Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

I do not travel much in a non-work-related capacity, but I hit London about a year and a half ago with The Admiral and my brother.

Jason and I were on a mad dash through the National Gallery, trying to see a Greatest Hits of the museum, and as we darted into one gallery I stopped cold in my tracks.

The picture at the far end of the gallery was The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833, Paul Delaroche).

When I considered doing a post, I was shocked to read that the painting is only 3 metres wide.  In my mind, it seemed twice that large.  Perhaps that's the impact of surprise.  Perhaps the website of the National Gallery is incorrect (it is not).  No matter the case, when I've tried to describe the painting, I am certain I have told people "that thing must have been 20 feet across".

I've had a public school bit of education on art, but it was never my area of study, and I don't spend my days pondering the great works.  Still, every once in a while a painting sneaks up on you and smacks you over the head.  This painting jumped out from behind the shrubbery with a sizable frying pan and planted one pretty squarely on my crown.

Prior to seeing it, I'd never heard of the painting, never seen it, and just the day before had become acquainted with the young woman's story.  The JPEG attached does nothing to do the painting justice, and, in my touristing the past few years as I saw some of the great works, it is my opinion that we do ourselves a disservice believing that prints, small images on computers, reproductions in the margins of textbooks, etc...  do the actual works anything like justice.  You cannot, for example, truly see the stunning color work, and the expressions are understood but not as towering in the image above as they seemed, obviously to my eye, so much larger than life.

The day before the gallery I'd been hopping about the Tower of London, a place of amazing history and misery, and heard the sad story of the actual Lady Jane Grey.*  Grey was a young woman (16 or 17 at the time of her death) caught up in the religious/ political turmoil that came as England grappled with the succession of Henry the VIII.  For 9 days she was Queen of England before political winds shifted and, in the end, she was beheaded.  The painting captures the seconds just before the fatal blow after she'd blindfolded herself and sought the chopping block.

As I said before, visiting England and seeing how political differences resolved themselves in even a post-Magna Carta England makes one thrill to our own often ridiculous democratic processes in which the worst that often happens is an unflattering internet meme.

I think Wikipedia covers Lady Jane Grey's story fairly well.  I won't belabor it.  I understand it's been made into a few movies.

You can read more about the painting at the National Gallery's phenomenal website.

There isn't much to say.  I'm not an art critic.  I know my gut reaction, and I could speak without knowledge or authority about composition, symbolism and meaning of the scene, but I won't.  Instead, I'll comment back upon the sorrow of the scene depicted, the desire for dignity in the last moments on earth, but the covering of her own eyes Lady Jane Grey chose, necessitating a final bit of mercy from the Deputy Lieutenant of the Tower as he led her to the block and the executioner stood impassively by.

Before covering her eyes, Lady Jane Grey gave a statement regarding her impending doom that's a bit heartbreaking, admitting guilt she could only have obtained by accident of status, marriage and religion. She throws herself as much upon the rule of law as religion, terribly intermingled in the years following Henry's death.
Good people, I am come hither to die, and by a law I am condemned to the same. The fact, indeed, against the Queen's highness was unlawful, and the consenting thereunto by me: but touching the procurement and desire thereof by me or on my behalf, I do wash my hands thereof in innocency, before God, and the face of you, good Christian people, this day.
So let's tip our hats to Lady Jane Grey, and if you're at the Tower or at the National Gallery, pay your respects.

And, if this is something you want in your home (maybe something to spruce up the guest room?), you can buy prints from

*the Tower of London is an absolute must, tourists.  It can take most of a day, but it does much to tie together all the rest of the history your teeny-tiny American sized brain will be processing when it comes to a few millenia of recorded history

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