of her childhood,” Eaker says. “… She’s asserting her close family ties to Spain and to the Hapsburgs, so all of this is a kind of turning back the clock.”
A fervent Catholic, Mary rejected the reforms introduced by her brother and worked to reunite England with Rome, burning 280 Protestants at the stake in the process—a fact that would cement her later reputation as “Bloody Mary.” (It’s worth noting that other Tudor monarchs, particularly Henry VIII, ordered an equal or greater number of executions during their reigns; Elizabeth I had at least 183 Catholics hanged, drawn and quartered, in addition to ordering the deaths of around 800 Catholic rebels implicated in a 1569 revolt.) As England’s religious landscape shifted once again, Protestant artists and thinkers who had sought refuge in Edward’s kingdom fled back to the European continent.
Compounding the unpopularity of Mary’s harsh religious measures was her 1554 marriage to Philip II of Spain, her maternal first cousin. As a queen regnant, she was expected to wed, bear heirs and cede some level of authority to her husband. But her options were limited: Marrying an English nobleman would spark resentment among courtiers whose family had not been chosen, while marrying a foreign prince would raise concerns that she was placing her husband’s interests above England’s. Ultimately, Mary opted for a match that reinforced her religious convictions and brought her closer to her mother’s Habsburg relatives.
Marrying into the most powerful dynasty in Europe caused political problems for Mary, who found herself steadily losing her subjects’ love. But the union also offered opportunities for the Tudor court, providing access to a rich circle of Habsburg artists. “Mary was actually quite a sophisticated [art] patron,” says Eaker. At the Met, cartoons for a stained-glass window featuring Mary and Philip in full regalia, as well as delicately molded portrait medals of the queen, speak to the range of her artistic patronage.
Inventing Elizabeth I, the ageless virgin queen
Henry VIII’s second daughter, Elizabeth, assumed the throne against all odds in 1558. Bastardized following the execution of her mother, Anne Boleyn, in 1536, Elizabeth only inherited the crown after both of her siblings died childless. She famously remained unmarried, bringing the Tudor dynasty to a close with her death in 1603.
Throughout Elizabeth’s 45-year reign, she exerted a singular level of control over her public image. Like her half-sister Mary, the queen projected royal authority through portraiture. In The Darnley Portrait (circa 1575), Elizabeth’s attire echoes Polish fashions, proclaiming her links to the continent, while a pendant jewel encircled by depictions of Roman gods speaks to her classical education and parallels with ancient rulers. The unknown artist’s rendering of the queen’s face, with its “deep-set eyes, hollow cheeks and … aquiline nose,” became the prototype for later portraits of Elizabeth, many of which were painted without access to the monarch herself, notes the catalog.
“Many painters have done portraits of the Queen but none has sufficiently shown her looks or charms,” wrote Elizabeth’s secretary of state, Robert Cecil, around 1570. “Therefore Her Majesty commands all manner of persons to stop doing portraits of her until a clever painter has finished one which all other painters can copy. Her Majesty, in the meantime, forbids the showing of any portraits which are ugly until they are improved.”
Elizabeth and her advisers developed an entirely “esoteric, elaborate iconography [that] glorified her very unusual status as an unmarried, childless queen,” says Eaker. Multilayered symbolism took precedence over realism, with the queen’s carefully vetted portraitists replicating an approved “face template” and dedicating the rest of their talents to her attire, ornaments and surroundings.
Quentin Metsys the Younger’s Sieve Portrait (1583), for instance, is laden with hidden messages: a sieve associated with the Roman Vestal Virgin Tuccia, a globe representing Elizabeth’s imperialist ambitions and Italian inscriptions. Other artworks, particularly those commissioned after Elizabeth’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, liken the monarch to her kingdom, positioning England “as a fertile island, impenetrable like its chaste queen, contained and safely isolated against European annexation,” according to the exhibition.
Portrait miniatures, which were small enough to be worn on one’s body or held in a hand, existed at the opposite end of the spectrum from these majestic images. Intimate likenesses traded among lovers, friends and family, they were designed for private viewing, opening a window into the lives of their sitters in a way that carefully manufactured public portraits couldn’t. In the catalog, Eaker argues that the nightgown and cap worn by Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, in a 1533 or 1534 miniature identify him as a dashing young man on the eve of his wedding, not an invalid as previously believed. “There’s a whole tradition in later miniature portraits of depicting young, handsome men in their undershirts in the pose of lovers,” the curator adds.
English artist Nicholas Hilliard rose to prominence during Elizabeth’s reign with his portrait miniatures of the queen and her favorite courtiers. “It was an extreme privilege to be taken into the queen’s most private chambers to have her display her portrait miniatures to [you], unwrapping them herself,” says Eaker. “… In portraiture of the high Tudor period, [there was] a real tension between absolutely monumental images and much more private and personal tokens.”
As Elizabeth grew older (she was 25 at the start of her reign and died at age 69), she wielded even greater control over her likeness, discouraging artists from depicting her as anything but a beautiful young woman. Perhaps the best example of this is The Rainbow Portrait, which dates to the very end of the queen’s reign but shows an ethereal figure closer to her 30s. Among the symbols visible in the scene are a serpent (representing wisdom), a cloak decorated with eyes and ears (a possible allusion to the queen’s vast spy network), and the titular rainbow (for peace).
Though Holbein’s portraits of Henry VIII and his court featured similarly complex symbolism, the art of Elizabethan England represented a stark shift in style, with the queen stamping “her own tastes and … agenda” onto the portraits produced under her rule, says Moyle. The resulting images were far less realistic, often flattening faces in a flattering manner. “But they also transfigure sitters into something elevated, poetic, even endowed with supernatural powers,” Eaker says. “… The look of Elizabethan art isn’t naive. It’s not provincial. It’s the result of conscious choices.”
He adds, Elizabethan artists “knew what Holbein portraits looked like. Of course, maybe there was no painter quite as great as Holbein available, but there were plenty of people who could paint quite realistic, meticulous portraits that Elizabeth could have hired. Instead, she developed a very different aesthetic that is much more about surface ornamentation, the incorporation of poetry and inscriptions, the careful recording of textiles and jewels, and, obviously, this very flattering depiction of herself as an ageless beauty.”
“The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through January 8, 2023.