The Trial of Wyclif[fe]. AD 1377. Completed 1886. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). Gambier Parry method (see Introduction to the Manchester Murals). Downloaded and reproduced here from "Ford Madox Brown Murals" by kind permission of Manchester City Council. Commentary and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee. [Click on the image for a larger picture.]

This is generally reckoned to be the most powerful of the Manchester Town Hall murals: Brown's grandson and biographer, Ford Madox Ford, himself claims that it is "the most ambitious and perhaps the most successful of all the twelve" (373). The fifth in the historical sequence, it was the seventh to have been completed, and shows John of Gaunt, Wycliffe's patron, in impassioned defence of the reformer when he was tried for hersey at St Paul's. Desite the emphasis on the main figures, it is a densely peopled scene, and Ford points to perhaps the chief reason for its success: "The amount of subsidiary addition to the dramatic centre," which, as he says "is almost as enormous as that which is displayed in Work." He then quotes Brown's own eulogy of Wycliffe as "not only an innovator and thinker of great originality," but also "one of the greatest scholars of his age" (373), and goes on to give Brown's summary of the events leading up to the trial, and his account of the trial itself:

In the composition, near to Courtney [Bishop of London] on the dais, sits Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, depicted as endeavouring, in whispers, to assuage the indignation of his colleague. At Wickliffe's feet are seen the five mendicant friars appointed as his counsel, Wickliffe not yet having publicly differed with them. The Earl-Marshal is represented as ordering a stool for the Reformer, for, said he, '"An you must answer from all these books, doctor, you will need a soft seat," causing the prelate still greater indignation; but Wickliffe remained standing. Constance, John of Gaunt's second duchess, a Princess of Spain, is shown plucking her spouse back by his mantle, as though in fear he might in his excitement do some injury to the prelate. In the background Chaucer, the Duke's other protégée, is seen [just above John of Gaunt's gesturing hand, wearing a green hood and apparently modelled on Rossetti (see Treuherz 292)] taking notes on his tablets. (374)

As John Archer says, "[t]he murals are of added interest because members of his family and his circle of friends were used as models" (82), and we can hardly miss the fact that, here, Brown has painted his own self-portrait in the Bishop of London — though, curiously, Julian Treuherz identifies him with the archbishop instead. Either way, it is ironic because, as an admirer of Wycliffe, Brown held different views to those of the accusing clerics. Wycliffe had eschewed position and even comfort to support the ordinary people, attacked clerical privilege, and would finally be martyred for his pains. He had a huge appeal at a time when medievalism was in the air, and the Reformation stood out as the key event of the past. No wonder this mural is so powerful.

Related Material

References

Archer, John H. G.. "Manchester Town Hall." Manchester. Pevsner Architectural Guides. London: Penguin, 2001. 71-83. Print.

Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Web. 23 April 2012.


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Last modified 1 August 2012