The Savilian Professorships, 1619

The Savilian Professorships, 1619

The Savilian Professorships, 1619

Image 1. Funerary Monument for Sir Henry Savile (d. 1622), Merton College Chapel

Source: Robin Stevens, 28 April 2007. Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. 

Description.  Half-length frontal figure of Savile at the centre with a book, under an arch supported by Doric columns and pilasters to either side. To the left and right, statuettes of St John Chrysostom (whom he edited in eight folio volumes) and Tacitus (whose histories he translated), as well as Ptolemy and Euclid (representing the Savilian chairs in astronomy and geometry).  Overhead, a fifth statuette of fame with a trumpet (similar to that flanking James I on the Tower of the Five Orders, of exactly the same date). Below, paintings of Merton (of which he was Warden) and Eton (of which he was briefly Provost) and a truncated globe representing the southern hemisphere. This monument is placed in the south transept of Merton Chapel, symmetrically opposite that of Sir Thomas Bodley (d. 1613) in the north transept. 

Commentary. This monument fittingly summarizes many of Savile’s lifetime accomplishments: his biblical and classical scholarship; his refurbishment of the library of Merton College (1589-90), which helped to set in motion the activities of his friend and colleague, Thomas Bodley (from 1598 onward); his introduction of classical architecture on a significant scale into Oxford, culminating in Tower of the Five Orders; and his interest in mathematics, which issued in the foundation of Oxford’s first chairs of geometry and astronomy.

The key point is that these seemingly diverse interests are intimately related: mathematics is as closely related to classical architecture as it is to humanist scholarship. The importance of mathematics to classical architecture is nowhere more evident than in the five orders of classical architecture, defined, fundamentally, as sets of geometrical proportions (the subject of a cluster in this unit).  Like architecture, gnomonics – the science of dialing (the focus of a second cluster, and a subject to be taught by the Savilian professor of astronomy) – also exemplifies the encroachment of practical mathematics on both the curriculum and the built environment of early seventeenth-century Oxford.  In bringing all of these elements together, Savile's funerary monument is far more informative and revealing than his more famous painted portrait (Image 2).

Student project. Pevsner (Oxfordshire, 36-7) notes that this style of monument -- with a frontal demi-figure, one hand on a book, surrounded by images of learning -- became the standard scheme for commemorating scholars in Oxford and indeed in England. The first example he notes is in Magdalen (commemorating a death in 1590).  Others listed are in St John's (1606), Corpus (1607 and 1614), Christ Church (1620), Magdalen (1626), and St John's (1632, by Nicholas Stone), but he claimed to have counted eight others.  One of these is the monument to Hugh Barker (d. 1632) in New College Chapel (ibid., 172). Elsewhere (ibid., 378) he suggests that it was the monument for Bodley which set the fashion. Assembling a gallery of these might clarify these relationships.


Image 2

Subject. Sir Henry Savile (1549-1622)

Maker: Marcus Gheeraerts the younger (16=561/2-1635/6)
oil on canvas, 218 x 130 cm. Source: Bodleian Libraries. Permission pending. Art UK Accession number LP 79.

Description. Full-length portrait, standing in floor-length gown, ruff, and skull cap; his left hand resting on book near a letter on a table to the right, a scarf in his right hand.