Allan Barton on Hollar’s Monasticon and the Augustinian biretta


In 1652, Wenceslaus Hollar, an artist and etcher from Prague, moved to London. He had lived in London before, in the 1630s and ’40s, after his talents had been recognised by Thomas Howard, 2nd Earl of Arundel, a great art collector and connoisseur, who brought him to England. Hollar had enjoyed some success at the court of Charles I and was for a time drawing master to the future James II. Hollar spent much of this first period in England engraving portraits of political and religious figures, and creating topographical panoramas and exquisite plates of costume – the latter capturing the brilliance of the Stuart court. In 1644, as the English Civil War took hold and people’s priorities moved away from art, Hollar, in need of work, moved across the Channel to Antwerp.  

The England that Hollar returned to in 1652 was a very different nation from the one he had known in the 1630s. Kingless and under the Commonwealth, England was now ruled by a Puritan elite who favoured a minimalist aesthetic. Hollar must have realised that there would be little market for the sort of work he had produced hitherto, so he changed direction and reinvented himself as the master of the topographical print. He quickly came to the notice of William Dugdale (1605-1686), Chester Herald, who was looking for an engraver to illustrate his antiquarian publications. Dugdale had spent the early years of the Civil War travelling the length and breadth of the country in the service of the King, and between 1642 and 1646 he was with the Court at Oxford. Seeing the threat that Puritan ideology posed to historic churches and their contents, he and his associates Roger Dodsworth and William Sedgwick endeavoured to record memorials inscriptions and coats of arms wherever they found them, before they were destroyed. When he was in Oxford, Dugdale’s time was spent profitably within the library collections of the University, working through ancient sources relating to medieval religious houses. Returning to London at the end of the Civil War, Dugdale spent the next four or five years working on a history of Warwickshire, and also collating his research with that of Dodsworth. The result of that effort was a work called Monasticon Anglicanum, a history of England’s medieval monasteries, cathedrals, and collegiate churches. Printed in folio, the first volume of the work came to press in 1655 and the series was completed with the publication of a third volume in 1673.

Dodsworth and Dugdale had made the bold decision that Monasticon would be profusely illustrated throughout. They initially employed Daniel King, a pupil of Hollar’s, to produce the majority of the plates, with Hollar, who had illustrated Dugdale’s Warwickshire, contributing some of the larger images. By the time the second and third volumes were in preparation King had died, and Dugdale turned exclusively to Hollar. He produced engravings of elevations, reconstructions of lost buildings, and also ground plans of the buildings covered; many were large-scale and spread over a double page. Monasticon Anglicanum was the most ambitious book of its kind printed in England to date and ran to many editions, with Hollar’s plates – or derivatives of them – continuing to be printed well into the eighteenth century.

Alongside the many images of buildings, Hollar was also allowed to indulge his passion for costume. He engraved a series of plates for Monasticon illustrating the habit of the medieval religious orders, and among them were images of an Augustinian and a Præmonstratensian Canon. Rather than turning to medieval evidence for these, Hollar chose to illustrate the contemporary dress of the religious orders, relying on his memory and earlier images he had produced on the continent as a source. The Augustinian in Monasticon is dressed wholly in seventeenth century garb, with a lace-trimmed rochet under a cappa, and a tall exaggerated biretta on his head – it is certain that Hollar would have seen similarly-dressed canons in his native Prague and his adopted Antwerp. The dress of the Præmonstratensian is based on a series of engravings that Hollar made at Tongerlo Abbey, on the outskirts of Antwerp, in 1651. The tall, exaggerated biretta appears on two engraved portraits by Hollar of the Abbot of Tongerlo, Augustine Wichmann.

It is said that Alfred Hope Patten took an old engraving of a medieval Augustinian as his inspiration for the habit of the Society of St Augustine. One of the more unusual features of Fr Patten’s habit was the tall biretta, of the sort seen on the heads of the Præmostratensians and Augustinians in Hollar’s engravings. Fr Patten called it the “Augustinian” biretta, and it is probable that it was Hollar’s image in Monasticon Anglicanum that Fr Patten used as his source.