The beggar and the rich man: picturing the holy poor in Tudor and early Stuart England

Brodie Waddell

R.H. Tawney claimed that ‘the sixteenth century lives in terror of the tramp’. He wrote that over a hundred years ago, but more recent research has largely confirmed Tawney’s contention that Tudor and early Stuart England was a society deeply anxious about the movements of the ‘masterless’ poor.

As a result, it is not difficult to find fearful, satirical or insulting depictions of ‘vagrants’ and ‘vagabonds’ from this period. However, just as it can be hard to find images of early modern working women, it is also rare to come across sympathetic pictures of the poor. Yet, we know that many people continued to see at least some beggars as victims who deserved compassion and charity.

The one particularly sympathetic portrayal of poverty that does appear repeatedly in early modern culture is the biblical story of Lazarus and Dives. In this parable, Jesus tells of a diseased beggar, Lazarus, who arrives at the door of a rich man, Dives, to beg for the crumbs off his table. Dives refuses and is condemned to hellfire while Lazarus dies and is carried to heaven by the angels.

Anon, Lazarus and Dives, Spinola Book of Hours (c1510)In the later middle ages, this story proved popular with painters and illuminators. The images in the Spinola Book of Hours (above), painted c.1510 by an unnamed Flemish illuminator, provided a particularly powerful depiction of the tale. In it, we see clearly two of the central themes of the parable: the inevitability of judgement and the extremes of the afterlife. Most important of all, to my mind, is the illuminator’s emphasis on the reversal of fortunes between this life and the next. Luxury and comfort in one is exchanged for deprivation and pain in the other (and vice versa). Some specific and telling features stand out. In the first panel, Dives is surrounded by luxury – silver tableware, a lavish green canopy and even exotic animals. He actually embodies extravagance in his person, symbolised by his jowly face and corpulent body. The contrast with Lazarus is unmistakeable, for the beggar is dressed in the simplest of cloaks. The juxtaposition is extended to the afterlife where Lazarus’s garments remain plain, but here angels have exchanged the beggar’s cloak for a brilliantly white robe, suggestive of blessed innocence. Dives has, of course, been stripped of his finery and now wears only the chains and flames of hell. The primary message is clear: the simplicity of poverty is a virtue that will be rewarded in heaven, whereas extravagance and luxurious living is a sin will be punished with hellfire.

One might have thought that the Protestant Reformation that ripped through English religious culture in the sixteenth century, when combined with the growing social polarisation caused by ongoing economic changes, would do away with such warm portrayals of beggars. Yet the parable of Lazarus and Dives remained a popular subject for commentary and imagery for many years to come.

Pride (Lazarus and Dives), Batman, Cristall Glasse (1569)For example, a simpler version of this scene appeared in Stephen Batman’s Christall Glasse (1569) under the heading ‘Pride’. Here again we see a richly apparelled Dives ignoring the virtuous beggar. The pauper’s humility is embodied in his bended knee, his desperation attested by his ragged clothes, and his helplessness shown by a bandaged leg. In his text, Batman calls on the rich to avoid pride and covetousness – instead they must give liberally to the poorest of the poor. Similar imagery can be found in a later woodcut that was used to adorn the title page of Robert Johnson’s sermon on Dives and Lazarus (orig. 1620). It too mirrored the medieval image of a holy beggar and a ‘devilish’ rich man. As I discussed in my book, the woodcut printed for Johnson’s sermon showed a beggar who could not be more deserving of charity. Such images suggest that published Protestant representations of the parable were little different from those of their pre-Reformation forbearers.

The most striking portrayal of all, to my mind, comes from the hand-drawn miscellany of Thomas Trevelyon (1608). Its bright colours and humanising features immediately reminded me of the illuminations in the Spinola Book of Hours from a century earlier. Interestingly, the biblical verses that accompany it do not include any from the story of Lazarus and Dives, yet the beggar covered in sores and with an empty bowl clearly alludes to it. For Trevelyon, this man is exactly the sort of person who ought to be given the ‘mercy’ of generous alms, despite the fact that others might look upon such a solid-looking young man and see a dangerous ‘rogue’. In the middle of a period known for its harsh vagrancy laws and anxious complaints about false beggars, this drawing presents a wonderfully human portrait of poverty personified.

beggar and rich man Trevelyon Miscellany of 1608, Folger Shakespeare Library, fol 188rI have come across a few other such images in my research so far, but I’m certain that there are many more out there. I would be very grateful to hear if any of you have found visual representations of Lazarus the beggar.

9 thoughts on “The beggar and the rich man: picturing the holy poor in Tudor and early Stuart England

  1. Tom Nichols ‘The Art of Poverty’ is the book to read if you haven’t yet (my guess is you already have), and I’d also recommend Keith Snell’s article in the rural history special issue from 2012 on vagrancy in landscape painting in the later 18th and 19th centuries (Gainsborough comes up a lot) and sections of Tim Hitchcock’s book ‘Down and Out’ where visual culture for the 18th century comes up a fair bit. In terms of specific artists Rembrandt was of course famously sympathetic to beggar figures, but I’d be pressed to think of any of his drawings that show truly ‘holy poor’ or Lazarus in particular. Nichols is probably the best on the trope of the poor as sacred and the effects of the Reformation on the powerful image of the beggar in early modern visual culture. On the flip-side Simon Dickie’s ‘Cruelty and Laughter’ demonstrates a very different take on leprous begging figures if the diseased body was to be a focus.

    • Thanks for your comments, Dave. Those are some excellent suggestions.

      Nichols’ book is a great place to start. I looked at it a while back and remembered it focusing on the ‘lazy beggar’ trope in Protestant art, but didn’t have it at hand when I wrote the post, so I didn’t mention it for fear of misrepresenting his argument. I’ll have to take another look at it as the book’s MUP page suggests that he also acknowledges that images of the sacred/deserving poor continued in Protestant countries even after the Reformation.

      Snell’s article and TH’s book are wonderful sources for 18th century. Part of the reason why I’m so keen to find images from both the early period (c.1550-1650) and later period (c.1650-1750, which I know pretty well) is because the social and economic context were clearly very different and it would be interesting to see if this affected how (and how often) Lazarus and other ‘deserving’ beggars were depicted. The fact that I was able to find at least some very sympathetic images in the period when worries about beggars was at its height surprised me.

  2. The marigolds in the foreground were commonly considered a cure-all, and a Marian and solar theme (see Mary Queen of Scots’ embrodiery) – a subtext lurks in the insistent choice.

    • Thanks for drawing my attention to that, Jonathan. I hadn’t even noticed the marigolds, much less thought about their symbolism – yet another reminder that I’ll never be an art historian! I haven’t been able to find much about them in a quick online search, though as you say there seems to be a close association with the sun, particularly the notion of following or facing the sun. Perhaps this is reference to beggars following/addressing potential benefactors as a source of light (i.e. life)?

  3. Pingback: The undeserving poor: ‘rich beggars’ | the many-headed monster

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