The Vision of Catherine of Aragon
Research by Judy Lamb
Born Johann Heinrich Füssli in Zürich, Switzerland, Fuseli initially intended to become a theologian. While completing his studies in Zürich he was introduced to philosophy, theology and the works of Shakespeare, Dante, Homer and Milton. He also befriended the poet and physiognomist, Johann Kaspar Lavater, whose work focused on how one’s facial expressions reflected their personality and state of mind. This research would later inform Fuseli’s art. (1)
In 1764 Fuseli travelled to England to publish his translation of Johann Winckelmann’s, 'Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks', and whilst there was encouraged by Joshua Reynolds to pursue a career as an artist. With Reynolds’ encouragement, and Fuseli’s own resolve to become a painter, he spent eight years of rigorous artistic training in Rome from 1770-78. As Fuseli established himself as an artist he dismissed Winckelmann’s praise and theories regarding the calm grandeur and noble simplicity of Greek sculpture in favour of the terribillta found in the work of Michelangelo. (2) This led Fuseli to begin painting dramatic compositions filled with heroes. Due to his success abroad Fuseli’s return to London, in 1780, was highly anticipated by artists, patrons and intellectuals. Notable works of Fuseli capture the intense emotions of his characters, ghoulish fantasies and violent struggles. Fuseli’s fame was ensured with extraordinary works such as The Nightmare (1781), a powerful and fanciful work of art that is filled with sublime terror and erotic thrill.
In 1786, following complaints at a dinner party, where it was realised that Britain did not have a market for history painting, the English painter and print seller, John Boydell, opened a gallery on Pall Mall in London where the public could, for a small fee, go and view art that was inspired by the works of Shakespeare. Of all the contributors at Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery Fuseli’s Shakespearean work was undeniably the most important. (3)
Fuseli’s painting, The Vision of Catherine of Aragon (RA 1781), is a history painting believed to be inspired by Shakespeare’s King Henry the Eighth, Act IV, Scene II. At this moment in the play Katherine has just asked her attendant, Griffith, to tell her about the death of Cardinal Wolsey. Although Katherine detests Wolsey for his vast ambition, his accepting of bribes for ecclesiastical favors and his duplicitous actions, Griffith’s eulogy has made Katherine wish him peace in the afterlife. Following her conversation with Griffith, Katherine falls asleep and has a vision.
Enter, solemnly tripping one after another, six personages, clad in white robes, wearing on their heads garlands of bays, and golden vizards on their faces; branches of bays or palm in their hands. They first congee unto her, then dance; and, at certain changes, the first two hold a spare garland over her head; at which the other four make reverent curtsies; then the two that hold the garland deliver the same order in their change, and holding the garland over her head: which done, they deliver the same garland to the last two, who likewise observe the same order; at which (as it were by inspiration) she makes in her sleep signs of rejoicing, and holdeth up her hands to heaven: and so in their dancing they vanish, carrying the garland with them. (4)
When Katherine awakes she calls out, “Spirits of peace, where are ye? are ye all gone, And leave me here in wretchedness behind ye?” (5) Katherine’s imminent execution is foreshadowed when she awakes and calls out to the spirits; Griffith, who believes he was called by the queen, returns and is told by Katherine that the spirits have promised her eternal happiness.
In his painting Fuseli depicts Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), the wife of English King Henry VIII, whose divorce in 1533 led Henry to break from the Roman Catholic Church and allowed him to marry Ann Boleyn. The former queen is shown reclining on her deathbed, reaching upwards to a cloud of partially nude heavenly figures while two attendants sit in the lower left corner. Though the dream describes the heavenly figures as wearing garlands and golden vizards, whilst carrying branches of bay or palm, in this picture Fuseli omits these details. Instead, Fuseli has the central spirit reach out with a golden crown as the queen extends her left arm towards it.
Rather than creating a work focused on the ill fate of Catherine's impending execution, Fuseli’s use of her vision emphasises his skill as a master of invention, creator of fanciful worlds and 'interpreter of Shakespeare at his most poetic'. (6)
Several critics believe that The Vision of Catherine of Aragon is the lost painting, Queen Katherine’s Dream; the Tate Britain exhibited the work in their 2006 exhibition, 'Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination', as Queen Katherine’s Dream. The belief is due to the stipple engraving, Queen Katherine’s Dream (c1781-88) by Francessco Bartolozzi, after a lost Fuseli painting. Published on 4 April 1783, the print, whose imagery is very similar to the oil painting, was the only Shakespearian-inspired work published in Thomas Macklin’s series of British Poets. (7)
(1) Davies, Penelope E,
Janson's History of Art: The Western Tradition, p807
(2) Rodgers, David,
(3) Petra ten-Doesschate Chu,
Nineteenth-Century European Art, p82
(4) Shakespeare, William,
King Henry the Eighth (Act IV Scene II)
(5) Ibid, (Act IV Scene II Verse 82)
(6) Myrone, Martin,
Gothic Nightmare: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, p152
(7) Henry Fuseli 1741-1825, p72