Saved for the Nation – The Wolsey Angels
This is a great result for all involved – donors both large and small. As the V & A’s director Martin Roth says “The Wolsey Angels are a vital part of our national history and artistic heritage. We are very grateful to everyone who contributed to our fundraising appeal to ensure these outstanding sculptures, which were thought to be lost, are reunited and preserved at the V&A for future generations.”
These four figures (approximately a metre high) have an interesting story. They were commissioned in 1524 from the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano, who worked in England between 1519 and 1543, and were to be part of a magnificent tomb for Cardinal Wolsey. However it was not completed before Wolsey’s fall from grace with Henry VIII which was due to his inability to persuade the Pope to annul the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey died in 1530. The King who appropriated Wolsey’s property and belongings ordered that the tomb be completed for him. Due to slow progress the tomb was not completed by Henry’s death and despite the good intentions of each of his children it remained incomplete. Elements were sold during the Civil War and the only known surviving piece from the tomb was the large black stone chest which now houses the body of Lord Nelson in St Paul’s Cathedral. Four large gilt-bronze candlesticks also from the tomb’s design can now be seen in the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent.
The existence of the angels was unknown until fortuitously two were put to auction in 1994. Unillustrated in the catalogue they were acquired by a French art dealer and subsequent scholarly research led to the firm attribution to Benedetto. The other two angels were discovered at Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire where apparently they had once been the finials on gateposts.
I shall leave the final thoughts to the acclaimed novelist Hilary Mantel “The recovery of Wolsey’s angels is one of those miracles that historians pray for; something that seems irrevocably lost has been there all the time. To claim the angels for the nation would connect us to one of the liveliest eras of our history and one of its most remarkable men.”