Conferences Features

CONFERENCES: Beyond Iconophobia: 'Decorative' art and the visual culture of Early Modern England

Dacre Beasts, V&A Museum
CONFERENCES: Beyond Iconophobia: ‘Decorative’ art and the visual culture of Early Modern England

Tara Hamling (University of Birmingham)

Yesterday afternoon, I was excited to attend my first seminar by the Institute of Historical Research. The institute regularly hosts fantastic papers on different periods of history and I’ll be reporting regularly on them. The following piece is my summary of a brilliant paper given by Tara Hamling on art, religion and visual culture in Early Modern England.

The paper was part of a chapter she contributed to on Early Modern visual culture and the impact of the Reformation in eradicating church art. Hamling encountered several problems in the separation and categorisation of art, i.e, why are some works considered fine art but other paintings classed as “decorative art”? Decorative art during this period is sadly, an understudied field. This is due to conventions used to categorise paintings from later eras where only extremely detailed art was considered “fine” art . Disciplinary biases caused discrepancies when categorising what constituted decorative art. Hamling’s interests lie primarily in ornamentation, “Ornament was a key form of communication in Early Modern England…The study of decoration has been neglected towards understanding art. Ornament was the most significant vehicle for the transmission of messages in this period.” This paper attempts to overturn the dominant models that categorised the visual culture of Early Modern England.

Hamling was also interested in the defining of visual culture and the role of shared visual forms and motifs. She wasn’t concerned with the producers of the art in question but more interested in how people below the ranks of the gentry processed the messages they were exposed to through art. Imagery was not always situated at eye level for easy viewing, it may have been high up on a building, or in commercial spaces so this influenced how viewers looked at art.

Her paper focused primarily on two aspects of Early Modern English ornamentation: heraldry and biblical imagery. Both were associated with the patronage of the social elite and church officials but how were they received by ‘middling people’? Hamling also suggested that there are no definitive lines between these two categories and imagery was often copied and reused for various purposes.

Heraldry and Biblical Imagery

Heraldry and biblical imagery were routinely depicted and united in Early Modern England and suggests that these two categories were inextricably linked. Heraldry permeated nearly all spheres of experience during this time. Established heraldic conventions were created in the Middle Ages and by the later 1500s, heraldry had expanded to the outside of buildings, public areas, and inside homes. Noble families carried their arms with them everywhere, even in jewellery like signet rings, and used it to create a distinct public identity. The use of heraldry was restricted to an elite class to separate them from common people and protect their elevated status.

Heraldic imagery, however, was intended for more than a small clique of nobles. Noble households were always full and open to guests and strangers. The ways in which heraldry was displayed in the home was meant to be viewed and admired by the household and outsiders. Scale and vivid colour ensured that these heraldic devices were noticed by a wider public as size and scale commented on the individual’s status. Hamling used examples of stained glass windows, arms from inside homes and arms at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Dacre Beasts to demonstrate this point.

St-Marys-Church-West-Bergholt-1603-1649-James-I-Coat of Arms

The Royal Arms in Churches and Private Residences

Royal coats of arms, such as those of Elizabeth I, were placed in churches in post-Reformation England in an extravagant and dynastic display. The assertive presence of royal arms in spaces of worship made an explicit connection between royal authority and the church; temporal authority and cosmic order.

The royal coat of arms could also often be found in private homes. The royal arms of James I were found in Exeter in a modest merchant’s house. This sort of display created connections between domestic space and church space. The presence of arms was a stamp of royal and judicial authority and was important for the construction of identity in local communities. This reinforced householders as the religious instructors for the gathered family and was usually interpreted as a simple and straightforward nod of loyalty to the crown. These heraldic badges could be found on plaster ceilings, fireplace backings, over mantles, and on the exterior of buildings.

Lenard fireback - Anne of Cleves Museum

Cast Iron Firebacks

These pieces protected the back of chimneys and reflected heat back into the room. These have also been neglected when examining ornamentation in the period. There was a great demand for firebacks; they started off as plain iron grates but eventually became engraved with heraldic crests and biblical she also carefully examined the 1636 Lenard Fireback, which depicts Richard Lenard, a foundry worker in a form of a self made pseudo crest. Pseudo heraldic emblems created a social identity for the owner.

The Influence of Heraldic Tradition on the Arts

Processes of religious change from the 1530s to the second half of the seventeenth century had a dramatic impact on the nature of visual experience at the parish level. Images used in in churches were at risk at being treated as “idols” but there was less concern about them being displayed in other contexts outside the church. Pre-Reformation continuity existed in other spaces, such as the home. During the first half of the sixteenth century, it was common to see religious imagery in homes. After 1559, there was a movement away from iconic figures of saints and a trend towards the depiction of biblical stories. These were meaningful expressions of status and belief and used to support practices of household piety. If one was a stand up Protestant, there would be little to question about having such imagery in the home, it was all about context. There was less suspicion of use in Protestant homes than in those of suspected Catholic sympathisers. The most popular scenes and stories were key moments in the life of Christ, scenes like the Sacrifice of Isaac, which had been popular in the Middle Ages was also popular in Early Modern decorative art and Adam and Eve’s Temptation and fall into sin. Images evoked stories that were familiar, but not all images were narrative; they were representational in telling the essence of the story. Both heraldic arms and biblical stories shared a similar presentation to aid in clarity and ease of communication. They are stripped to a more basic, simple and strong representation of specific episodes.

The paper was an excellent in depth look at Early Modern visual art for anyone keen on these two topics in post-Reformation England.

Please support your fellow historians by attending sessions like this one and sharing these great topics.

~Sandra Alvarez

For more information about history seminars and how you can help support the Institute of Historical Research, please visit their website:

Follow the Institute of Historical Research on Twitter: @ihr_history
Like the Institute of Historical Research on Facebook: Institute of Historical Research: IHR Digital

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons