John Gipkyn, panel from ‘Old St. Paul’s’ diptych. London, 1616. Digital image © Bridgeman Images.

This painting is the left panel of a diptych commissioned by the poet and legal clerk Henry Farley, intended to illustrate his long poem The Complaint of St Paul’s (1616), in which the cathedral, still missing its spire, laments its state of disrepair. It shows a scene of public preaching – possibly by John Donne, who served as Dean of the cathedral – with the King and a number of civic officials in attendance. Like Farley’s poem, the painting has a specific function, namely, to encourage the restoration of the cathedral. At the same time, it offers a rare and fascinating glimpse of what would have been a common sight in the early seventeenth century, when crowds gathered to hear the word of God spoken and explained by charismatic and learned preachers. Such sermons were the product of careful theological reflection, but they were also dramatic, rhetorical performances intended to enthral, stimulate, and provoke, installing virtue by moving the emotions. This is, then, a scene of both edification and entertainment.