Theological Allegory with the Assumption of the Virgin

WAG 2896


This artwork has been identified as having links to a person connected with transatlantic slavery. This research is part of the Walker Art Gallery’s ongoing work to be more transparent about the collection’s relationship to Britain's colonial past. This painting was possibly owned by Margaret Aspinall (née Tobin, 1773 - 1856), and may have come into her ownership following the death of her husband James Aspinall (1760 - 1814). She was the daughter of Patrick Tobin (1738 - 1813) of the Isle of Man, whose family, like the Aspinalls, were deeply involved in the trade in enslaved African people and became very wealthy as a result. Although WAG 2896 is not among the pictures mentioned explicitly in her will following her death in Liverpool in 1856, it may have come from her estate, and before that, from her husband's. James Aspinall's father, also James Aspinall (1729 - 1787), was a co-owner of the slave ship Zong. In 1781, hundreds of enslaved people were thrown overboard in the vessel's voyage across the Atlantic when the ship reportedly ran low on drinking water. The ship's owners were later acquitted of any liability. The painting is by Arnold Van Westerhout (1651 - 1725). Its complex composition commemorates a celebrated disputation which took place on 5 September 1695, in the church of St Ignatius at the Collegium Romanum in Rome. At this highly theatrical event, Count Emerich Csaky, a Hungarian student of theology, defended various theological points in front of an audience of leading clerics and other dignitaries, and was afterwards made a Doctor of Theology. The points he defended are inscribed on the plinths to either side of the picture, and above them are trophies recording 17th-century military victories over the Turkish. A cartouche at the bottom, centre, contains a dedicatory inscription. The lower part of the composition is copied from the commemorative engraving by Westerhout after Lenardi; the upper part, showing the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, appears to be an original work by the copyist. In the painting - though not in the original engraving - trophies are also included to commemorate Prince Eugene's capture of Temesvar in 1716, and of Belgrade in 1717. Engravings describing and commemorating academic disputations were an established category of printmaking in the 17th century. It is not clear why this painted copy was made, but the addition of the Immaculate Conception gives it the appearance of an altarpiece.