Royalty writ large
There is no more majestic painting in the National Gallery, London, than Anthony van Dyck’s equestrian portrait (with the subject on horseback) of the cultivated, but deeply flawed, politically inept, and unlucky King Charles I, who ended his days beheaded on a scaffold erected outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, having been found guilty by the English Parliament of being a “tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of the nation.”
Painted before the bloody troubles of the English Civil Wars ensued, when the king governed without Parliament, a period known as the Personal Rule (1629–40), this monumental painting calls on us to admire and respect the armored monarch seated atop his stately steed.
Positioned at the level of his stirrup, the spectator is forced to look up to the king, who was, in reality, only 5 foot 4 inches tall. On closer inspection, his face, in three-quarter view, is a pale complexion of dignified restraint. He wears his hair long on the left side (called a “lovelock”) and has a large pearl earring in his left ear, both of which reflect the court fashion of the day.
From the right side of his body armor protrudes a lance-rest, indicating his involvement in tilting tournaments. Despite suffering from rickets in his childhood, Charles developed into a most accomplished and confident horseman. The king grasps the reins in his left hand and holds an imperial baton in his right hand, which he rests almost nonchalantly on the right withers of his dun horse.
Around the neck of the king hangs a gold locket or medallion which bears the likeness of Saint George and the Dragon, known as the Lesser George. Saint George, the archetypal Christian knight, is the patron of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, which was a medieval order of chivalry (a society of knights or equestrian order which had originally been founded by King Edward III in 1348). The monarch was—and still is—the so-called Garter Sovereign. The locket, which contained a portrait of Charles’s devoted French wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, remained on his person on the freezing cold January day in 1649 when he was executed.
Behind the monarch is an equerry who carries the king’s red-and-white plumed helmet in readiness for him to participate in a tournament—or perhaps to take up arms in war if there be a need?
Above the equerry, tied to an oak tree, is a tablet on which is inscribed in Latin the title CAROLUS REX MAGNAE BRITANIAE (“King Charles of Great Britain”), a reminder of the fact that Charles, like his father James VI of Scotland and I of England before him, was sovereign of the so-called multiple kingdoms of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. All is situated in a calming, imagined, wooded landscape of muted colors.
Charles is depicted not only as king, but also as emperor of the Britons and a Christian warrior, who commands all that he surveys. He is master of his horse, champion tilter, leader of a group of chivalrous knights, governor of nature, and the serene and silent ruler of a seemingly peaceful and bountiful kingdom. These are some of the key messages which the principal court painter, Anthony van Dyck, wished to convey on behalf of his exalted patron.
The artist Anthony van Dyck
It is no understatement to assert that the Flemish artist Sir Anthony van Dyck virtually single-handedly brought about a revolution in portrait painting in early seventeenth-century England. This revolution would fashion British portrait painting for centuries to come, influencing the likes of Sir Peter Lely, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Sir Thomas Lawrence.
With his first arrival in England in 1620, the eventual ‘principalle Paynter in Ordenarie to their Majesties’ (King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria) brought with him the Italian tradition of painting as filtered through the studio of the Flemish master Rubens, of whom van Dyck was a disciple. A tireless worker who died, exhausted, at the age of 42, van Dyck painted almost exclusively portraits at the Caroline court, around 400 in total, including some 40 images of King Charles. Van Dyck was buried in Old St. Paul’s Cathedral with the epitaph, “Anthony van Dyck—who, while he lived, gave to many immortal life.”
The precise origins of the portraits of Charles I painted by van Dyck remain shrouded in mystery. It seems highly likely that the two collaborated closely to propagate the royal image because of the artistic sensibilities and clearly defined political outlook of Charles I. The conversations they had to these ends must have been truly fascinating.
Imperial majesty and Christian virtue
The major pictorial inspiration for van Dyck’s equestrian portrait of Charles I was certainly Titian’s magnificent equestrian portrait of the Habsburg Emperor Charles V at Mühlberg, housed in the Prado, Madrid, a painting which Charles I would have seen during his six-month stay at the Spanish Habsburg court of Philip IV. Van Dyck also had a passion for Venetian art, most especially the mighty Titian.
In this seminal painting, which celebrates his victory over the Schmalkaldic League, Charles V, the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, king of Spain and archduke of Austria, unquestionably the most powerful leader in sixteenth-century Europe, is shown seated on his horse in woodland surroundings. Fully armored, wearing a red-plumed helmet, he charges forth into battle. Virgin and Child on his breastplate, he announces his Christian credentials as in fact a universal emperor who rules over a mosaic of states and different religions—Catholic and Protestant. The lance in his right hand invokes the figure of Saint George, the model Christian knight. All is set beneath a brooding sky which is laced with gold light.
The painting recalls the famous equestrian bronze of the Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, to be found in the Campidoglio in Rome, and is also influenced by Dürer’s engraving Knight, Death, and the Devil, whose horseman embodies moral virtue as per the medieval tradition. Titian’s Charles V channels both ancient Roman imperial rule and the idea and ideal of the virtuous Christian knight.
A reputation redeemed
In basing the Equestrian Portrait of Charles I on that of Titian’s Charles V at Mühlberg, van Dyck was tracing an imperial lineage running back not only to the Holy Roman emperors but also to the Roman emperors of antiquity, as well as making a claim for Charles I as a virtuous Christian knight. This was a line of rulership and a religious iconography which was entirely appropriate for Saint George’s Garter Sovereign of Great Britain, who purported to govern all that he surveyed as king and emperor of the Britons and a Christian cavalryman personified. Alas, for Charles I, he was not able to convert his vision of an imperial, virtuous, and divinely-inspired majesty to which he adhered so resolutely, so defiantly, so eloquently, into successful and pacific governorship of his troubled multiple kingdoms. For this failure, he paid with his life, as well as with his historical reputation.
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