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Royal Portraiture: Propaganda Painting

Today, images of the Royal Family are everywhere. As technology advances, we can instantly retrieve images of any member of the Royal Family, both in private and outperforming their royal duties. Now, because of this, the members of the royal family can be recognized instantly. However, this was not always the case, many of the royal portraits released by monarchs of the past were not very accurate at all. In fact, the painter of these royal portraits did not paint what they saw but instead painted what the monarch wanted his people to see.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein

The painting above is one of the most famous images of Henry VIII. This image, painted by the well-known German painter Hans Holbein the Younger, was intended to be a part of a mural depicting the Tudor dynasty in the Palace of Whitehall. In this magnificent portrayal of Henry VIII, he is seen standing proud and tall, staring down the viewer. Henry’s wide padded shoulders and large codpiece boasts his masculinity and virility; this could also be a boast of his long awaited son who was born not long before this painting was commissioned. Henry is also made to look very young and healthy. He is very much the alpha male in this picture, which is what he wanted not only his subjects to think but other monarchs as well. So to spread this message, Henry had the painting copied and distributed throughout the kingdom and he also had them given as gifts to friends and ambassadors.

Henry VIII, in this painting, is portrayed in a god-like manner, however, when this portrait was painted, Henry was the complete opposite. He was not young and not very healthy. Also he was actually in his late forties and his leg was still severely injured from an earlier jousting accident, which he suffered from most of his adult life. Henry also had Holbein to distort his figure to make him appear more formidable, however Henry’s armour reveals that his legs were actually quite short. Even though the original painting of Henry VIII was destroyed in a great fire at Whitehall Palace in 1698, so many copies of the painting were created and shared throughout Europe that the image is just as iconic today.

Edward VI and the Pope by unknown

Edward VI and the Pope by unknown

After Henry VIII died in 1547, his son Edward VI succeeded to the throne of England and the reformation of the English church was first on his agenda. Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and declared himself head of the Church of England in 1534. However, he still practiced many Catholic traditions. England’s new king had not one Catholic bone in him, and he wanted the same for everyone else. A piece painted by an unknown author called “Edward VI and The Pope” to celebrate England’s Protestant faith.

This allegorical painting is full of symbolic images that clearly depicts England’s relationship with the Catholic Church at the time. The first thing one notices is Henry VIII lying in this ornate bed pointing towards his long awaited son Edward, England’s new king. This is a representation of Henry handing over his power to Edward from his deathbed. Next we see Edward VI sitting beneath a cloth of state and by his feet we see the pope, who is crushed by “the worde of the Lord”; this statement is clearly written in English on the bible above him. To the right of Edward we see his council, which consisted of his regents Lord Somerset and John Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland. Behind them we see another painting of holy images being destroyed.

This work of propaganda was a celebration of the Protestant policies of Edward VI and the complete establishment of the Protestant Church of England, which would soon be temporarily dismantled by Edward’s sister, Mary I.

Photo Credit: Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger – Portrait of Henry VIII – Google Art Project.jpg via Wikimedia Commons
King Edward VI and the Pope from NPG.jpg via Wikimedia Commons