Thomas More Family Portrait
Below are bibliography and description of the painting.
Don't forget to click on each person in the painting for more details!
57 years old.
Sitting in a richly ornate chair, ready for action and giving a knowing glance in our direction as would be appropriate for the attentive and experienced manager of that busy household and estate, she holds a prayer-book with a beautifully bejeweled, deep-green velvet casing. This small gold-edged book matches the small gold-edged books held by young John and by Margaret Giggs.
27 years old.
Another figure ready for secular action is John Harris, More’s secretary, who has been added in the doorway and who holds an official document in hand, a document complete with seals as he looks attentively towards Chancellor More.
Margaret, shown deeply in thought, is pointing to the word “demens” (“mad”) in the famously controversial chorus of the fourth act of Seneca’s Oedipus. Oedipus is the best known tragic character of classical antiquity. He begins being blind in terms of self-knowledge, and then proceeds “madly” to take out his own eyes once he comes to know himself and his actions for what they are. On the left hand side of the book, notice that “fate” is given first place. These parts of lines 882-889 can be read: Were it mine to shape fate at my will, I would trim my sails to gentle winds, lest my yards tremble, bent ’neath a heavy blast. May soft breezes, gently blowing, unvarying, carry my untroubled barque along.... On the right-hand page, the words of lines 893-898 not covered by Margaret’s hand are: madly the lad [Icarus] sought the stars, in strange devices trusting, and strove to vanquish true birds in flight; and [demanding too much of his false wings]....) Notice on line 103 Oedipus refers to his own action as “demens.” (112 Moreana Vol.45, 173 (June - Juin 2008) Moreana 173 3/06/08 10:53 Page 112).
The opposite page gives another approach to the troubles that “fate” seems to bring. Using terms from sailing, the Chorus of the play advises: “Were it mine to shape fate at my will, I would trim my sails to gentle winds, lest my yards tremble, bent ’neath a heavy blast.” This formulation by the Chorus raises difficult questions: IS it ours to shape fate at our will? If not, then how can one deal with a “heavy blast” such as bends Oedipus? Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (on the cupboard behind Judge More’s deals with just this issue, both dramatically and philosophically.
Has a rosary around his left hand.
20 years old
She is now wearing a striking ivory medallion with a naked Venus30 leaning on a pillar. This Greek or Roman medallion shows that Cecily has an interest in classical art as do her sisters, even though her book is unlabeled.
Sir Thomas More
50 years old.
15 years old; ward
Judge John More
76 years old.
IS it ours to shape fate at our will? If not, then how can one deal with a “heavy blast” such as bends Oedipus? (This question arises based on the book in Margaret's hand. Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (on the cupboard behind Judge More’s head) deals with just this issue, both dramatically and philosophically: Boethius, imprisoned and awaiting execution by the king he has loyally served, weeps and wails in misery until Lady Philosophy in torn dress enters and commands him to stop. She then leads Boethius to remember what he had earlier seen about the nature of happiness; eventually, Boethius – unlike Oedipus – is able to face the cruelties of life with calm and resignation, and perhaps even happiness. Seneca deals with these same issues in his letters, a copy of which Elizabeth has under her arm; he too ended his life in service to a ruler he faithfully served, with Stoic resignation for which he became famous – unlike mad Oedipus. Thomas More refers to Boethius as “that great wise and well learned man” (CW8 939/1) and he commends to his children “that beautiful and holy poem of Boethius” (SL 146, Corr. 250/21, TMSB 202). That More knew Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy very well is shown in these other passages: Corr 519, CW 11 84/33n, CW 12 258/13n. The parallels between Boethius and More are striking: both were philosophers, poets, and political leaders; both wrote works of consolation while in prison; both lost favor with their rulers and were subsequently executed leaving behind wives and children.
Both Boethius and Seneca deal with the possibility of happiness in the midst of fate’s powerful workings, a topic that More treated throughout his life, a topic so central and so difficult and yet so practical and so fitting – even for a king – that it may well have been the issue he chose for the disputation which his three daughters held at Chelsea for King Henry VIII shortly before the Basel drawing was done. In fact, Holbein’s revised Basel drawing may seek to suggest this event which showcased the learning of More’s daughters. If so, this would explain why the family is so well dressed and why all that is needed for entertainment and hospitality is still in full view. In this reading of the painting, the King has just left; he and Sir Thomas may have posed questions that explain why Margaret and Elizabeth remain deeply engrossed in thought about the books of Seneca they still carry. Seneca is, of course, an author whom More praises and one More quoted from his first to his last works.
22 years old; adopted
The beads hanging from the purse on Margaret Giggs’ belt are a rosary, Holds a prayer book matching that of young John and Lady Alice
added several generations later!
added several generations later!
This painting hangs at Nostell Priory in Wakefield, England.
Although the painting has the signature of Rowland Lockey (1565/7-1616), it is dated 1530 and the linen canvas dates back to the 1520s. Recent studies indicate that Holbein probably began but never finished this more permanent oil version of the water-based painting that he had completed c. 1527. The water-based ("distempered") original perished in a fire in 1752.
The painting includes strong elements of Renaissance humanism combined with elements of Christian piety. The classical books in the hands of the children and on the buffet behind More's head are a number of classical books; those identified in the painting suggest a common theme, the theme of happiness: its nature and its possibility in this troubled and stormy world. In unity with the books of classical learning are religious elements: In addition to Lady Alice’s ornate crucifix, Henry Pattenson is wearing a simple one around his neck, and he has the red cross of London on his cap. Elizabeth also has a beautiful cross surrounded by pearls hanging from her neck. and that two rosary cases are in the cupboard behind Margaret Giggs and that out of one of these, white beads are hanging.. The scene captured in the painting is the family about to pray rather than a formal painting in the cold formal hall of the home..
The worldly fruitfulness of this family is stressed in this painting. Margaret and Elizabeth and Cecily are pregnant with the next generation. This fruitfulness is emphasized by the presence of the fruit dish and ripe apple on the window sill on the right, and by the abundance of flowers in the room.The flowers, along with the musical instruments and crowded intimacy of elegant “family-togetherness,” connote a sense of worldly beauty, harmony, and happiness. The room is marked by warmth of color, including the carpet of green rushes. The other books identified in this painting are: (1) Boethius’ Consolationis Philosophiae and, (2) under Elizabeth’s arm, Seneca’s Epistulae, which comprises 124 letters addressed to young Lucilius and expresses “ardent concern for the journey to wisdom” (Motto 1973, p. 54).
But with this emphasis on worldly wisdom and engagement, what has happened to the famed devotional life of the More family? Close inspection of the Nostell Priory painting shows the family’s piety to be still present, but in more subtle ways. Although Cecily and Elizabeth no longer have rosaries and although no family member’s piety is ostentatiously on display, we discover that piety is an integral part of this icon of Christian Renaissance humanism. One must look closely to see that the beads hanging from the purse on Margaret Giggs’ belt are a rosary, that Henry Pattenson has one around his left hand, and that two rosary cases are in the cupboard behind Margaret Giggs and that out of one of these, white beads are hanging. In the Nostell Priory painting, there is not one cross, but four. Although Lady Alice is no longer kneeling, she holds a prayer-book with a beautifully bejeweled, deep-green velvet casing. This small gold-edged book matches the small gold-edged books held by young John and by Margaret Giggs, indicating that the moment captured is indeed the same as in the revised Basel sketch, but without drawing obvious attention to the piety of any one family member. That these books all have blank pages is most easily explained by the fact that the prayer-books depicted with print in Holbein’s painting were now outlawed, thus posing a serious danger for their recusant owners. Significantly, the seventeenth-century unprofessional copy now at Chelsea Old Town Hall has lines in at least one of these prayer books, as does the Basel drawing. These details indicate that the moment captured in the Nostell Priory painting remains the same as the one represented in the revised Basel drawing, but in a fuller and more true-to-life manner. The inclusion of the devotional elements suggest a response to fate and to the question of happiness markedly different than the responses given by Seneca and Boethius. Taken as a whole, this portrait – like the revised Basel drawing – presents a family well “furnished for the whole scope of human life.”
Source: 102 Moreana Vol.45, 173 (June - Juin 2008)
Also see: Lesley Lewis's The Thomas More Family Group Portraits After Holbein (Gracewing, 1998), p. 13 esp. Angela Lewi's The Thomas More Family Group (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1974), pp. 5-7, and Ruth Norrington's The Household of Sir Thomas More (Buckinghamshire, Eng: The Kylin Press, 1985).