Discussing this Elizabethan portrait in a lecture recently I found myself describing the image in the background sometimes as a maze and sometimes a labyrinth and wondering if there is any difference between them?
In any case what on earth is the maze/labyrinth doing in the background of an Elizabethan aristocrat anyway?
Which one is shown in the portrait and why is it there?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a maze as “a structure designed as a puzzle, consisting of a complicated network of winding and interconnecting paths or passages, only one of which is the correct route through; a labyrinth”. It defines a Labyrinth in a fairly similar way: “a structure consisting of a complex network of tunnels, paths, etc., deliberately designed or constructed so that it is difficult to find one’s way through; a maze”. That makes them sound almost interchangeable but there is another line in smaller print which says that a labyrinth is “sometimes distinguished from a maze as consisting only of one convoluted path to the centre and back, rather than containing a number of dead ends”. That’s a distinction which is important to remember.
Lord Edward was the eldest son and heir of the 2nd earl of Bedford. The picture is dated 1573 and gives his age as 22. The only problem is that Lord Edward died in 1572, so this must have been painted posthumously. He had recently married Jane Sibilla, the daughter of the Tudor diplomat, Sir Richard Morrison. Her mother was his stepmother, having become his father’s second wife in 1562. Edward and Jane had no children by the time he died.
The original painting, which I used above, is at Woburn and there’s a fairly accurate 19thc copy by George Perfect [sic] Harding in the National Portrait Gallery which is a much higher resolution image so the enlargements in this post come from there.
The late 16thc was a time of fascination with puzzles and enigmas of all kinds for the educated classes. Mathematical problems, visual puns and symbols as well as hidden messages were commonplace. There were books of emblems and devices published in England and widely across Western Europe, which would have been well known to the Russell family. The pattern in the background picture seems to have been taken from one of these: Claude Paradin’s Devises Hèroïques first published in Lyons in 1551. Not just because of the similarity of image but because the motto above the maze or labyrinth is copied on the portrait.
So does it matter if it’s a maze or a labyrinth?
Yes I think it does because following on from the differences I outlined above a maze is a place of uncertainty, where there are right and wrongs ways of proceeding and its easy to get lost. A labyrinth is almost the opposite. Because there is only one path you cannot get lost, much though it might feel like that, and in the end there is nothing hidden.
That fits nicely with the appropriation of pagan symbolism in the early days of Christianity. Remember the story of the Minotaur? In Greek mythology the Minotaur was a gruesome monster with the body of a man and the head and tail of a bull. He lived in the first labyrinth which was designed by the inventor Daedalus specifically to imprison him at the request of Minos the King of Crete. There he received annual offerings of youths and maidens to eat. The great Athenian hero Theseus, with the assistance of Minos’s daughter Ariadne, eventually found his way to the centre and managed to kill him. Mazes and labyrinths were often referred to as Houses of Daedalus.
Instead of the Minotaur the earliest known Christian labyrinth which comes from the floor of the church of St. Reparata in Algeria has the words “Sancta Eclesia” at its heart. It was created just after Constantine the Great lifted the restrictions on Christian worship in 313 under the Edict of Milan.
What the Christian labyrinth slowly came to represent is an individual’s journey through a world of temptations in search of God, with the reward for reaching the centre not a monster or death as in the Greek legend, but eternal life.
Just to complicate matters a little further. There ae two principal forms of labyrinth. The square which is essential Roman and the circular which is usually referred to as the Cretan form. This is the one that gradually became the predominant Christian version, because the cosmos, could be represented as a circle, the flawless creation of God, with no beginning or end.
Almost the ultimate version of this is the labyrinth that occupies the centre of Chartres Cathedral. 42 feet across and dating back to the very early 13thc it is thought to be a representation of the Chemin de Jerusalem (Road to Jerusalem), the spiritual quest of the pilgrim traveling to the Holy Land. It’s formed of 11 circles divided into four quadrants echoing the symbolism of the crucifix.
For more information about the transformation from pagan to Christian and the variations in form this see the website of Loyola University’s Mediaeval Studies Dept, and a danish site dedicated to labyrinths . For more on Chartres see the Labyrinthos website.
So in his portrait Lord Edward is dressed up in his finest clothes and also appears a second time standing in the centre of a labyrinth presumably implying he had reached his heavenly goal. This is backed up by the inscription underneath: FATA. VIAM. INVENIENT (The fates will find a way) taken from Virgil’s Aeneid. In Paradin’s Devises Hèroïques the accompanying text goes on to explain the emblem had been adopted by a prominent French courtier and showed the way, through the grace of God, to eternal life, supported and guided by the saints who will lead us out of danger.
Was it purely a symbolic labyrinth or was it based on realistic garden examples? You’ll notice that Lord Edward’s does not have tall hedges as one might expect in a maze where the idea is to hide the correct path to create a puzzle. Instead they are very low, rather like turf “mazes” [though following the distinction I outlined above, they’re actually turf labyrinths] which seem to have been quite common in England at the time. [I’ll return to Turf mazes in a future post]
There is also a link to the first English gardening books – those of Thomas Hill. Not only was one called the Gardener’s Labyrinth but there are two illustrations of mazes in the Profitable Arte of Gardening which Hill said he regarded as “proper adornments upon pleasure to a Garden.” They are very similar to others drawn by Androuet de Cerceau in Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France.
The Russells would almost certainly have known of real labyrinths in gardens too, both at home and abroad. For example they are known to have existed at the Palace of Nonsuch, Lord Burghley’s mansion at Theobalds, and probably at Richmond Palace too although we know little about them. Another was about to be built at Lyveden New Bield too, although that is some years after Lord Edward’s death.
[For more on the Lyveden one in Andrew Eburne’s article “The Passion of Sir Thomas Tresham: New Light on the Gardens and Lodge at Lyveden” in Garden History Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring, 2008), pp. 114-134.]
One example from abroad is in William Thomas’s 1547 History of Italy which described a house near Florence where “the Duke hath made a garden wherein is a labyrinth or maze of box full cypress trees, having the midst one the fairest conduit white marble that ever saw; besides that it hath divers other conduits and such conveyances that in manner every flower is served with running water, and all the channels are white marble, fair that is in my judgment at this present one of the excellentest things in all Europe.” Others can be found in the engravings in Androuet de Cerceau’s Les Plus Excellents Bastiments de France of 1576.
The labyrinth at Theobalds is briefly mentioned in a description of the gardens by a German visitor, Paul Hentzner. All he says in a long list of features is that there were “labyrinths made with a great deal of labour.” The labyrinth at Nonsuch was mentioned in c1590 by Anthony Watson in his A Brief and True Description of the Splendid and Most Royal House that is Commonly Called Nonsuch. Unfortunately it is more of a commentary than a description: ” The labirinthe” lay in a corner of the garden “next to the king’s side” but says Watson ‘but stay your step, there is a snake in the grass’ [this is a quote from Virgil’s Eclogues 3 l.93]. If you veer to the right, you will enter upon a tortuous path and fall into the hazardous wiles of the labyrinth, whence even with the aid of Theseus’ thread you will scarce be able to extricate yourself. It is with difficulty that I suffer myself to be torn away from those riches of pleasure and prosperity, especially as we must withdraw to less accessible places and into the wilderness itself.”
The snake in the grass reference leads me on nicely to the other symbolic element of Lord Edward’s portrait, his handful of snakes. Again not exactly what you’d expect to find an Elizabethan aristocrat to be holding. The inscription “Fides homini serpentibus fraus” translates as “The loyalty of men is like the deceit of snakes.” Annoyingly we have no way of knowing why, nor we do know the cause of Lord Edward’s death so perhaps the two things were interconnected. If anyone has any clue please let me know!
The puzzle continues because Edward’s younger brother, Lord Francis was also painted, presumably by the same artist in an equally enigmatic way. Again the only available image is a 19thc copy of a painting at Woburn.
In the background there are 2 small panels, which unlike the labyrinth seem to have no obvious meaning. On the left is a ship under full sail and on the right a woman seated in a field and surrounded by an array of rather badly drawn creatures. They have been tentatively identified as snakes, a chicken, a crocodile and a dragon with some additional smaller unknowns.
I have not seen a single modern interpretation of Lord Francis’s portrait, or indeed of Lord Edward’s. But there are several similar theories all from the early 19thc. One example is from Henry Bone’s Catalogue of Miniatures published in 1825. The story is, he says, “not well known; but it certainly alludes to a family transaction similar to that in Otway’s “Orphan,” and gave rise to it. All I can say is the story of this “family transaction” is so little known that I can’t trace it at all. However I can confuse you with the plot of Thomas Otway’s tragic play dating from 1680.
It concerns two noble brothers Castalio and Polydore who are encouraged by their father to stay home, study art and politics, and avoid the company of women. The father is also guardian to a young woman Monimia and both brothers fall for her but Castalio secretly marries her. He gives her a wedding-night signal of “three soft strokes on the chamber door” but this is overheard by Polydore who decides to usurp his brother in the marriage bed. Polydore gains admittance, and when Castalio later uses the signal he is turned away. Of course the truth will out and when it does Polydore provokes Castalio into a duel and runs into his brother’s sword on purpose, after which Monimia takes a fatal draught of poison and Castalio stabs himself.
Is this based on what happened to the two brothers? Was Edward the model for Castilio? The motto – The loyalty of men is like the deceit of snakes – might imply perhaps that there were some marital/familial shenanigans? but who would think it appropriate to incorporate the story into family portraits, even if one of them was posthumous? What on earth was the meaning of the images in the back of Lord Francis portrait? Is the woman Jane Sybilla? If the relation to Otway’s plot is to be believed perhaps she ought to have been but in reality she married Arthur Grey, 14th Baron Grey de Wilton, and died in 1615.
All we do know about Lord Francis is that he went to Scotland on military service and was fatally wounded in a skirmish juts a few hours before his father died in London. As before any clues welcome!
So on that confusing note I’m going to leave the symbolic labyrinth and turn my attention soon to the real thing…