When designing period drama, from costumes to sets, contemporary art can be a wonderful resource. For much of history, people didn’t write down what the things that they wore and saw looked like. So instead, we use the images they created of themselves and their world.

Perhaps you already know where I’m going with this. Or perhaps you think I’m about to trope the old truism that historic images – like social media images today – are idealized versions of how people would like to be seen. This is true, but often applies more to issues of personal beauty than to questions of, say, fashion. Henry VIII may appear more handsome and less fat in his portrait than in reality, but we can safely bet that the clothes he’s wearing are an accurate representation (except the size…).

There is a more dangerous pitfall than this to using contemporary images. I will illustrate with

…a recent example:

While working on a Tudor drama, a Hair and Makeup Designer – a woman of huge experience and exceptional skill – asked me a question. She asked me to clarify for her what a tonsure is, and who would have worn it. A tonsure is the familiar and peculiar way a monk wears his hair – a ring of hair around the head, with crown shaved. Who would wear it? A monk.

“But regular priests were tonsured as well, weren’t they?”


“But I’ve seen regular priests – not monks – tonsured in paintings.”

Umm, don’t think so. Perhaps it was a monk dressed like a regular priest. Monks can be priests too. The tonsure is peculiar to monks because it symbolizes their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience – vows which are not taken by regular priests.

“No, these were definitely regular priests.”

How do you know?

“They are in a post-reformation English painting, painted after the monasteries were closed.”

(Beginning to feel there must be some crossed wires here) Can I see the image?

The image is duly brought up on the nearest iPad:

Ah. I see the problem.

This painting depicts Henry VIII on his deathbed, pointing to his son Edward, and surrounded by men. It was painted in 1575 (28 years after Henry’s death).

Reading the art

Absolutely crucial to understanding this painting is that it is not, and was not intended to be, a representation of a real event. It is an allegory. This painting, like most Tudor royal paintings, was intended to impress upon the viewer the two biggest preoccupations of the Tudor dynasty: legitimacy, and power. The legitimacy of their (very tenuous) claim to the throne, and the power of the crown over, well, just about everybody – including, in this instance, the church.

The HMU designer had failed to mention that not only are there tonsured men in Henry’s bedroom, there’s also a pope in there. And a dead pope to boot. I’m a little surprised this didn’t tip her off that her interpretation was unstable. I wouldn’t have thought it would take a trained art historian (which I am not) to deduce that the wheeling of dead Roman pontiffs into the bedrooms of dying English kings was likely to be symbolic. But symbolic it is. The pope is crushed beneath “The word of the Lord”, written in English. On his chest, “All flesh is grass” – popes are mere mortals. And above his right arm, the word “idolatry”, the symbolism of which word, suspended over a dead pope, is evident.

The tonsured monks at the foot of the bed (literally under the king’s feet) are fearful. Clearly they’ve backed the wrong horse. And while the king may be dying, his heir – a zealous protestant, legitimized by Henry’s pointing finger – is set for a smooth and popularly supported transition to absolute power. Note too that the protestants are at the top of the painting, and the Catholics are at the bottom. The allusion to heaven and hell is inescapable.  

The moral of the story, then, is one of caution, but also one of opportunity. All art is representative. But of what? When historic artworks are approached with this question in mind, far from dangerous pitfalls, they can become goldmines of historical interpretation.

From art like this, we can learn not just what people looked like, but what they thought like.

Leave a Reply