The Wolsey Angels Saved for the Nation

Victoria and Albert Museum

Managed a campaign at the Victoria and Albert Museum to raise £5 million needed to purchase of four bronze angels originally designed for the tomb of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, chief advisor to King Henry VIII and once one of the most powerful men in England. The campaign was supported by Hilary Mantel and involved a public programme at the V&A.

The Wolsey Angels
The Wolsey Angels
The Wolsey Angels
The Wolsey Angels

The Wolsey Angels have now been successfully acquired are currently on display in the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, Room 50.

History of The Wolsey Angels

The four bronze angels were commissioned in 1524 from the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano as part of a magnificent tomb in the Renaissance style, reflecting Cardinal Wolsey’s wealth and statesmanship. The angels, each measuring around a metre in height, were created between 1524 and 1529 – a period in which Henry VIII was seeking to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey’s inability to persuade the Pope to annul the marriage led to his fall from power and he died in 1530. Along with the rest of Wolsey’s possessions, most of the tomb (including the angels) was appropriated by Henry VIII who intended to use it for himself.

Benedetto was commissioned to complete the tomb for the King, however Henry VIII did not see the tomb finished. Each of Henry VIII’s three children expressed their intention to complete the memorial posthumously, but failed to do so. Elizabeth I moved the parts of the tomb to Windsor in 1565, where they stayed until 1645-6. During the Civil War elements of the tomb were sold to raise funds and until recently only the black stone chest, later used for Admiral Lord Nelson’s monument in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, and four bronze candlesticks, now at St Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, were thought to have survived.

The existence of the angels remained unknown until two of them appeared in an auction in 1994, unillustrated and catalogued simply as being ‘in Italian Renaissance style’. They were acquired by a Parisian art dealer and later the Italian scholar Francesco Caglioti convincingly attributed them to Benedetto. In 2008 the remaining pair of angels was discovered at Harrowden Hall, a country house in Northamptonshire, now owned by the Wellingborough Golf Club, where all four angels once stood on top of the gateposts.

Benedetto da Rovezzano (1474-1554) was a contemporary of Michelangelo and was described by Giorgio Vasari as ‘…among our most excellent craftsmen.’ One of his early commissions, in 1508, was to finish Michelangelo’s bronze sculpture of David (now lost), indicating his metalworking skills were much in demand. He worked in England between 1519 and 1543 where his pre-eminent patron became Cardinal Wolsey.

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