St. John Fisher by Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs

An artist whose work I have been intending to feature for a little while now is the painter, Gwyneth Thompson Briggs. Ms. Briggs, in the words of her own website, is "a contemporary sacred artist in the perennial tradition of Western sacred art. She is dedicated in particular to reviving techniques from the Renaissance and Baroque eras to reveal the glory of God in the midst of today’s ecclesial and civilizational crises." Not a bad mission and vision to say the least. She also has connections to Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire which will be familiar to many LAJ readers.

One of her most recent works, a portrait of St. John Fisher, caught my attention.
The work in progress
The following, taken from the artist's website, sets the background:
Fr. Charles Byrd, Pastor of Our Lady of the Mountains, and two generous parishioners—Kari and Rich Beckman—share a devotion to Fisher and an appreciation of his timeliness: “Bishop Fisher was a man uncompromised, and we live in an age when too many Catholics (from the hierarchy to the laity) compromise too often with the secular ideals,” says Fr. Byrd. Kari Beckman agrees: “John Fisher strikes me particularly in his strength to stand on truth when everyone around him capitulated.”

Fr. Byrd and the Beckmans were looking for an artist who could create an original image of Fisher in a style reminiscent of Hans Holbein the Younger, who produced a drawing of the bishop during Fisher’s lifetime.


Gwyneth compares combining the Torrigiano bust and the Holbein drawing to stereo vision.

“I was seeing two different images, and my job was to combine Torrigiano’s vision with Holbein’s. Torrigiano’s Fisher is much more heroic. The face is elongated, suggesting Fisher’s nobility and fortitude; the carriage of the head on the shoulders conveys the character of a man who saw beyond the mundane. Holbein’s Fisher is less idealized; he’s serious, even grave, but he has funny eyebrows.” But neither artist rendered Fisher photographically, as many realists do today. “They sought to copy the reality of Fisher’s presence rather than merely literal effects of light.”

Gwyneth looked to Holbein especially in placing the figure in a shallow space against a fabric background, in the depth of her blacks—which function as solid pools of color with very little modeling—and in the close attention to the topography of the face with its tiny wrinkles and lines. “Holbein’s figures are very sculptural,” she notes. “Nothing is suggested; everything is fully realized.”

She also departed from Holbein in significant ways, especially in the choice of an intense red damask background. A reference to martyrdom and to the cardinalate, to which Fisher was raised shortly before his death, Gwyneth calls the choice of red “daring.” “Portrait artists like Holbein usually prefer cool tones for backgrounds, in order to contrast with warm flesh tones.” In order to bring the figure into greater relative focus, Gwyneth elected to darken the skin tones and created a hierarchy of brushwork by rendering the damask more loosely than Holbein would have. She patterned the damask from an early 16thcentury fabric sample, also in the possession of the Metropolitan Museum, that may have been used for divine worship.

Fr. Byrd asked for the saint’s name to be included in the image, so Gwyneth also researched Renaissance alphabets and decided to use lettering adapted by Giovanni Francesco Cresci from the letters on Trajan’s Column and published in Il perfetto scrittore (Rome, 1570).
Pietro Torrigiano's bust of St. John Fisher
Holbein's drawing of St. John Fisher
Here is Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs completed work.

St. John Fisher, by Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs
Gwyneth sees her image as closer in spirit to the Torrigiano bust than to the Holbein drawing. “Although the drawing has a charm and immediacy, I wanted to capture Fisher’s idealism, his heroism, the supernatural reality of him as a man perfected by grace.

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