(The Emerald Gem, The Emerald Vernicle, The Vera Icon)
Painting by John Miller Nicholson. Dec 1870
During the summer of 2016 the painting was "rediscovered" having been buried, unwanted and unloved under a pile of rubbish and dust below the organ bellows under the main body of St. Thomas' Church. At first it was thought to be a dusty, old, framed mirror. However, a quick dust and clean revealed its real identity.
Mr Peter Clague thought it worthy of taking to the Manx Museum to see if it was genuine and to try to find a little about its history and provenance . It was confirmed by Chris Weeks and Yvonne Cresswell, from the museum, as being an original piece by J. M. Nicholson and that it had been mentioned in documents in the museum archives.
The painting is signed, dated and inscribed - "J.M. Nicholson. Dec 1870 from the picture in the keeping of Revd. J. Cannell, Douglas I.O.M".
The fun then began. What was it a copy of? Where was the original painting? Why had Nicholson felt it necessary to make a copy of it? How had it ended up in St. Thomas'? It's clearly an important piece of art so why was it left to gather dust under the bellows?
Well, we've unearthed some of the painting's history but one question remains. Where's the original painting which Nicholson took his copy from? If you know we'd love to hear from you.
John Miller Nicholson
Born in Douglas in 1840 Nicholson was a prolific painter and photographer with a very strong connection to St. Thomas' Church, being the creator of the magnificent murals which adorn the walls of the church. By the 1870s his work was exhibited at the Royal Academy. He died in 1913.
The Emerald Gem, The Emerald Vernicle, The Vera Icon
The origins of the Nicholson painting date back many years to an image of Christ believed to have been carved into an Emerald (The Emerald Vernicle or Vera Icon). A fascinating, if somewhat lengthy, article appeared in The Manx Society, Manx Miscellanies Vol 1 1872: The article is titled "The Emerald Vernicle of the Vatican" by C. W. King M.A.
In King's opening remarks he roundly dismisses the idea of copies of, "the only true likeness of Our Saviour, taken from one cut on an emerald by command of Tiberius Caesar...", stating, "...in this instance the claims of both prototype (supposing there really to be one) and of copy may be dismissed at once, a single circumstance sufficing amply to disprove them. Any eye slightly practiced in art will immediately detect that the character of the design of the head is neither antique, Roman, nor even Byzantine, but bears the unmistakable stamp of the naturalism of the Italian revival".
King then goes on to discuss the painting from which Nicholson took his copy. He states, "Having thus cleared the ground of a pretender who carries his modern origin so conspicuously impressed upon his face, I will bring under the notice of our society another of like nature...This is a painting on panel traditionally reported to have been found in the old nunnery of St. Bridget, at Douglas, Isle of Man, degraded to the office of barrel lid." , He then goes on to detail the panel's history after its rescue. It came into the possession of Rev. Philip Moore of St. Matthew's Church and master of the Grammar School. Moore then bequeathed it to the Grammar School House in 1783. A similar panel was thought to have been housed at Greystock, the home of the Duke of Norfolk. It would appear that this panel was lost in a fire which destroyed the the left wing of the castle.
In his article King states that the panel bears all the hallmarks of having been created in the Elizabethan era at the latest, further stating that, "...everything in its appearance would warrant us to refer it to the Italian school of the fourteenth century." He also points out that it relates to the tradition concerning the Emerald Vernicle (Vera Icon) and the Vatican Treasury.
King refers directly to the Nicholson copy as follows, "...Mr Nicholson, a rising artist of great promise, and who has made a most satisfactory facsimile copy of the picture...". He also explains that it came into the possession of Rev. Cannell because he was, "...a collateral descendant of the Mr Cannell who... was the first lay proprietor of the Nunnery, after its dissolution".
The writing under the image reads ; "This present figure is the similitude of our Lord Jesus our saviour imprinted in emerald by the predecessors of the Great Turk and sent to Pope Innocent the VIII at the cost of the Great Turk for a token for this cause to redeem his brother that was taken prisoner". (IHV is religious shorthand for the Greek derivative "Jesus"or "in hoc (signum) vincis" - in this sign thou shalt overcome. Similitude means likeness or copy).
The Calton Gallery, Edinburgh reports that, "Nothing is known of the original artist, believed to have been working in the reign of King Henry VII (c1485 - 1509)". A similar image, also on oak panel, was sold in 2011 for £900 whilst another panel of similar type is in the collection of Michael Hall, New York.
The Great Turk was Bajazett III and his brother was Djem. King states that it was the French King, Charles VIII, who in 1492, handed Djem over to Pope Innocent VIII. He also claims that the then Lord Admiral of England, Ireland and Aquitaine (Guienne) may have acquired the painting when, "...some of the treasures sent for his safe keeping... the Lord Admiral may have picked up this identical picture, copied from The Emerald Gem?...".
It was King's belief that the original panel had then been obtained by Bishop Thomas Stanley (Bishop of Sodor and Man from 1542 to 1568) who presented it as, "...a votive offering at the shrine of the patron saint of the Nunnery, in his Bishopric of Sodor and Man..." . King goes into some detail about the genealogy of the houses of Stanley and Norfolk and how, through various marriages, it would have been possible for the Bishop to have been given the painting.
Conclusion. This Nicholson painting is unique. It is a copy of an image of Christ which had been painted on an oak panel and which was once used as a cover for a grain tub. The original panel was rescued from The Nunnery and bequeathed to the Douglas Grammar School. It then came into the possession of the Rev. Cannell. Nicholson realized its importance and made a copy of it. This copy was presented to St. Thomas' Church. At some point between 1870, when Nicholson painted it, and 2016 it was discarded and left to gather dust below the organ bellows. In 2016 it was unearthed again (rather like the original), cleaned, authenticated and put on display in Church for all to see. To be fair, it's not much to look at but it is an important piece of art with a fascinating history and well worth viewing. If you know where the original went or have any further information relating to either the original painting or the Nicholson copy we'd love to hear from you.
Sources - Manx Society, Manx Miscellanies Vol1 1872
- Manx Sun Feb 18th 1871
- The Calton Gallery, Edinburgh. Portrait of Christ, in profile facing left. Oil on prepared oak panel with gilding.