Christopher Marlowe is as mysterious as his portrait and as notorious as his great anti-heroes.
Somewhere in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, hidden away from the eyes of passing tourists, hangs a portrait of a young Elizabethan taken in 1585. Until 1998 it hung in the college dining hall when it was moved to a safer place. Now the passing tourist must make do with reproductions.
Though rather pallid, the sitter is a handsome young man with a shock of chestnut hair. He wears a fashionable slashed velvet doublet with gold buttons over a simple cobweb lawn shirt. His superb doublet indicates he is a young man with money to spend, but this is no effete aristocrat.
He looks at us with an intense gaze which is at the same time astute, critical, yet reserved. He knows us, but we’ll never know him. A Latin inscription gives us his age as 21 and his motto as: Quod me nutrit me destruit. ‘What nourishes me, destroys me.’ His crossed arms with hands hidden may be read to say that he has secrets to keep.
Is this the only known portrait of Christopher Marlowe?
There is no definitive proof that it is Marlowe. What evidence we have is circumstantial at best. It was discovered in Corpus Christi College which Marlowe attended. Born in 1564, Marlowe would have been 21 in 1585. Having just been awarded his BA, he certainly had occasion to have his portrait taken in that year. Though one would not expect the son of a lowly cobbler to be able to afford such a doublet, his college buttery records show that Marlowe was well in funds that year.
What became of the portrait between 1585 and when it was rediscovered in the early 1950s is shrouded in mystery, and even the rediscovery itself has been romanticised.
Until recently, the generally accepted story, as told by Marlowe’s biographer, A.D. Wraight, in 1965, was that in 1953 the portrait was fortuitously rescued from being thrown away as rubbish. Lying in pieces in a skip on top of a pile of rubble stripped from the Master’s Lodge, which was being renovated for a new incumbent, it was only discovered after sitting in the rain for several days. A passing student noticed two panels of wood with traces of paint, rescued them and took them to the college librarian. The panels were sent to the National Portrait Gallery where they could not identify the sitter, but could verify that it was an authentic Elizabethan portrait and advised the college to have it restored. It was only identified as Christopher Marlowe by the staunch Marlovian Calvin Hoffman.
However, another story has now emerged as detailed by Park Honan in 2005 in his more recent biography. In actual fact the portrait was discovered in 1952 when Corpus Christi was undergoing extensive renovations to celebrate its 600th anniversary. An antiquated gas fire was removed from a room in the Old Court just above the one once occupied by Marlowe. The unit had been sitting on two sturdy oak planks. They were destined for the skip when the room’s resident student asked to keep them to build a shelf for his hi-fi. Grimy, worn and nail-holed, the planks had obviously been used as building materials for some time, and it wasn’t until the student looked at them carefully that he could discern what looked like a fading portrait.
He took the panels to Pat Drury, the college librarian. Drury, sure he could make out a date, took the panels to Bruce Dickens the holder of the Anglo-Saxon chair. Though Dickens found little of interest in the portrait, Drury suspected it might be significant and was the first to make the connection with Christopher Marlowe. He photographed the portrait and consulted several experts. Neither they nor the National Portrait Gallery could identify the sitter. Nonetheless, the college sent the panels off to Holder & Sons in London for restoration. Within a year it was returned and joined the portraits of other college luminaries on the walls of the dining hall.
Part of the mythology surrounding the portrait is that it had been hanging in the Master’s Lodge as one of a gallery of college dignitaries displayed there, but was taken down, hidden away and forgotten when Marlowe became infamous after his reported violent death. (see A Fateful Day in Deptford)
However, unlike the other sitters in the gallery, Marlowe is not wearing the obligatory dark robes of a scholar (a rule flouted by many a young student, including, no doubt, Marlowe himself), nor in his time was he considered such an outstanding student, his exam results being only average. Furthermore, there is no written evidence that the portrait was ever part of the collection, while the Master’s Lodge itself was not built until the 1820s, so it could not have been hidden there in the 16th century.
This part of the story may have originated with Dickens who had thought little of the portrait to begin with and so, perhaps, had not retained strong memories of its discovery. He not only misremembered the name of the student who found it, but also the fact that the panels had not emerged from the Master’s Lodge, but had been taken there after their discovery.
Another element of the legend is the mysterious nature of the motto: Quod me nutrit me destruit: ‘What nourishes me, destroys me’, which was believed to have been coined by Marlowe himself. In the story, Drury circulated the motto to all the experts, none of whom could remember ever having seen it before. In actual fact, one of the experts did discover a very similar motto in an emblem book published in 1585, Quod me alit me extinguit. While its Latin wording is slightly different, it translates the same in English.
While the amorous, courtly meaning of the motto refers to the consuming passion of unrequited love, it can also have metaphysical, mystical and political meaning. Wraight believes the motto could not refer to love for any mortal being, but to ‘the sitter’s poetic muse, which both inspired him and nourished him, and yet consumed him with its fiery genius.’ Other biographers believe it might refer to the dangerous nature of his spying activities.
So, where was the portrait between 1585 and 1952? And is it definitely of Christopher Marlowe?
Marlowe entered Corpus Christi with a scholarship endowed by Dr Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1558 to 1575, who also left generous endowments to the college itself. As such, Marlowe was a member of an elite cohort with access to a small but exclusive library in the college. Whether he gifted it to the library, or left it behind on his graduation, the portrait was most likely held there until it fell apart or fell out of favour and was then used as building material.
Since its discovery, the portrait has been leapt upon by adherents of various Contenders for the Shakespearean Authorship and has been examined and X-rayed ‘with the college’s wary permission’ in the hope that it would prove that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays, that Shakespeare and Marlowe were one and the same, or that it is actually a portrait of the young Earl of Oxford. A.D. Wraight, for example, goes to great lengths to demonstrate that this portrait and the Grafton Portrait, (see Is this the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?) held by the University of Manchester and widely believed, but never proven to be, of the young Shakespeare, are of one and the same man.
In fact, there is little more definitive evidence that this is the portrait of Christopher Marlowe than there is that the Grafton Portrait is of William Shakespeare. Yet there is something about the young man’s haunted gaze that beckons us to look deeper, all the while holding us at bay, just as Marlowe does.
© Pauline Montagna 2017
A.D. Wraight & Virginia F. Stern, In Search of Christopher Marlowe, Adam Hart (1965)
Park Honan, Christopher Marlowe: Soldier and Spy, Oxford University Press (2005)