An account of the restoration of the St Benet’s Pieta by Fr Nigel Palmer, followed by a theological meditation on the Buonvisi altarpiece (of which it is a copy) by Stephen Miller.
Until its recent restoration and cleaning, the painting in St Benet’s of the Deposition of Our Lord, mourned over by His Mother, flanked by angels, which had hung in the sacristy of the church for many years, was a complete mystery.
The restoration of the picture was made possible by a generous bequest from the estate of Iris Reynolds, who was a long standing parishioner of St Benet’s and who died in 2017. The newly restored painting now hangs over the altar in our Lady chapel in her memory.
At the time that the entry on St Benet’s in Pevsner’s “Buildings of England and Wales” series was last published in 1991 it was queried whether or not the painting was Italian, with no further comment. That (as we shall see) was a shrewd guess, but when the painting was removed from the sacristy, the words “PAINTED BY ALICIA GILSON” were seen to have been scribbled on the back of the canvas.
Thanks to Luke Bodalbhai, whom St Benet’s asked to oversee the restoration and framing of the painting, and to our parishioner Robert Chote, who has done further research into the identity of Madame Gilson, we now have some knowledge of who she was. (This article accords her the style and title of “Madame,” by which she seems to have been known in newspaper reports.)
A Post Office Gazette reveals that Alicia Gilson lived at 18, Ospringe Road, just down the road from the church; it seems reasonable to suppose that she may have worshipped at St Benet’s.
Her principal activities seem to have lain in music, rather than painting, for she is described in the Gazette as a music teacher, and she is also on record as the soprano of an 1898 choral performance in the long since demolished St Andrew’s Hall, in Newman Street.
However, she also seems, in the best traditions of North West London, to have been dedicated to supporting left wing political activity, of a fairly extreme kind. We read of her singing, at the opening of each day of a bazaar organised to raise money for the socialist movement, the first two verses of the Communist hymn, the “Internationale” no less. One newspaper report even credits Madame Gilson with having given the UK premiere of the Internationale.
The tickets for the bazaar were designed by Walter Crane, the well known Arts and Crafts artist. Like William Morris, he had socialist leanings. The newspaper report runs, “The tickets were considered an important factor in the success of the venture and were printed in green with an illustration of the Bastille to link revolution with the theme of ‘Old Paris’.
One may venture the thought that visitors to the bazaar were at least fortunate to secure a piece of design by Mr Crane for their entrance fee, since the list of some of the items on sale sounds somewhat dispiriting: “five fretwork frames, one violin, a bow and case, three pincushions, a smoking cap, two petticoats,…..a parcel of three framed pictures, two royal photographs and various small articles..”
Madame Gilson also regularly appeared as a singer (presumably as a kind of heroic “warm up artist”) at political rallies by the extremist Social Democratic Federation, on one occasion in Shoreditch Town Hall addressed by no less a luminary than Mr George Lansbury, the future Labour party leader and grandfather of Angela Lansbury of “Murder She Wrote”. She appears also at rallies for other parties, including one, perhaps rather unusually for her, for the Conservative cause.
No record of her other painting activities has yet been discovered. The manufacturer’s mark of the original canvas of the Pietà reads “Aug Walker”. Augustus Walker ran a well known outlet selling artists’ materials in New Bond Street from 1897-1922, a period which coincides with the building of the original St Benet’s, and the reconstruction of its nave, and which also coincides with the reports we have of Madame Gilson’s musical and political activity.
Thanks to Luke Bodalbhai’s research, however, and to his distinguished restorer, Neil Graham, the source of the St Benet’s painting can now be identified as the top part, or lunette, of The Buonvisi Altarpiece, by Francesco Francia (c. 1447-1517) originally painted for the Buonvisi Chapel in the church of S. Frediano, in Lucca. The painting has been in The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square since the mid nineteenth century, although sadly it is not currently (2020) on display. A good article on the painting and a reproduction of it may be seen on The National Gallery’s website.
A reproduction of the painting follows this essay, accompanied by a fine reflection on it and its figures by Stephen Miller, an ordinand at St Stephen’s House. Could it be that Madame Gilson was attracted to the painting because it featured a representation of our patron saint, St Benedict.
Madame Gilson was clearly a very skilled painter and copyist, and the superb restoration and cleaning of the painting has revealed for all of us the quality and dedication of her work. Now beautifully framed, it has been a great privilege to restore it to its rightful place as an adjunct to worship in the church, which, at the very least, she must have known as she walked down Ospringe Road on her way to some meeting or bazaar, to rally the faithful to the socialist cause. Today, her painting remains to rally the faithful still, albeit now as a superlative aid to devotion for a different cause.
Fr Nigel Palmer
Luke Bodalbhai runs an independent fine art business, acting for companies and private clients in the acquisition, restoration and disposition of works of art. St Benet’s highly recommends him. He can be contacted here: firstname.lastname@example.org (07852 752973).
The Buonvisi Altarpiece by Stephen Miller
The Pieta is one part of a larger altarpiece called the Buonvisi altarpiece. It was painted between 1510 and 1512 by Francesco Francia, an artist from Bologna, Italy. The altarpiece depicts St Mary holding the infant Jesus sitting next to her mother St Anne. They are flanked by four saints, from left to right: St Sebastian, Saint Paul, St Lawrence, and St Benedict. At the very bottom of the picture is a young John the Baptist looking up towards Christ.
It was commissioned by the Buonvisi family to be placed in their family chapel at the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca about 12 miles north east of Pisa. The family were bankers as well as being silk traders with offices all over Western Europe including in London. As so often happens when artwork for a family chapel is commissioned, several of the saints depicted are the patrons of members of the family: the patron of the piece was Benedetto, Benedict (1450–1513); his brother, Paolo, Paul (died 1484); and their father, Lorenzo, Lawrence (died 1451). I will offer a few reflections upon the piece by looking at each saint in turn and discussing what speaks to me about it. This is partly the original point of the piece, to inspire devotion and reflection for the priest and people at Mass as it hung over the altar as the pietà will do so in St Benet’s.
We start on the left-hand side with Saint Sebastian. Sebastian was martyred in 288 during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian. Tradition has it that he was initially tied to a tree and shot with arrows but this did not kill him. He was then rescued and had the opportunity to approach the Emperor and warn him of the consequences of his sins. For this he was clubbed to death.
In Christian iconography Sebastian is always shown as a young man. He was in his early 30’s when he was martyred, with an arrow in his hand or, as depicted here, tied to a tree trunk being shot with arrows. Sebastian is in the midst of his passion leaning forward and looking with a wide gaze at the scene before him. I think that he is looking both at the infant Lord symbolising the joy of the incarnation, the coming of the Christ into the world, as well as up at the Pietà above as the dead Christ is once again held in his mother’s arms, but now limp and lifeless bearing the wounds of the cross.
However the direction of his gaze is very much upward, and this would seem natural as there has always been a strong link between the death of the martyrs and the death of Christ as expressed in the first Preface of Holy Martyrs “For the blood of your blessed Martyr N., poured out like Christ’s to glorify your name”. He is looking towards sharing in the death of Christ both through his baptism and his martyrdom. Of course Sebastian knows that the death of Christ was not the end of the story; hence his expression is not that of self-pity, or of sorrow, but of willing and hope in the certain knowledge that mankind has been saved by the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Next to Sebastian is St Paul. He is shown as he is commonly seen in iconography, with the sign of his martyrdom, the sword. He was beheaded in Rome between AD 64 and 68 being condemned to death by the Emperor Nero. Being a Roman citizen Paul was spared a more gruesome death and was simply beheaded with a sword. Legend has it that as his head fell to the floor it bounced three times each time a spring of water welled up which is are still flowing at San Paolo alle Tre Fontane.
He is shown intently gazing upon Christ and his mother, utterly relaxed and in contemplation. This reflects something of his personality and his zeal for Christ and the proclamation of His Gospel. I feel that his confident and yet relaxed pose echoes his complete trust in and love for Christ found in his letter to the Romans (8:38-39) “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord”.
John the Baptist
The small figure of John the Baptist, depicted as about the same age as Jesus, John was about 6 months older, stands at the foot of the picture. He carries his banner proclaiming “Ecce Agnus Dei” behold the Lamb of God and pointing up to Christ as he did in the gospels.
There is a straight line from John’s hand which traces the gospel story. First, the Incarnation in the person of the Christ child. Next the crucifixion in alluded to by the image on the pillar between St Mary and St Anne, this shows Isaac, Abraham’s Son, being loaded with wood for the sacrifice which was to be himself, (Genesis 22:6) “And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son”. This has often been paralleled with Christ taking up the wood of the cross to make the final sacrifice.
And finally, at the top Christ lies dead in his mother’s arms. The final part of the story comes in the celebration of the mass which was offered in front of this picture where Christ, died, risen and ascended becomes present again upon the altar thinly veiled under the species of bread and wine.
Next is St Lawrence the third century martyr. In his right hand he holds the grid iron on which he was roasted alive and the martyr’s palm of victory in his left. He is dressed in mass vestments of a deacon as he was the senior deacon in Rome when he was martyred. He is turned away from the scene, looking outwards into the world. This perfectly reflects his character. When Pope Sixtus II was killed, Lawrence fled Rome with the treasures of the church, but was captured and given three days to collect them and bring them to the prefect of Rome. When he returned, he brought with him the sick, the poor, the blind and the suffering presenting them as the treasures of the church above any material wealth. He looks out to us, inviting us in.
To the far right of the scene stands St Benedict (Benet). He is totally immersed in gazing upon the scene, nearly turning his back on us in order to do so. He is dressed in his plain monastic habit and has his hands clasped in prayer. He, unlike the others in the scene, seems less relaxed he is totally focused on nothing other than the Christ child and is, I think, attempting to make eye contact with Our Lord. This seems to be quite a good presentation of the monastic life, a life solely focused upon Christ, giving the entirety of one’s self to him and maybe for a second being able to make eye contact with Him.
St Mary, Jesus, and St Anne
In the centre of the scene there is a touching family scene. Mother and grandmother sit close together playing with the young child. St Anne holds a piece of fruit which Jesus is reaching towards and he is held by his mother, as she would do again in the Pietà above. Meanwhile Mary stares off into the middle distance, almost in a world of her own.
Mary is doing what she does throughout the gospels; “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:29). She is pondering; I wonder if she is pondering the words of Simeon: “Behold, this Child is appointed to cause the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed and a sword will pierce your soul as well.” (Luke 2: 34-35). Is she is pondering the image that is looming over her head, alone in the dark holding the cold mutilated corpse of her child?
This picture is intimate, dark and claustrophobic. There are more people on the canvas than seems comfortable as the semi circular frame feels like it is collapsing in on us. The light, which seems to be coming from behind us shines upon the figures and is then swallowed up by the intense dark behind them to the extent that the angel’s wings are only just visible.
No doubt that crushing feeling is shared by Mary. Mary, thirty years older than in the picture below shows thirty years of aging, as well as a considerable family likeness with her mother. She is shown wearing the clothes of a respectable widow which match what her mother was wearing before; it is assumed that Joseph had died before the crucifixion; so Jesus put his mother into the care of John the beloved disciple.
As in the picture below, she is seated and is holding the body of her son, not quite cold, across her knees. An angel supports Jesus’ head as she gazes on him. Her eyes are red with tears, but her expression is not of fear or of desolation. She looks sorrowful, but there is still a glimmer of hope. The ends of her lips have the smallest of curls upwards. Mary still has hope. She still trusts in God. She may not understand it, she may wish that it was less painful, but as she trusted when the angel first came to her to say that she would conceive and bear a son, and she trusted when she told the servants at the wedding at Cana to “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). So she trusts in God now even with the sword that Simeon spoke of plunged deep into her heart.
But she is not alone. She has either side of her two angels to comfort her. One kneels at the feet of Jesus hardly able to look at the scene turning his head away. The other supports Our Lord’s head so that his mother might look upon his face and, as he does so, he looks out at us. He is the only person in this altarpiece who is attempting to make eye contact with us. Lawrence looks outwards but this angel is conversing with us directly. He is telling us to look upon Christ dead in his mother’s hands having paid the price of salvation. “Do as John tells you; Ecce Agnus Dei.”
Stephen Miller, Seminarian of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.