New Burlington Magazine

May 10 2022

Image of New Burlington Magazine

Picture: Jesus College Cambridge

The new issue of The Burlington Magazine has arrived in the post, and as ever it's packed with fascinating stuff. There are articles on Rembrandt drawings, Holbein, Gainsborough and a newly discovered drawing by Hendrick Goltzius.

The editorial covers the tricky subject of a memorial to Tobias Rustat (1608-1694) in the chapel at Jesus College Cambridge (above). It's a fine piece of carving commissioned by Rustat from Grinling Gibbons. The College has asked the Church of England (via its consistory court) for permission to move the memorial, given Rustat's close involvement in the slave trade. But the Court has said it should remain, and The Burlington agrees. It also makes a case for how we should consider similar examples:

Now that the college has accepted that it must retain the monument, can it find creative and persuasive ways of explaining it? The case is also an opportunity for art and architectural historians to reflect on how much work needs to be done to correct misapprehensions about church monuments, even in a place as well informed as a Cambridge college might be assumed to be. In particular, they are intended for commemoration, not veneration, and are not ornaments in a building that can readily be removed but are integral elements of its historical and cultural significance. There are lessons for us all in the case of the Rustat Memorial.

The College, led by Sonita Alleyne, isn't pleased with the decision, and has vowed to keep up the pressure for a different outcome, telling BBC news:

"The consistory court's decision shows a lack of understanding of the lived experience of people of colour in modern Britain.

In short, the college is up against a Church ruling which believes involvement in the slave trade over 30 years isn't sufficient to warrant the removal of this celebratory memorial."

The case strikes me as a tricky one, and I'm glad I'm not tasked with responsibility for deciding whether the Rustat memorial should remain or go. I'm personally glad, for example, that the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston is no longer on display in Bristol, for statues are political acts, and require audiences to engage in their presence in a way modern audiences can find deeply upsetting. The Colston statue, high on its pedestal, demanded subservience from the descandants of people Colston in his lifetime sold into subservience.

Yet there is also a memorial to Colston in All Saints Church, Bristol, by John Michael Rysbrack - should that be moved too? Does removing a marble statue of great artistic quality from a place of worship not involve some sort of iconoclasm? There is no easy answer to this, but here I think it's relevant that the church in Bristol is closed. Nobody is required to pass before Colston's memorial, whether in commemoration or veneration, as they use the church for worship.

The chapel at Jesus College, however, is very much open, and in daily use. As you can see from the photo above, the Rustat memorial is in a commanding position. One can understand why some might find it off-putting, or even oppressive. We need to find a solution that works for all sections of the community at Jesus, and perhaps we have some way to go yet.

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