Secret Catholic Icon Revealed Beneath a Protestant Tudor Portrait

This stately 16th century portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Protestant champion of espionage against the Catholics and principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I, was recently revealed to have been painted over another work of art: an image of the Virgin Mary. (You can barely see her beneath Walsingham’s left eye, the baby Jesus somewhere in her vague arms.)

The National Portrait Gallery in London discovered this hidden image through x-radiography, which is used to look all the way through a painting to its original canvas, and  infrared reflectography, which reveals the layers of paint beneath those that are visible, or in this case, its foundation of a secret work of art.

Opened this week, the museum’s exhibition “Hidden: Unseen Paintings Beneath Tudor Portraits,” involves two instances where the portrait disguised a religious icon, as well as other works on loan. In addition to the Walsingham, the religious reworkings include the portrait of Thomas Sackville, the 1st Earl of Dorset, over a scene from the Passion of Christ.

The chief curator at the National Portrait Gallery, Tarnya Cooper, told the Telegraph: “The reuse of wooden panels is an example of Tudor recycling, which was an essential part of life in the past. And yet, the people in the portraits painted over the top were perhaps unlikely to have known the panels were second hand. In the case of Sir Francis Walsingham, the Protestant Spymaster with the Roman Catholic image of the Virgin and child beneath, you do wonder if the artist might be enjoying a private joke at the expense of the sitter.”

Allison Meier

(Image: Sir Francis Walsingham portrait and the hidden image, via the National Portrait Gallery)