The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Friday, June 07, 2002  

Church of England Selling the Art Off Its Walls

Possibly foreshadowing the fate of the Vatican treasures, the Church of England, facing a financial crisis, is -- literally -- selling the art off its walls.

The Church of England is Contemplating Sacrilege,” by Simon Jenkins, appearing in today’s Times, is a fascinating look at British history, tradition, and culture, as well as the country’s regional and class disparities.

“The Church of England is so short of money that it is selling the Bishop of Durham’s Zurburáns,” writes Jenkins. “Estimated to fetch £20 million, these 12 Spanish masterpieces are expected to cover half the Church’s current account deficit for one year.”

The decision to sell the paintings to cover regular operating expenses is ominous. Jenkins worries, not without reason, that having burned through the cash from selling the Zurburáns, the Church will then turn to any number of other treasures in its possession as an all-too-easy source of funds.

A long and fascinating history enshrouds the Zurburáns. The paintings, eight-foot-high portrayals of Jacob and his 12 sons, were done by Francisco de Zurburán, a contemporary of Velázquez and El Greco. Thought to have been produced in the 1630s and intended for shipment to South America, the paintings likely were seized at sea by pirates and taken to England. Subsequently, they were purchased by the Bishop of Durham, Richard Trevor, for £124 in 1756.

Until now they have hung in the Long Dining Room at Bishop Auckland, the official residence of the Bishops of Durham. “They fill a room filtered with sombre northern light,” says Jenkins. “It is one of the most moving small galleries I have ever visited. The whole is vastly more than the sums of its parts.”

Jenkins highlights the regional tensions associated with the controversy, tensions that likely strike Americans as archaic, if not strange:

“Nothing better illustrates the contempt with which Metropolitan Britain holds the North than that a disposal of such masterpieces could be contemplated. Nobody would wrench them from a London wall. The Church Commissioners would regard it as sacrilege to sell Westminster Abbey’s Charter of Offa or the Lytlington Missal, or Henry Moore’s Virgin and Child from St Paul’s. I could list a hundred works in southern churches that would fetch excellent prices at Sotheby’s. To the Church, as to other public bodies, north of the Trent is peasant territory.”

British Charity Commission rules require the paintings be sold to the highest bidder, and that, Jenkins notes, is most likely to be a large, well-endowed museum. “Local museums such as the Bowes or Tyneside’s Laing Gallery could not afford these works,” Jenkins observes. “They would almost certainly go to a national museum at home or abroad….The North East would be stripped of one of its prize assets, and all for half a year’s deficit on current account.”

Lamenting the shabby physical -- and desperate financial -- condition of all too many churches in the North, Jenkins argues that funds now directing toward sustaining aged building and properties should have been sold years ago to support stronger, united churches. “Nowhere in Europe has such a proliferation of church buildings as Britain,” writes Jenkins, “many of them sad, gloomy structures, rarely used and blighting their surroundings.” The Zuburáns, he adds, could stay where they are through savings achieved through the consolidation of any number of dioceses in the Church of England, including several in the South.

Jenkins’s concluding observations are as touching as they are quixotic: “The Zurburáns remain the glory of the North. Like the apes of Gibraltar and the ravens of the Tower, they embody the spirit of place. Their departure would signal Northumberland’s demise. In the North they should stay.”

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