- Michelangelo and the English Martyrs by Anne Dillon
This engaging book deals with a broadsheet published in 1555. Engraved in Rome probably by Beatrizet, it visually and verbally reports on events that happened twenty years earlier in England during the reign of King Henry VIII. The Carthusian monks in London refused to acknowledge Henry’s role as head of the church in England and were condemned for treason. They were dragged from their charterhouse and hanged but cut down before they expired; they were then stripped, castrated, and disemboweled while still alive. Their bodies were dismembered and the parts publicly displayed. The murders caused an outcry at the time, but it was only in 1555 during the brief reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I that a public examination of the events was possible. The pope asked Cardinal Reginald Pole, the legate of the Holy See to England, to investigate the atrocities. The author proposes that Pole himself wrote the extensive text on the broadsheet, which is translated in an appendix. Martyrdom as an expression of faith is a powerful theme in Pole’s other writings, and the brutally straightforward depiction of the monks’ torture and deaths on the broadsheet—without reference to any later miracles—may well reflect Pole’s ideas.
The imagery is complex, and the author proposes three readings that operate at the same time. Although the events depicted happened mostly in London, the backgrounds in the broadsheet recall Rome. Dillon suggests, quite convincingly, that the setting is meant to create a parallel between the Carthusian and the early Christian martyrs of Rome. The second reading comes from contemporary references—some of the onlookers to the executions can perhaps be associated with Henry VIII’s courtiers and staff. The third reading suggests that the monks were imitating Christ as they went to their deaths. A scaffold in the distance recalls the cross on Calvary, for example. The author sometimes undermines her argument by imposing consistency on the images. She states, for example, that all the figures are dressed in classical garments, but a few pages later she not only acknowledges that many are not but also uses those very figures as evidence for her second reading.
Michelangelo is connected to the making of the broadsheet through his friendship with Pole. Pole’s involvement with artists in the 1540s is a neglected topic, and Dillon’s suggestion that he may have been an adviser to Michelangelo as he painted the Pauline Chapel frescoes deserves more study. The subject of St. Peter’s martyrdom in the Pauline chapel (the Donation of the Keys to Peter would be the more expected theme) is tied to Pole’s own emphasis on true martyrdom as the ultimate sign of faith. Since several of the figures on the broadsheet are in poses that reflect knowledge of the Pauline Chapel frescoes, Dillon would like to say that he provided drawings for the broadsheet. [End Page 613]
In the end, it is not Michelangelo but one of his followers, Gaspar Beccera, who may have supplied drawings to the printmaker. Dillon’s method for making the attribution is circuitous and might be called circumstantial. Beccera is a Spanish artist who supplied drawings to Beatrizet for Juan Valverde’s anatomical book. At least one of the figures who is being disemboweled recalls some of those anatomical illustrations. The patron of the broadsheet is the Spanish Cardinal Juan Álvarez, who was also the patron of Valverde’s book. Dillon goes on to argue that the “actual recipient” of the broadsheet is Philip II, king of Spain and husband to Queen Mary of England. These Spanish connections are more convincing than the suggestion that Michelangelo was involved in the design. Whether or not Beccera saw Michelangelo’s drawings, it is difficult to believe that Michelangelo’s ideas about sola fide were transmitted through the broadsheet, especially since (as Dillon strongly argues) Michelangelo hid his beliefs from others.
The tendency to overstatement in the quest for certainty is a problem throughout this...