Around this time last year our attention was brought to an auction on French Ebay of ‘Portrait d’un martyr Jésuite (fin 17ième debut 18ième)’. This turned out to be a miniature oval shaped portrait of St Henry Morse SJ  painted on copper by an unknown artist, with an inscription around the edge ‘Henricus Mas Passus 22 Janvari 1645’.
Jan Graffius, Curator of Collections at Stonyhurst College explains: The painting is in the tradition of small devotional images painted on copper, produced in Flanders from around 1630 to 1670. Many of them were aimed at English recusants in exile, of which there were considerable numbers in the Low Countries. We have at Stonyhurst a set of 12 images of the life of Christ, Thomas Becket and Mary. The images of Mary all depict her with swords piercing her heart. These were probably picked up in St Omers (which was still part of the Spanish Netherlands at this point) by members of the Stonyhurst Shireburn family who went to St Omers in the 1640s-1670s. They were cheap to produce, easily packed and transported because of the copper support, and I suspect there were a good many in circulation in the Low Countries. They were dangerous objects to have in England because they were clearly Catholic. The images of martyred Jesuits were doubly incriminating, and so the majority of these Images probably stayed on the Continent. Many exiled English recusants lived in France and the Low Countries in the 17th century, and the painting may have been bought by one of them, and handed on to descendants.
Prof Maurice Whitehead put forward another hypothesis for the portrait being French: ‘St Henry Morse’s execution at Tyburn was witnessed by the French ambassador, who attended with all his retinue. This may possibly explain why there is a portrait being sold in France of one 'Henry Mas [sic] passus 22 Januari. 1645'.’
Photos: Before and after conservation treatment
Regardless of how it came to be in on sale on French Ebay, we decided to bid for the portrait because of its rarity and relevance to the history of Jesuits in Britain. We won the bidding and the portrait was delivered in March 2014.
It was in very poor condition so we asked the advice of conservator Ruth Bubb Ltd. She removed the surface dirt, discoloured varnish and corrosion products with a scalpel; consolidated flaking material and filled paint losses before applying a varnish. She also made a special conservation frame to ensure protection of the portrait.
There are two tiny holes at the top of the portrait which may have been added to allow the portrait to be worn stitched inside the clothing of the owner so as to keep it hidden. Alternatively the holes may indicate that it was hung in a side chapel or a corner of a room fitted out for private prayer. Many of Stonyhurst’s 17th century copper paintings also have holes drilled but given their size these would not have been worn inside clothing.
The portrait will go on display in the Curia in London.
Photos: ©Ruth Bubb Ltd, Conservation of Paintings