Thursday, January 15, 2009

Westminster Assembly Portrait

Many who study church history or are acquainted with the Westminster Assembly and its work are familiar with this picture. It is a fine picture in that it brings to life a moment in history that is noteworthy to those who love the Puritans and what they stood for.

This portrait is available for purchase at Reformation Art and looks especially nice when hung over the mantle.

As I often do, I like to research the origin of things, and I had occasion to do so concerning this portrait some time ago. It is an interesting story and I learned the history behind it by reading a review of the painting by The Baptist Magazine for 1849, published by the Baptist Missionary Society, Vol. XLI, pp. 494-498.

The painting is by J.R. Herbert [John Rogers Herbert, 1810 - 1890, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1840] (engraved by Samuel Bellin, published by Thomas Agnew) and was first published on December 16, 1848 (first displayed, perhaps, in 1847). It is entitled "Assertion of Liberty of Conscience by the Independents in the Westminster Assembly of Divines, 1644." It shows Philip Nye arguing against Presbyterianism by claiming that it was unfavorable to civil liberty. The prospectus that accompanied the publication of this painting makes unsubstantianted claims about Philip Nye's specific words, but the gist of it is that the painting purports to show the Independent's argument against Presbyterianism, with a revisionist or poetic attempt to show Oliver Cromwell, John Owen and John Milton in attendance, none of whom are known to have actually been present.

Despite the context (speaking as a Presbyterian) and the historical inaccuracies portrayed (speaking as a lay student of church history), it remains the best and most well-known attempt to show the Assembly in session, and conveys a powerful and enduring image of this great body of divines at work.

And that is, for those who are interested in the background of somewhat obscure things like a painting of the Westminster Assembly, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story.

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