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Today I returned to the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Chichester, one of the great historical attractions in the south of England.

Chichester Cathedral in May 2011 … before the summer monsoon

This place has so much to recommend it, but the subject of my post is not the brilliant architecture, or the gardens, or the Roman battlements – my subject is a Tudor painting, and in particular this little dude:

The Monkey (who looks like a cat)

The detail of the monkey is taken from an enormous painting by Lambert Barnard that hangs in one of the cathedral transepts. The painting is laid out on 107 oak boards, together measuring 14′ x 32′ and divided into two great panels.

I’ll briefly describe the painting, rather than display an image. On the left panel is the depiction of a 7th century bargain struck between a Saxon king and the cathedral’s founding bishop; on the right panel, another bargain between king and bishop – but this time the king is Henry VIII and the bishop is Robert Sherborne, the man who commissioned the painting in the early 1530s.

The Tudor bargain relates to royal protection of the cathedral after the king’s decision to renounce papal authority. The vehicle for that renunciation was the king’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, whose marriage to Henry had been negotiated at Rome twenty years earlier by … Sherborne. Ouch! Touchy subject, which the painting does not address.

Or maybe it does. Enter the monkey …

“But this first panel is at the same time suggestive of the future. It depicts a monkey chained to a column, sitting amongst walnuts and a discarded wedding ring*. The monkey apparently is a metaphor for Katherine of Aragon. At the top of the column a Christian knight is slaying a barbarian. The fact that the monkey is chained to the column is suggestive of Katherine’s adherence to the faith especially as the walnuts are a symbol of Christian reward. The discarded ring of her divorce from Henry presumably shows that she is the one who has remained loyal.”

That quote is from a brief account of a lecture on the recent restoration of the painting. Interesting to note that there is a portrait of Katherine from 1525 in which she holds a monkey, and that when it came to monkeys the king’s new wife, Anne Boleyn, “loveth no such beast nor can scant abide the sight of them“.

The painting has suffered greatly over the centuries:

“Bad disfiguration occurred in the Civil War by William Waller’s men who poked out the eyes of the face of King Edward VI. Also during the time of Bishop Morson, 1748-56 there were a lot of references to restoration of the panels according to the fashion of the day and very poor craftsmanship too. James Spershott, diarist at that time commented that the ‘kings and queens were new painted’! The panels were later subjected to the elements and vast quantities of dust when the spire of the cathedral fell in 1861. Then the paintings were split up until the 1890′s and by the time they were re-assembled the paint was flaking from exposure to the weather and fluctuations in the heating of the cathedral.”

The last time I visited the cathedral the painting was under wraps during the restoration work. Today it is on full view, and the restoration trust has announced that “stabilisation” is complete. Sadly, the lofty placement and the side lighting from the stained glass windows make for alot of squinting.

I recommend the History Guide’s note of the lecture on the restoration, but you’ll also get a good sense of the painting and its religious and political significance in this engaging documentary (9:04):


* Karen Coke commented:

“Hello there. An update for you. It as beena while since the lecture but sadly, after Lambert Barnard’s painting was cleaned, what appeared to be a ‘ring’ at the monkey’s feet, turned out to be half a hazelnut shell! The monkey tethered to the ‘column of faith’,(i.e. the Roman Catholic church) is to be read as a multi-faceted reference; primarily indicative of Caedwalla’s conversion from paganism, but also as a quiet nod to Catherine’s unswaying loyalty to her church.”