Sunday, October 5, 2014

John Dee and Naked Angels: Why Was This Portrait Censored?

Above: Henry, Prince of Wales, before & after overpaint removal 
Below: John Dee (left) and Peake's Unknown Angel (right)

The Jacobean painter Robert Peake’s portrait of Henry, Prince of Wales, circa 1610, was at some point spectacularly overpainted, the original tiltyard backdrop buried beneath a nightscape of tree, foliage, and sky. It was not until 1985 that the portrait, now kept at Parham House in West Sussex, was tested with spectral technology and restored by the Hamilton Kerr Institute thereby revealing to us the strange, naked angel lurking beneath the paint.

Why was this portrait censored? And is it possible that this naked angel might depict a specific courtier who later fell from favor and was censored from history?
The British scholar Dame Frances Yates has written extensively on the importance of the occultist John Dee to Elizabeth's (and Prince Henry's) court. Aside from the obvious physical resemblance, there are other reasons to suspect the naked angel might be Dr. Dee. Prince Henry was a great admirer of Dee and even instigated an Elizabethan Revival at his court at Richmond.  Dee, however, had by then fallen out of favor with King James I, the Prince's father, due to Dee's belief in angel magic, the practice of harnessing angels to serve as servants to men.  Dee claimed to be able to communicate with angels in crystal balls, and he wrote entire books he believed he had translated from an angelic tongue.  Dee's name was synonymous with angels. 

As of now, the angel in Peake's portrait remains unidentified.  Although one scholar has put forth an argument that the angel might be the courtier Sidney Lee, I suspect it depicts John Dee, the great Neoplatonist magician whom Yates argued was the model for Shakespeare's Prospero.  And if it is Dee, this explains why the painting was so thoroughly censored.  It would have been scandalous to have a portrait of the Prince, who died young, practicing the forbidden art of angel magic (where angels of god are tethered to man's desires and whims).  It was the practice of angel magic that caused Dee's downfall and motivated him to famously bury his book of magic in a field. Dee was held to be so important a figure that, even in disgrace, a wealthy collector brought the entire field in order to excavate Dee's book of magic.
Angels aside, Peake’s portrait contains another enigma, an impresa, or visual conceit, that appears repeatedly along the skirt of Prince Henry’s armor as well as on his saddle blanket.  In observing this impresa Lionel Cust wrote: 
This strange device represents a number of hands, each holding an anchor, issuing from the holes in a ground, with a sun setting behind mountains in the background.  It almost passes the wit of man to explain the elaborate symbolism in these impresas, which were so much in fashion at this date.
Despite Cust’s awe at the task, if we look upon this impresa through the lens of Yates’s theories then the device makes perfect sense. The anchors issuing from the graves become a simple allegory referring to the Elizabethan revival, or sunrise of the navy-based imperialism associated with the Elizabethans and specifically with the writings of John Dee.  The hands holding up the anchors from their graves belong to the dead legends of Elizabeth’s court. Stated simply, the impresa represents the revival of Elizabethan (and Renaissance) ideas inside Prince Henry's court. 

King James I refused to be portraited in amour in order to protect his image as a peace seeker; by contrast his son Henry enjoyed rattling a saber and is portrayed in this equestrian portrait in tilt armor, a ready warrior.  And it was while at the tilt in his barriers on January 6, 1610, that Prince Henry adopted the motto on his shield, "Fas est aliorum quaerere regna."  Aka: “It is right to seek for kingdoms of others.” 

Both Dame Yates and Sir Roy Strong repeatedly emphasized Dee’s importance to Henry’s court inside the Prince's Elizabethan Revival.  In doing so, Strong quoted David Waters’ assessment of Dee:
Recent researches make it clear that the credit for first grasping the possibilities of arithmetical navigation, for doing the pioneer work on it, and for teaching its potentialities to both navigators and to younger mathematicians lies with Dr. John Dee.
Dr. John Dee, still known today as the father of British Imperialism, was the obvious symbol of Elizabeth’s navy and the philosophies behind that navy. Dee was also the courtier most associated with angels and the controversial practice of angel magic. The jigsaw pieces would seem to fit.

When Dee died c. 1608, the painter Robert Peake, an artist who was favored by Prince Henry and directly associated with the Elizabethan revival, was still active. Although it’s possible that the portrait was given to the Prince by Dee himself, it seems more likely that the portrait was instead gifted to Henry in memory of Dee shortly after the magician’s death. It’s also possible the Prince commissioned the painting.

Frances Yates, who received the female equivalent of knighthood in Great Britain for her scholarship, spent much of her career arguing that the Elizabethans, and William Shakespeare in particular, were occultists and that their beliefs and practices were later censored from history by the demon-fraught James I. Here we would seem to have physical evidence that Yates might have been correct in her theories.

Update: here is a new comparison with a portrait of Dee from 1659.


  1. Interesting! In my recent research on Dee this is the first time I've come across this image.

    Out of curiosity, who is the scholar who thinks the "angel" represents Sidney Lee, and what is their reasoning?

  2. It was not until 2006, over a decade after Peake’s portrait had been excavated, that Anthony Rooley argued that the naked angel had been modeled upon a specific courtier. In Rooley’s opinion that courtier, transformed by paint into an angel, was Sir Henry Lee, Elizabeth’s longstanding tilt champion. Rooley believed that Lee had designed the portrait as a gift to Prince Henry, who had revived Lee’s tilts after they had fallen into disfavor. It’s a sound theory in some ways. And Rooley is correct, in my opinion, in stating that Peake’s angel bears some resemblance to Sir Henry Lee, though that resemblance remains speculative as there is no known portrait of Lee done within a decade of the Prince Henry’s Elizabethan revival. But why, I had to wonder, would Lee have painted himself into an already existing portrait—and why did he portray himself as a naked angel?
    Rooley’s argument contains some shortcomings, most of which have been enumerated by Weigl, who believed the physical resemblance between Lee and Peake’s angel required a “degree of imagination” to conjoin [p. 172]. Weigl cast further doubt on Rooley’s identification by pointing out that Lee owned a loyal association not with Robert Peake but with the painter Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. However Weigl fails to note that Gheeraerts, though still alive during the Elizabethan revival, appears to have quit painting by then; therefore it does seem feasible that Lee might have commissioned Robert Peake, a painter known to be in favor with the young Prince. And certainly very few courtiers were as interested in portraits as Sir Henry Lee, who had commissioned the famous Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth I in order to re-ingratiate himself with the Queen. Yet there is no record of Lee ever including himself in such a regal portrait, and the vanity of such an inclusion in a gift to the throne lacks both precedent and due reverence. It seemed to me that the angelic courtier in question was far more likely modeled on a dead courtier than a living one. Yes, the courtiers under James were a famously vainglorious lot, but would one have actually cast himself in the roll of living angel?—and a naked angel at that?

  3. Thanks for getting back to me so promptly and thoroughly!

    Your theory that the angel is Dee is a provocative one, and if indeed the angel was painted out later due to Dee's notoriety it's certainly illustrative of what a controversial figure he was, even in his own time.

  4. Dame Frances Yates spent her distinguished career arguing Dee was the most important courtier of his day, and that King James I deliberately censored Dee (and the occult) from popular history.

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  6. About Queen Elizabeth I und Lewis Carroll's and Henry Holiday's "The Hunting of the Snark" (1876):