Interpreting the Mural

The restoration of the Charterhouse is nearing completion with opening planned in summer 2021 for City of Culture year. Its nearly 700 years of history will be a challenge for visitors to take in. With this in mind, Historic Coventry Trust and interpretation specialists, Creative Core are now focussing on how to interpret for them the many intriguing facets of the building.

One of the most striking and enigmatic of these is the large black and white wall painting on the first floor. Created during the ownership of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester the painting has typical elaborate foliage and fantastic creatures but unusually depicts figures that gaze out at the viewer. Most notable are a naked winged figure standing on a marine creature and a fashionably armed man portrayed as a statue in an alcove. Other minor features point to a possible interpretation of the painting’s meaning.

In James Rose’s talk to the Society, he showed how his investigations had led him to believe that the mural used references to classical mythology and local legend to convey a message about the Charterhouse’s owner.

The armoured man is Sir Guy of Warwick, who Dudley believed was an ancestor and was a popular hero both locally and nationally in Elizabethan times. Sir Guy, a mere steward’s son, loved the noble Felice and by heroic deeds earned her love. The winged figure standing on a dolphin is Cupid. Symbols in the painting depict events in Sir Guy’s life: a cockle shell for his pilgrimage and the severed head of a foe; also depicted are a sprig of oak leaves for Dudley and a white rose for Elizabeth I, his childhood sweetheart. The painting illustrates the idea that Dudley is as worthy of Elizabeth’s love as Sir Guy was worthy of the love of the noble Felice.

Sir Guy of Warwick?
Hippocamp
Cupid?

It seems unlikely, given the lavish accommodation built by Dudley for the Queen in Kenilworth Castle, that he expected the mural ever to be seen by her. Possibly it was meant to influence the members of her court who might have stayed at the Charterhouse during the queen’s long visit to Kenilworth in 1572, when he made his last play for her hand. But by that stage it is likely he had already sold the Charterhouse and the meaning of the painting was temporarily lost.

If you missed James’s talk to the society, you can look view it on the Coventry Society’s Youtube channel at https://youtu.be/XyBFZq_uLIQ

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