Rivals of Protestants, murderous royal patrons and other 15th to 16th century power brokers are given life in a show of North Europe's renaissance.
Some of the characters on show in drawings and paintings put together for The Northern Renaissance: Duerer to Holbein at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace come straight from the pages of Booker prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, with Martin Luther, Thomas More and Henry VIII playing key roles.
Works by Albrecht Duerer, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Francois Clouet, Leonardo da Vinci, Hans Holbein the Younger and others capture images of people and convey some of the drama from an intense period of religious, political, artistic and philosophical upheaval which convulsed North Europe.
Co-curator Kate Heard said in front of a drawing of Thomas More's family that widespread knowledge among visitors to the exhibition of the grisly end which awaited people such as More and his family added a certain frisson to the show.
"When you look at a portrait of [Thomas] More, you can't take out of it what happened to him," Heard said. "It's wonderful to feel almost as if you're meeting people you know well."
More, who rose to become Henry VIII's chancellor was executed in 1535 for refusing to recognise Henry's divorce and the English's church's break with Rome.
As well as the period drama's British actors, the show also tracks the artistic changes across Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries, including innovations in technique as well as technological advances, such as the improvement in oil paints in North Europe, which eventually made its way to Italy.
The show capitalises on a royal collection which is astounding in its breadth and treasure with more than 120 paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, armour, tapestries, miniatures, as well as gold and silver cups.
A small room off one of the galleries contains books edited by thinker and humanist Desiderius Erasmus, More's Utopia and a signed copy of Henry's attack on Luther, Defence of the Seven Sacraments against Martin Luther.
"There is enough to make a major contribution to the story of this time," co-curator Lucy Whitaker said of the collection, which is owned by the British monarch.
The show explores other places besides Henry's court, where Hans Holbein arrived in search of work and patronage from a Germany riven with a religious division that would disenfranchise artists normally commissioned for altar pieces and other religious themes.
It trundles through 15th and 16th century art in the Netherlands – including Pieter Brueghel the Elder's Massacre of the Innocents, has a section on drawings by Duerer – including an eight-piece Apocalypse series – and also examines art in the Holy Roman Empire.
The Northern Renaissance: Duerer to Holbein is on at the Queen's Gallery from November 2 to April 14. – Reuters