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It is pleasant to be able to report favourably on the new exhibition about Mary, Queen of Scots which opened today at the National Museum of Scotland. Mary’s treasures are beautiful and her story is sinister. Jewels and swords gleam in the same glamorous lustre. This is one of the best exhibitions to be staged at the NMS in years.

In the exhibition’s antechamber we are saluted by a memorial portrait of Mary which was commissioned by her lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Curle (and apparently hidden up a chimney in Paris during the French Revolution). If Mary is posthumously garbed as a Catholic martyr, she still manages to give an effect of being only in costume. This was the last period in British history when the ruling class had looked like a pack of murderers; a time when the realism of modern portraiture had briefly captured something of the ruthless, alien medieval mind-set. In the portraits of Elizabeth I’s and Mary’s courtiers, the sitters typically look as if they are expecting the artist to suddenly spring a knife on them. Elizabeth would have us believe that she is frail and serenely maternal, but Mary always looks the equal of any backroom intriguer. She is as firm as a prince and she can see no need to flirt with the viewer or ape humility.

In the memorial portrait, she is stomping off to heaven clenching a crucifix, ready to turn her dark intelligent eyes and tight lips on God. She will soon begin plotting to undermine Him for the rest of eternity. She is apparently passing the scene of her execution, which looks like a student production at the Fringe, playing on a bare stage to an audience of less than a dozen. Her departing head is lowered so that the audience cannot see her face. If she turned it on them, their bowels would wither away under their doublets.

The first chamber of this exhibition recounts Mary’s early years. At the French court, she was taught falconry, needlework, various languages, and all of the Renaissance qualities which would serve her so well when she ruled over John Knox’s Scotland. Before we get to Knox, however, the exhibition pauses to acknowledge the spirit of Renaissance which had made this an age of daring and ambition for subjects as well as sovereigns. There are maps of the known world and new instruments for those who were determined to explore it. We are shown a 1575 astronomical compendium by Humphrey Cole, which includes a compass, calendar and sundial. Less successful is the Flemish tapestry devoted to newly discovered flora and fauna: the European bison is depicted beneath a dragon’s blood tree, despite the fact that the two species are found on opposite ends of the continent.

If you do not know anything about this complex and controversial queen then there are a lot of display boards to read, but this exhibition is otherwise obliged to reconstruct her life from objects. Since many of the exhibits are furniture and jewellery, our consequent impression of the queen is skewed towards secularism. I want to grumble about her jewels, but I am wary of seeming priggish. Edinburgh was effectively a cesspit and selling a pair of her bejewelled cameos could have paid for the entire city to be mucked out. But in this exhibition, she is an ambassador from Stuart civilisation; her personal effects exemplify the scope of her society’s power and ingenuity and creativity.

Behind the public power struggles Mary was, amateurishly and unobtrusively, an artist. She could play a sort of wooden piano called the virginals, and we are shown an example of this instrument, an awesome, dainty contraption with wooden keys. We can survey the Marian Hanging, which Mary and her gentlewomen embroidered during their long years in captivity. It is unexpectedly comic and secular in tone, at one point representing her husband Lord Darnley as a tortoise climbing up a palm tree.

There are articles of faith as well: an original copy of Knox’s supreme masterpiece The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women (1558); and an appearance by the sumptuously embroidered and profoundly ugly Fetternear Banner, which depicts the flagellated Christ covered in what look like red tadpoles. The exhibition is right to argue that Mary “made no attempt to overturn the Reformation,” but it is conceivably intoxicated by her worldly glamour when contending that she would not divorce Darnley because this “would make [her son] James illegitimate and forfeit his right of succession to the thrones…” Her faith may have also had something to do with it.

We delve further into the flesh with a 3D facial reconstruction of Mary, which the NMS has commissioned from forensic specialists at Dundee University. Professor Caroline Wilkinson explains that, “normally, we would begin the process of craniofacial reconstruction by examining skeletal remains – but of course we didn’t have a skull to work from in this case…” Presumably she must refute the attribution of the Lennoxlove death mask, since this does not appear anywhere in the exhibition and it bears scant resemblance to her own model. Yet the silver casket from Lennoxlove is included, along with several items which are “said to have belonged” to Mary. Perhaps a wax death mask is simply not a very jolly way to bring Mary back to life.

Mary’s husbands had proceeded like the Seven Ages of Man. The first, Francis II of France, was a child, and their marriage seems never to have been consummated (his testicles may have not descended). Her second, Lord Darnley, was as beautiful and obnoxious as a teenager. In his 1564 portrait he looks weak and silly, a peacock masquerading as an eagle. He would stick out painfully amongst the murderers at the court. In his final days he failed to grasp that it was inconceivable that he could be allowed to live. Her third, the Earl of Bothwell was at least recognisably an adult, but a defective one. Unlike with Mary’s death-mask, we are provided with a (nineteenth-century) portrait of Bothwell’s supposed mummified remains, which were put on public display in a Danish church until the 1980s.

In her portraits, Mary always looks composed, self-assured, and overwhelmingly single. It is unimaginable that she could have been portrayed like her mother Mary of Guise, who we glimpse at the start of this exhibition. Mary senior is seated beside her husband James V, with the sovereign bumptious in his peacock plumage and laying a possessive paw over his wife’s hands. She conceivably intends to appear meek, but it looks as if her Mona Lisa smile has suddenly dropped like a stone. This exhibition repeats the same story about her daughter which is told about every monarch from James V to the present day King of Spain. She would slip out of her palace to adventure incognito amongst ordinary people, but in a significant digression from the standard story, she was disguised as a “young man.”

To put a modern spin on a sixteenth century joke, if Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots had reigned today, after the Gay Marriage Act, then they could have solved their problems by wedding each other. Between them, they had successfully produced an heir to both their kingdoms. Although they had contrary reputations as a virgin and a sexual adventurer, neither of them could at heart submit to the will of any of the men who encroached upon them. The “whore” proved less ruthless than the “virgin” in the end; Mary doubtlessly acquired less from her indulgent education than Elizabeth had from the need to connive for her life in hostile Tudor courts. Like King John and Richard the Second, however, Mary was unlucky – a fatal quality in petulant monarchs. She married the wrong men, she subscribed to the wrong faith, and she was on the wrong side of history. She and Elizabeth never met in life, although they were buried opposite each other in Westminster Abbey (the former in 1612).

This exhibition does not make hay with her execution, and it is uninterested in retelling the old tales about the little dog in her skirts and her head becoming unfixed from its auburn wig when held aloft. We are nevertheless regaled with a trove of fascinating documents which lighted her the way to dusty death: a chart of the ciphers which she used in her plotting, the death-warrant signed by Elizabeth, and the carefully diplomatic appeal from her son James.

It is mildly wondrous to set eyes on signatures which have remained unchanged since the monarchs raised their quills, and to read those signatures as directly as their recipients had once done. Of course, it is quite impossible to imagine the original chambers and escritoires from which these letters have reached us, fluttering down the centuries.

[Mary, Queen of Scots runs at NMS until the 17th November. Tychy previously reviewed Vikings, the Untold Story. Ed.]

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