Hilary Mantel on Wolsey's angels
- V&A (Victoria and Albert Museum)
- 2 March 2015
In an extract from her Art Quarterly piece, the Wolf Hall author tells the story of the four renaissance bronze angels made by Rovezzano for the tomb of Thomas Wolsey, but seized by Henry VIII.
Marble outwears flesh, and stone outlasts skin; bronze endures when the eye is dimmed; when a great man passes, then, in the ideal world, a monument reflects his life’s achievements. The grandee of the 16th century paid as much attention to eternity as to this world below, and designed his tomb while he was healthy and rich. Ars longa, vita brevis: for Thomas Wolsey, only the best.
The artist Benedetto da Rovezzano, a contemporary and colleague of Michelangelo, came to England in 1519. He was a worker in marble, stone and bronze, and his first project was to assist Pietro Torrigiani with his work on the Henry VII chapel at Westminster Abbey. It was likely the young Henry VIII, keen to establish himself at the forefront of European taste, would be a lucrative patron, but there was someone with tastes more expensive than the king’s: Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor, Archbishop of York, cardinal, papal legate, son of an Ipswich butcher.
Thomas Wolsey came, his enemies said, ‘from the dunghill’: via Oxford University. ‘An honest poor man’s son’, he was one of the most powerful men in Europe and almost certainly the cleverest. He was charming and kind and could work a 20-hour day. ‘He had a special gift,’ said an observer, ‘of natural eloquence… to persuade and allure all men to his purpose,’ and his head was ‘full of subtle wit and policy’. He had risen through the ranks and of the church and state to be ‘alter rex’, England’s other king. Only the papacy eluded him: for the moment.
In 1519 Henry was still young, vigorous, hopeful and in possession of his first wife. The Tudors were minor players matched against the great powers of Habsburg and Valois. England could not win a war, but her chief minister pursued the art of diplomacy with skill and finesse. He was addicted to spectacle and knew how to stage it; it was he who designed the Field of the Cloth of Gold, probably the most elaborate summit meeting in history. Patron of artists, architects and poets, Wolsey lived ‘in fortune’s blissfulness’, taking from the shoulders of the young king the burden of affairs of state. The flamboyant prelate was ruthless in his own interests. He had many enemies and planned to dazzle them even after death. The gilding for his tomb was to cost four times more than the gilding of the tomb of Henry VII. Craftsmen from Antwerp stood by, waiting to go to work.
Benedetto da Rovezzano began on the structure and elements of the tomb in 1524. By the artist’s account, the cardinal meant it to stand at the college he was founding at Oxford. But it was to be put together in Westminster workshops. The sarcophagus was to be of black marble. The cardinal’s statue, feet supported by griffons, would rest on bronze drapery made to look like cloth of gold. Kneeling angels and putti would bear his arms, and on columns nine feet high would stand ‘iiii aunguells with candlestick in their hands…’ They were lively angels, celebrants rather than mourners. Each was to stand three foot, four inches; cast in bronze, they would light the great man to heaven, where he and God would have much to say to each other. No one could have foreseen the angels’ strange journey, nor the centuries of obscurity ahead.
Wolsey's angels were recently acquired by the V&A with help from the Art Fund.