London – Westminster – Tate Britain (An Allegory of Man)

I’m quite interested in medieval religious imagery (yes, I know, it’s not exactly a drunken weekend in Ibiza with friends), but I found this a moderately unsettling artwork. It’s later, from after 1596, and it’s not known who painted it, but it’s unusual as it’s a painting of a religious subject which has survived from a time when Protestant values wouldn’t have wanted this to be displayed. It would have been displayed as a devotional piece, but it’s quite dark and moralistic, I prefer the more gentle interpretations of Jesus or Mary.

The gallery has kindly provided the text which is on the artwork:

“‘O MAN THOW WRETCED CREA ¦ TVRE HOW MAIEST THOVE DEL ¦ ITE IN RICHES BEWTY STRENGTH ¦ OR OTHER WORDLY THINGE. RE ¦ MEMBRINGE THINE ENEMYES WHICH CONTINVALLY ¦ SEEKE THEE TO DESTROYE & BRINGE THEE TO NOTHING ¦ BVT SINE SHAME AND FYER EVERLASTINGE. THEREFORE ¦ FAST WATCH & PRAYE CONTINVALY WT FERVENT DESIER ¦ VNTO IESVS THE MIGHTIE CAPTAYNE WHO ONLY IS ¦ HABLE TO DEFEND THEE FROM THEIR FIERIE ASSAWLTS.’ in bottom cartouche; ‘COVETVSNES’ on the miser’s arrow, lower left; ‘GLOTONY’, ‘SLOWTH’ and ‘LECHERY’ on the lady’s three arrows, centre left; ‘GRATIA ME SVFICIT TIBIE, 2 COR[.] 12.’ on scroll by Christ, top; ‘BE SOBER THEREFORE & WATCH FOR ¦ THOW KNOWEST NEITHER THE DAY NOR ¦ THE HOWRE.’ on scroll, centre right, above Death the skeleton; ‘BEHIND THEE Y STEALE ¦ LIKE A THEIF THE TEM / PORAL LIFE TO DEVOWER’ on shield (oval target) of Death; ‘PRYDE’, ‘WRATH’ and ‘ENVYE’ on three arrows of devil, bottom right; ‘TEMPORANS’, ‘GOOD REISINES’, ‘CHASTITY’, ‘ALMES DEEDS’, ‘AND COMPASSION’, ‘MEEKENES’, ‘CHARITY’, ‘PACIENS’ on scroll encircling central figure of Man.”

For a long time, the artwork was thought to be a little earlier, from the mid sixteenth century, but then the wood went through a dendrochronological analysis and the earliest that it could be was from 1596. Which goes to show that sometimes even the collective wisdom of numerous art experts can still be wrong at dating an artwork. The painting was given to the museum in 1990 as a gift from the Patrons of British Art.

As an aside, Tate Britain is one of the most excellent galleries which makes an attempt to establish the provenance of all of its artworks and presents that information on-line. Until 1913, this painting was owned by John Charles Robinson (1824-1913), who was married to Elizabeth Newton who was the daughter of a Norwich alderman. Between 1880 and 1901, Robinson held the role of the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, a role later held by Anthony Blunt.