The Iconography of James I’s Court

The seventeenth century was a great age of portraiture in Europe. The status of portrait painters was radically altered – they were no longer regarded as hired workmen in courts, but as magnificent people who added to a court’s lustre. Painters could claim a far greater degree of independence in the style in which they chose to paint, and the methods they used.

Sadly the development of British art throughout James’ reign is not so spectacular. But it cannot be viewed in isolation – many factors had a significant impact on the direction of Britain’s art during this period. In particular the religious revolution, and subsequent dominance of the Protestant faith, had a disastrous impact on British painting. Not only had the need for religious iconography been removed, but since the reign of Elizabeth I contact with such vital sources of ideas and talent as Catholic Italy were reduced to a minimum. In addition to this, the expense of the war with Spain had limited Elizabeth’s patronage of the arts.

So, we can see that James I inherited England’s cultural isolation from the Catholic continent. But as one of James’ first actions as King was to make peace with Spain, he could afford to be a little more liberal with the country’s treasures. Sadly for British artists, however, James was far more interested in hunting than he was in the arts. British painting remained extremely insular and lacked direct influence from most of Europe until the reign of Charles I.

However, despite his intense dislike of sitting for portraits, James did have several commissioned during his time as King of Great Britain. The reluctance with which he sat can be seen in the resulting paintings – James invariably has a stiff posture and slightly awkward countenance. We know that James feared assassination, and so perhaps he felt exposed when having to sit alone for long periods of time. But the style of painting probably also contributed to the wooden feel of many of James’ portraits. Unlike the rich, flowing Baroque style of Rubens and his contemporaries (who desired to paint in a way that contained motion and more natural “emotional truths”), British painting in James’ reign was still formal, linear and somewhat rigid.

We must not forget that in the seventeenth century, portraits were a part of politics. They were still taken literally, and often acted as a real substitute for an absent King or General. (NB – in Louis XIV’s court it was an offence to turn your back on a portrait of the King!). Also, a person’s appearance was thought to be an outward reflection of the soul. Attractive people were presumed to be morally superior to their unattractive counterparts. So the way in which the subject was presented would have been an important consideration to painters (as it always is, but usually not in a political sense…). The sitter would have wanted a flattering portrait not simply to enhance their own egos, but also to present an image of themselves as politically and morally acceptable to society.

Another purpose of court portraits was to indicate the power and rank of the sitter by the splendour of the costume and the amount of impressive jewellery they were wearing. The portraits of James I painted by de Critz (the court’s portrait painter during the early years of James’ reign) contain several important messages to the Jacobean viewer. (I shall now refer to several important portraits of James. See Irene Carrier’s James VI and I, King of Great Britain, pages 19 – 25 for reproductions of the portraits in question). Figure 1.18(a) shows James wearing a jewel known as “The Mirror of Great Britain”. As well as being an impressive jewel, its name is significant. It indicates that the portrait was made after the Union of Scotland and England. Figures 1.18(b) and (c) also stress James’ authority and status by showing him dressed in ornate clothing with such symbols of royalty as the crown jewels or the British crest in the background.

Figure 1.19, a portrait of James painted by Van Somer, is probably one of the most ornate of all of James’ portraits. In this painting James is standing, in full royal dress of crown jewels and ermine robes, in front of a window – through which the Banqueting House at Whitehall is visible. The fact that this portrait was made about two years before the completion of the Banqueting House shows how proud James was of the building – and how keen to be acknowledged as its patron.

Probably the most famous of all state portraits of James I is figure 1.20; Daniel Mytens’ James I and VI, painted in 1621. As in other portraits, James is dressed in fine clothing – in this case crimson and white Garter robes. The jewels around his shoulders tell of James’ great wealth, and the Tudor Rose shown above his head symbolises the legitimacy of James’ succession. The painting also shows James’ motto – “Beati Pacifici” (“Blessed Are The Peacemakers”). All these factors are being used to try to present the image of James as a great King – a stable and reliable ruler of Great Britain.

However, a viewer cannot help but notice that James looks somewhat ill in this portrait. Indeed, Dr Theodore Mayerne’s report on the King’s health at the time that this painting was created backs up what we see in the portrait – the King was weak and ailing. Had Mytens only intended to glorify the King and present a sanitised, polished image of him then surely he would not have depicted him looking anything other than the picture of health? The signs of illness about James in this portrait reflect the strong Realist trend that was present in British art at this time. Painters attempted to create images of people that were as true to life as possible, and less fanciful and artificial than much of the earlier sixteenth century art.

After the death of King James in 1625, his son Charles I took the throne. He was far more interested in the arts than his father ever had been. His visit to Spain in 1623 (and viewing of the Spanish royal portraits – works by such artists as Titian, Rubens and Velazquez) had led to his search for a comparable painter for the English court. Although Charles’ attempts to entice Rubens with a knighthood failed, the great Flemish painter did undertake the painting of the ceiling panels for the Banqueting House – a building that James had been so proud of. Figures 1.21 and 1.22 show two panels from the Banqueting Hall. As Irene Carrier says, these panels made James appear to be “benevolent, wise, the architect of the Union of Britain, the bringer of peace and plenty (rather than a timorous financial idiot) who eventually took his place among the gods”. While these paintings were as biased in favour as James as the writings of the Interregnum were against him, they are magnificent in their own right and command respect for Rubens’ talent in all who look upon them.

Rubens’ art was radically different from that which had dominated Britain during James’ reign. He used elements of Baroque and Renaissance style to elevate James to the status of a “British Solomon”. He believed that paint itself should have an exciting texture, and not hide behind the objects that it was being used to depict. Many people admire Ruben’s ability to animate a large surface, to use the natural colour of a wooden panel as a unifying factor and to “turn forms in and out of a space, and distort them in a direction of an overall rhythm”. After a long period of restrained, Realist art in Britain, Rubens, Van Dyke and others who followed in the court of Charles I opened up a new age of art in Britain…