Four bronze angels, designed for the tomb of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, have been temporarily reunited in the V&A’s Medieval & Renaissance galleries as the museum looks for funding to acquire them.
Once thought lost, the Wolsey Angels were commissioned in 1524 from Florentine sculptor Benedetto de Rovezzano for the tomb of Wolsey, chief advisor to King Henry VIII and one of the most powerful men in the kingdom. Each of the angels, which measure around a metre in height, was created between 1524 and 1529 – the period in which Wolsey was trying to have the pope annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.
As is well-known, Wolsey failed to do so and died in 1530 in disgrace. Henry appropriated Wolsey’s assets including the tomb which the king apparently intended to use for himself. The work was slow, however, and when Henry died in 1547, it remained unfinished. His children – King Edward VI, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I – each said they would complete the tomb as a memorial to their father but didn’t and in 1565, Elizabeth moved parts of the tomb to Windsor.
During the English Civil War elements of the tomb were sold off to raise funds and only the black stone chest – now used to house the remains of Admiral Lord Nelson in the St Paul’s Cathedral crypt – were believed to have survived along with four large gilt-bronze candlesticks which were installed at St Bavo Cathedral in Ghent.
The angels passed out of sight until, in 1994, two of them appeared in a Sotheby’s sale. Acquired by a Parisian art dealer, they were later attributed to Benedetto. The remaining two angels were discovered at Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire in 2008 – the hall is now owned by the Wellingborough Golf Club – and it was subsequently revealed that the other two had been stolen from the same site 20 years previously.
The V&A has embarked on a campaign – backed by Hilary Mantel, the Booker Prize winning author of Wolf Hall – to acquire the four angels, priced at £5 million. It has already been granted £2 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund has pledged a further £500,000.
Mantel described the recovery of the angels as “one of those miracles that historians pray for; something that seems irrevocably lost has been there all the time”. “To claim the angels for the nation would connect us to one of the liveliest eras of our history and one of its most remarkable men.”
Donations can be made via the V&A’s website at www.vam.ac.uk/wolseyangels.
PICTURE: Wolsey Angels on display at the V&A/© Victoria and Albert Museum, London