British School 16th Century
An Allegory of Man
1596 or after
Oil on panel
570 x 514 mm
Inscribed ‘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.
Presented by the Patrons of British Art 1990
…; Sir J.C. Robinson, Newton Manor, Swanage; his sale, 2–4 September 1913 (131), bought D.L. Isaacs for Viscount Leverhulme; Leverhulme sale, Knight, Frank and Rutley, 15 June 1926 (166); ...; anonymous sale, Robinson and Foster 1955, bought Derek Sherborn Esq, Fawns Manor by whom sold Sotheby’s 18 November 1987 (97, as by ‘The Monogrammist HE’) bought Weiss Gallery, from whom purchased by the Patrons of British Art and presented to Tate 1990.
The Age of Shakespeare, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester 1964 (28); Hans Eworth: A Tudor Artist and his Circle, Leicester Museums and Art Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, London 1965–6 (38, as by ‘The Monogrammist HE’); Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530–1630, Tate Gallery, London, October 1995 – January 1996 (30, repr. in colour).
D. Piper, The Tudor Period 1500–1603, The Connoisseur Period Guides, 1956, pl.23; E. Mercer, Oxford History of English Art 1553–1625, Oxford 1962, pl.45; Roy Strong, The English Icon, London 1969, pp.40–1, fig.33; David Piper, The Genius of British Painting, London 1975, pp.109–10; Tate Report 1988–90, 1990, p.34; K. Hearn, ‘Rewriting History on the Walls’, Country Life, 22 May 1997, p.53, fig.2, repr. in colour; Maurice Howard, The Tudor Image, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1995, p.19, fig. 11, repr. in colour; Catharine MacLeod, ‘London, Tate Gallery Dynasties’, exhibition review, Burlington Magazine, vol.138, January 1996, p.42; J. Douglas Stewart, ‘A Militant, Stoic Monument: The Wren-Cibber-Gibbons Charles I Mausoleum Project: Its Authors, Sources, Meaning, and Influence’, in W. Gerald Marshall (ed.), The Restoration Mind, Newark and London 1997, p.37; Rica Jones, ‘British School: An Allegory of Man 1596 or after’, in S. Hackney, R. Jones, J. Townsend (ed.), Paint and Purpose: A Study of Technique in British Art, London 1999, pp.140–5.
Surviving paintings on religious subjects from this period are extremely rare. The early history of this panel-painting is unknown, but as the many inscriptions on it are in English, there can be no doubt that it was painted for British usage. Such a combination of images, labels and texts is more commonly found in prints from this period, but no engraved prototype for this work has so far been found.
The original purpose of this panel is also not known. It could have been for personal devotional use. The trompe l’oeil framing of the cartouche at the bottom is incomplete, suggesting that it might have formed part of a larger structure, such as a funerary monument.
This principal inscription in the cartouche at the bottom warns the viewer of the human soul’s vulnerability to the vanities and dangers of the world. It reads: ‘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.’
The central figure – Man – wears classical military attire, and much of the imagery is martial, suggesting that the panel could have been painted for an active soldier. An angel invests Man with a shield of Christian virtues, the names of which are inscribed on the white scroll that spirals protectively around the figure: ‘TEMPORANS’, ‘GOOD REISINES’, ‘CHASTITY’, ‘ALMES DEEDS’, ‘AND COMPASSION’, ‘MEEKENES’, ‘CHARITY’, ‘PACIENS’. This part of the allegory is similar to that in Jodocus Hondius’s engraved Christian Knight Map of the World 1596.
The painting is full of meticulous detail, such as the office in the bottom left-hand corner from which a male figure aims the broad arrow of covetousness from a sporting crossbow. On the desk lie piles of coins, open books and purses, one of which has a projecting handle. From nails in the panelled settle back (echoing the nails on Christ’s cross above) hang a string of papers, and a pencase and inkwell on a cord.
To the left, a finely dressed lady points a bow and three arrows at the figure of Man. Each arrow is inscribed with a vice: ‘GLOTONY’, ‘SLOWTH’ and ‘LECHERY’. The hourglass device suspended from her waist presumably alludes to the time wasted by slothfulness, while the landscape behind her is strewn with tiny pink blooms and, beyond, minute figures can be seen embracing, presumably representing lechery and gluttony. This landscape was originally depicted in shades of bright green. This is evident from examination of cross-sections taken from the paint in this area, which was originally glazed over with brilliant translucent green copper resinate. With exposure to light, however, copper resinate turns into the opaque brown film now seen.
The figure in the bottom right immersed in a pit of flames has the visual attributes of a devil: horns, wings, pointed ears, a tail emerging from the naked flesh of his back, and a fringe of hair along his arms. He also points three arrows at Man, which are inscribed: ‘PRYDE’, ‘WRATH’ and ‘ENVYE’. Above him is a skeleton, representing Death, whose long spear points at the figure of Man, and whose shield contains a scroll with an inscription: ‘BEHIND THEE Y STEALE | LIKE A THEIF THE TEM | PORAL LIFE TO DEVOWER’. Above Death a white scroll that is attached to the shield presented by the angel reads: ‘BE SOBER THEREFORE & WATCH FOR | THOW KNOWEST NEITHER THE DAY NOR | THE HOWRE.’
Among thick clouds, above this terrestrial group, small winged child angels turn their heads to the figure of the resurrected Christ, who stands grasping a large wooden cross next to a pink scroll inscribed with a verse from the bible: ‘GRATIA ME SVFICIT TIBIE, 2 COR[.] 12.’ The features of Christ and of the man below appear to be identical. It is extremely unusual to find a representation of Christ in a British painting of this period because, following the arrival of the Reformation in the late 1540s, it was not permitted to display religious images, certainly in public.
The dating of this work presents something of a puzzle. It had long been presumed to date from
about 1570, because the attire of the lady, whose hair is pulled back from her face into a jewelled caul in the Italian style, can be very precisely dated to c.1567–9. Moreover, it clearly bears similarities of handling with the Allegory of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, another rare English religious painting on panel, signed and dated 1570 by the Antwerp-trained Hans Eworth (active 1540–c.1574). Indeed An Allegory of Man has sometimes been tentatively attributed to Eworth himself, although having had the opportunity to examine the Allegory of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the present writer concludes that that work is more refined in colouring and handling. However, dendrochronological analysis carried out by Dr Peter Klein in 1997 seems to have shown conclusively that the earliest possible dating for the Tate painting is about 1596.
One possibility may be that this is a slightly later copy of an original work by Hans Eworth of about 1570, perhaps by an unknown artist who had been trained by him. Little is known about Eworth’s career, but recent technical examination of a range of his surviving works suggests that he did employ studio assistants. In the present work, almost no linear underdrawing is visible with infra-red reflectography, which is not the case with the majority of works by Eworth so far examined.