Oxford Tyndale Lecture 1997


The fourth annual Tyndale Lecture, given in the University of Oxford in association with Hertford College, was delivered in the Examination Schools on 23 October 1997 by Professor J B Trapp CBE ESA FBA, sometime Director of the Warburg Institute (University of London) and Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition.

The magnificently illustrated lecture, entitled The Portraits of the Reformers, addressed the complex issues associated with the problems of image and the authenticity (or otherwise) of the portraits. Professor Trapp presented a wealth of detail in his examination of the theme of shifting iconography, describing the alteration, merging, and manipulation of the images as time went on. In certain instances, those of Erasmus and Melanchthon for example, adequate numbers of contemporary images accord sufficiently for us to be entitled to take them as variations upon the truth, but later identifications of Reformers often stray into more fanciful realms of wishful thinking. There exist a considerable number of portrayals of Luther: certainly enough to give a fair idea of him. Even when subsequent images translated him into the Great Reformer, the Protestant Evangelist, and even into St Jerome, he is always recognizable as Cranach's Luther, whatever the transmogrifications or seemingly improbably contexts. (These included, predictably enough, the Catholic-inspired riposte of the diabolically inspired friar.) Group portraits and the representation of Reformers in the role of characters in historical events or figures in biblical settings (such as the Raising of Lazarus, or as Apostles in depictions of the Last Supper) also emerged as a specific genre. Such galleries of famous men of the past, inspired by classical ideals (especially the works of Plato and Plutarch) found literary expression in collections of eulogies of the Reformers, most notably Foxes's Book of Martyrs and Theodore Beza's Icones (Geneva, 1580). These works functioned in part as antidotes to the Golden Legend: in place of the lives of saints and homilies for saints' days, they presented accounts of men distinguished by faith and piety. Naturally. the encomia came to be illustrated. In Beza, Wyclif was afforded the place of honour: the later chronology becomes somewhat erratic. Tyndale is included, but only briefly. (Thomas Carlyle took exception to the portrait of John Knox on the grounds that this was hardly the man who so galvanized Scotland.)

The likenesses and their sources, transfers, and attributions become increasingly involved, and were even further complicated by the emergence of 'generic' representations. In Henry Holland's two-volume work of 1620, Tyndale eventually makes an appearance, looking like Knox and apparently bestowing his clothes on subsequent Reformers! The fact has to be faced that we do not know what Tyndale looked like. The only early image extant is that in Foxe; the Hertford College portrait is seventeenth century in date and heavily restored (a portrait of Tyndale is known to have been presented to Magdalen Hall in 1656); the picture given in 1835 (by Dr Macbride) to the British and Foreign Bible Society appears to be a copy of it. None of these images conveys us back to Tyndale himself, and the type, established early in the seventeenth century, is actually based on the image of John Knox in Beza; the mixing up of Knox and Tyndale may have occurred because they were held to have been together in Geneva (which they were not: Beza and Carlyle were both wrong). So in the final analysis we come down to informed guesswork as to the mechanisms whereby images became attached to particular individuals.

The material amassed by the learned detective work of Dr Trapp cries out for wider intellectual treatment. Certain basic questions instantly suggest themselves when the pictures are assessed in terms of their various artistic, religious, social, and political contexts. What do the portraits tell us about how the men depicted were viewed? Why did the iconographies shift? What does the changing treatment suggest about perception, ideology, and prevailing social structure (not to mention theology) and the sundry other aspects of life affected by the Protestant Reformation? What were the influences at work? Precisely why were the Reformers presented in exchangeable images? What expectations were the iconographies designed to satisfy? What elements made up the generic images (especially in those cases where the costumes are patently incorrect)'? Why were some of the pictures conceived in blatantly Catholic idioms such as the Last Supper or the Crucifixion (with attendant blood, symbols, and background landscapes)? What determined the choice of artistic medium, with scales ranging from the tiny engraving to the massive reredos'? Why were some Reformers simply not depicted, or only rarely (like Tyndale), when evidently any difficulty in obtaining an image was overcome in cavalier fashion thought the simple expedient of borrowing or making one up? A study of the portraits of the Reformers must at some stage tackle these and other questions, even if many of the answers remain as tantalizingly elusive as the true likenesses of the Reformers themselves.

Paul Coones

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