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Scholar Unearths Michelangelo’s Role in Early English Catholicism


Ann Dillon, Ph.D., describes explains the symbolism in a 16th century broadsheet inspired by Michelangelo.
Photo by Ryan Brenizer

The road to heaven was sometimes short and often painful for early Christians, as those martyred for their beliefs were frequently tortured before they were executed.

But as Ann Dillon, Ph.D., honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter, said on Wednesday, Oct. 1, one group of English Catholics who died for their beliefs inspired their brethren throughout Europe, in part due to an unlikely source: Michelangelo.

Speaking to a crowd of 60 people at the Lowenstein Center on the Lincoln Center campus, Dillon explained how a broadsheet printed in 1555 in Rome that depicted the suffering and execution of monks in London contained imagery that was directly inspired by two frescoes in the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican.

“These images, shot through with Michelangelo’s influence, became a part of English recusant life,” she said.

Dillon’s talk, Michelangelo and the English Martyrs, was part of the St. Robert Southwell, S.J., Lecture Series, which is devoted to the history and theology of the Christian Church in the early modern period. She authored The Construction of Martyrdom in the English Community 1555-1603 (Ashgate, 2002) and will be using material from this lecture in a book set to publish next year.

The lecture detailed how the six-paneled broadsheet explained, via graphic imagery, the crucifixion, quartering and evisceration of 18 Carthusian monks of the London Charterhouse, all for the crime of refusing to swear an oath of supremacy demanded by Henry VIII in 1534. The richly detailed drawings follow their path from arrest to imprisonment to execution, forming what Dillon deemed a visual “danse macabre.”

While the meaning of much of the broadsheet is clear—a man hanging from a cross is quite striking—Dillon pointed out that certain seemingly random images contained powerful symbolism. For example, a small dog chasing the monks as they are dragged off to be executed, would have been interpreted as stand-ins for Roman soldiers who taunted Jesus Christ as he was lead to his death at Calvary.

Likewise, she noted that close examination of the fourth panel of the broadsheet shows a dead Carthusian’s limbs being cradled by an onlooker—an image that is very similar to one within Michelangelo’s Conversion of St. Paul. As such, she said, Michelangelo’s involvement in the shaping of martyrdom was significant.

“It was a seminal broadsheet,” she said. “The images and the script became the template for a succession of formative didactic images in the English recusant community during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.”


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