Just past the front door of the English College, every visitor enters the gallery of Martyrs. These are portraits of the priests who, after training in Valladolid, were arrested, tortured and hanged in England in the 16th and 17th century.
For their refusal to deny the Faith, six have been canonised, 16 declared Blessed,and one made Venerable. But today gold gleams among the sombre portraits lining the white walls of St Alban’s.
These are brand-new paintings of the Martyrs. Each looks modern, even individual. St John Plessington, for instance, has red hair, while St John Lloyd, appropriately for a man of 49, is largely grey. This contemporary take on the College Martyrs is the work of Rodrigo Zaparaín Hernández. He is both an architect for the College, a prize-winning painter, and a theatre scenographer.
For years, Rodrigo puzzled over how one or two paintings of the Martyrs dating from the 1980s, might be replaced. Light finally dawned in 2015, during the annual Mass held in St Alban’s chapel on the feast of the College Martyrs:
“I wasn’t thinking about the paintings,” he explains. “But there is a moment of particular beauty in the Mass: the litany of Martyrs. Each one is named by a concelebrating priest and College Old Boy. You hear a voice to your left sing out ‘St John Lloyd’, another to your right, cry out, ‘St John Roberts’.”
What, he wondered would it be like to create a series of paintings of the Martyrs? Ten, instead of two? Monsignor John Pardo, the then Rector, approved, and obtained the permission of the College trustees. Rodrigo began to plan the task ahead.
“I’m used to working in a team due to my background in the theatre,” he says. So he enlisted the help of Natalia Martínez de Pisón, the College’s art restorer, as well as of the College archivist, Dr Javier Burrieza, and for pastoral guidance, the Rector, Monsignor John Pardo.
Rodrigo also drew on his experience as a painter. In 2015, he won a prize in Figurativas, an international art competition. His portrait of a girl is in Barcelona’s European Museum of Modern Art. It was made using oil and silver leaf on panel.
Rodrigo’s first thought was to paint gold leaf on a wood panel. Natalia, who through her experience in art restoration is an expert in the use of paint, and background materials, and how these alter through time, suggested he try something different in order to give the paintings a contemporary look, that made them easy to distinguish from the older paintings.
To decide what to use as the canvas, Natalia dabbed gold leaf on several types of metal. She then burnished each to see what the overall effect might be. They choose sheets of stainless steel because the steel added light, shining through the gold leaf. When burnished, the steel and gold leaf acquired a striking texture. “The steel intensifies the gold,” says Rodrigo. Natalia applied the gold leaf, burnishing each sheet of steel.
These were then sent to a digital printer who spray-printed the sheets with black and white maps, taken from ancient engravings. The map displayed the place of either birth or death of the Martyr. The idea of the gold is theological: “The gold represents el rompimiento de la gloria – heavenly glory breaking through to Earth,” says Rodrigo. In other words, the paintings show the Martyr already in heaven.
The map behind them bathed in gold shows how “the place of their martyrdom looks from heaven,” says Rodrigo. “So London, viewed by the Martyr from heaven has a special shine, as it is the place where so many priests have died giving their life for the faith.
“At the end of the day, “ he adds, “a painting is a window that you paint to see something. And these paintings represent a window, showing how the world looks through the eyes of a Saint, gazing down to Earth from heaven.”
His use of light suffusing the Martyrs’ necks symbolises their Martyrdom, thus avoiding the background scenes of scaffolds, and the occasional dismembered limb that appear in some of the older paintings.
“The light at the neck alludes to Martyrdom without the need to show their neck being cut off, something that wouldn’t be readily understood today,” says Rodrigo.
“In earlier times, the pictures had a different context. They were intended to very quickly convey the information that a particular priest had studied here in Valladolid, and he had been hanged simply for being a Catholic,” Rodrigo explains.
“But what is the interesting message about the Martyrs’ today?” He thinks it is “not about Martyrdom itself, but rather the deepest motive for their Martyrdom: what made these men holy was their deep love for Jesus Christ.
The use of light in the Martyr’s hands is also symbolic: “These are hands that celebrated the Eucharist, that forgave sins, that cared for the sick,” says Rodrigo.
His Martyrs all look individual, unlike those in the older paintings, who share similar features.
“They have a type of classic face, roughly based on images of St Ignatius of Loyola,” Rodrigo explains. The first Martyrs’ paintings were commissioned in 1620, according to the College book of Gastos (expenses), in living memory of the priests then at St Albans.
And although the earliest Martyrs’ portraits in the College today date from around 1650 or slightly later, they also have anonymous faces. Rodrigo aimed to make his portraits “more realistic, so that the College students today could relate more easily to them.”
Inspired by John Nava, who used the faces of ordinary men and women to create the tapestries of Saints at Los Angeles Cathedral, Rodrigo asked actors to pose as the Martyrs.
Each was dressed in 16th-century clothing, and their hair was styled by an expert in hair and make up for TV history dramas. She applied stains and dots to the model’s faces, to show the skin ailments that a fair-skinned 16th-century English or Welshman might suffer when exposed to the sun of Castille.
The old paintings show the Martyrs with tonsured heads, the new show the Martyrs with 16th or 17th-century hairstyles because they lived disguised as ordinary men, rather than as priests.
Each actor was given a biography of the Martyr they represented. Rodrigo asked them not to look tortured: “I wasn’t trying to picture the Martyr at the moment of their death. These paintings show the Martyrs already in heaven.”
He was inspired by the Beatitude, “Blessed are the Persecuted,” explaining, “The most sublime way to fulfil this Beatitude is Martyrdom, but the Beatitude speaks of joy.” Baroque lighting was used in the 700 photographs, to throw up the light and shadow Rodrigo depicted while using the photographs to create the paintings.
Six now hang in the Martyrs’ Gallery: St Ambrose Barlow and St John Roberts, St John Lloyd and St John Plessington, Blessed William Richardson and Blessed Ralph Ashley. Rodrigo is still painting Blessed Robert Drury, Blessed Thomas Reynolds, Blessed Edward Bamber and Blessed William Richardson.
Rodrigo jokes that perhaps one day he will bump into a Martyr in heaven: “We will laugh and give each other a hug, and he might say, “¡Hombre! Why did you paint me like that?”