Apollo and Diana at Hampton Court
Walking through the great palace of the Tudors there are many extraordinary sights to catch your eye: the sumptuous tapestries of Henry VIII, the Chapel Royal's night sky ceiling, perhaps a Holbein or two. And then, moving through time as you step from the long gallery, out of the Tudor built palace, and into the seventeenth century, a curious sight awaits. Here sit Charles I and Henrietta Maria, painted as Apollo and Diana, receiving the seven Liberal Arts from the royal favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, as Mercury. Bursting through the sky are putti with laurel crowns, throwing flowers down on the illustrious procession.
A key role of any enlightened ruler was to encourage learning and the arts, and Charles I saw himself as an embodiment of artistic culture and patronage. Here, he welcomes ‘Grammar’ (who is probably also Katherine Villiers (née Manners), the Duchess of Buckingham) with a key to unlock learning; ‘Logic’ holding a set of scales; ‘Rhetoric’ who carries a scroll; ‘Astronomy’ with an astrolabe; ‘Geometry’ with a globe; and ‘Music’, who carries a lute.They are received graciously by their royal and divine patrons.
The artist was Gerrit van Honthorst, a Dutch painter and follower of Caravaggio. The debt he owes to his Italian master is clear throughout the painting’s composition. Playing with shadow and light, Honthorst’s royal couple radiate a sun-like brightness, illuminating the faces Mercury and his followers as they leave the darkness behind them and enter into the enlightened world of Charles and Henrietta Maria.
This painting was probably commissioned by the Duke of Buckingham as a gift for the royal couple, though he did not live to see its completion. Buckingham was assassinated on 23rd August, 1628. Handsome, daring, ruthless, cultured, ambitious - this final image of a man who had risen the ranks at court to become the great favourite of two Stuart Kings, one of the most powerful men in England, and one of the most hated men of history, is the absolute embodiment of the fated Duke of Buckingham.