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Stairway to heaven: celestial secrets of a duke's bed chamber

The Christian vision of heaven in a room off the duke’s bedroom.
The Christian vision of heaven in a room off the duke’s bedroom. Photograph: Handout

Guests at one of the stupendous mid-winter entertainments thrown by William Cavendish at Bolsover in Derbyshire could expect only the finest of food, drink and music. But as well as watching specially composed plays and masques at the party house, they also got to spend their time among gods and goddesses before finally ascending into heaven – by way of the 17th-century duke’s bed chamber.

Historian Crosby Stevens, from the University of Sheffield, believes the clue to the enigmatic paintings which cover the walls and ceilings of Bolsover Castle lies in their missing figures. The scenes were based on prints of classical scenes which would have been familiar to the aristocratic guests.

‘The little castle’ at the site in Bolsover.
‘The little castle’ at the site in Bolsover. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

By standing in the right positions, Cavendish, his wife, Elizabeth, and their guests could have taken the place of missing virtues, gods and other characters. The guests may have identified their hospitable hosts as filling the place of sanguine, associated with love and sociability, whose image is missing from the temperaments – the other three temperaments being choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic.

Stevens and fellow academics have been attempting to decode the paintings which are exceptionally rare surviving examples from the era’s decorative schemes. They include a possible portrait of the playwright Ben Jonson, who visited Bolsover just before the rooms were painted and may have suggested elements of the scheme.

The painting of Visus is thought to be a portrait of Cavendish’s wife, Elizabeth.
The painting of Visus is thought to be a portrait of Cavendish’s wife, Elizabeth. Photograph: Handout

Guests at grand entertainments included Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria of France, in July 1634. Jonson’s masque Love’s Welcome – which refers to the paintings – was part of a day and night’s partying after preparations which included adding a suite of new rooms to receive the royal couple, who stayed for less than 24 hours. According to Cavendish’s second wife, who may have been less amused at the idea, the whole party cost £15,000.

Cavendish, noted both as an author and an expert horseman who wrote books on the art of dressage, managed to keep his fortune through Oliver Cromwell’s rule despite his close links with the deposed king, and regain his position on the restoration of Charles II.

Bolsover was only one of a string of Cavendish homes in region: it dated back to the 11th century, but the “little castle” – scene of the famed parties – was added in the early 17th century, built by his father and decorated by William who then added an enormous terrace with a range of rooms. The terrace is now a roofless ruin, but the little castle remained intact – later tenants included a 19th-century vicar – and was restored by English Heritage.

Stevens, who has published her research in the journal Early Modern Literary Studies, believes the images of Melancholy, drooping over a book with the name William, and of Visus (sight) are portraits of Elizabeth herself, while William and his brother Charles spy on the revellers from twin portraits in the corner of one room.

It is thought that portraits in the corner of one room could be based on William Cavendish and his brother, Charles.
It is thought that portraits in the corner of one room could be based on William Cavendish and his brother, Charles. Photograph: James O Davies/Handout

Other details to amuse the cultivated eye include a visual pun on the Cavendish’s valuable lead mines, and an alchemist who may be a reference to Jonson’s hit comedy of 1610.

Guests, Stevens believes, would have ascended the staircase through rooms representing an allegorical journey, until they arrived at the ducal bed chamber and off it two small rooms with spectacular ceiling paintings of both a pagan and a Christian heaven. The paintings would have been reassuring to any guests worried about mortality, suggesting that the pleasures of the flesh were not off limits in either version of paradise.

This article titled "Stairway to heaven: celestial secrets of a duke's bed chamber" was written by Maev Kennedy, for theguardian.com on Monday 8 January 2018 12.16pm

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