This Mythical Painting Still Puzzles Art Historians
Dare you enter this enigmatic scene?
A painting like this deserves to be looked at for more than just a few moments. It is at once a puzzle, a warning and work of eroticism.
At the centre of the image, a boyish youth clasps a woman’s breast whilst leaning forward to kiss her. They are, in fact, mother and son.
Several features about this painting are immediately striking. The way the boy — Cupid — sticks out his buttocks provocatively; the unadulterated smile on the lips of the woman; or what about the young girl in green behind, under whose dress it’s possible to see the scaly body of a lizard?
As for what the painting is trying to say, historians have long debated the exact meaning — and the conclusions are striking.
Mother and son kiss
The two central figures are both naked. They are supposed to be Venus and her son Cupid.
The two figures are locked in an embrace, with Venus coyly stealing one of Cupid’s arrows. Their kiss is pleasurable, their desire unrestrained.
It’s possible to recognise Venus, goddess of love and beauty, by the golden apple she is holding in her left hand, given to her by Paris when he judged her to be the most beautiful of all goddesses in a contest. A pair of doves — her traditional attribute — sit at the corner of the painting.
Her son Cupid is shown as a winged child. His attributes are a bow, arrow and quiver. When Cupid fires his arrows, those who are hit become lovers — or occasionally, as romance can sometimes go, sworn enemies.
This strange image is made even more curious by way that the two figures are posed, with each adopting a twisted, winding posture. It is most likely an influence of the Mannerist ideal of figura serpentinata, an idealised style of depicting figures that came into fashion in the late stages of the Renaissance. Originally formulated by the 16th century art theorist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, who compared the figura serpentinata to a burning flame, the serpentine shape was designed to emphasise bodily movement and potency.
One further detail in the foreground that catches our eye is a laughing child who is about to throw a bunch of rose petals over them — in celebration of their liaison.
But look very closely and you’ll notice the laughing child is actually stepping on a twig of thorns and has pierced his foot. It is thought the child symbolises Foolish Pleasure or Folly — representing the lack of wisdom in the central characters.
And so, the meaning of this complex painting starts to become clear…
Love with a sting in the tail
It’s hard to look past the overt eroticism of this painting, most especially in the way Cupid grasps Venus’ breast and nipple. The painting was probably made at the request of the Florentine ruler Duke Cosimo de’ Medici. It is thought that he commissioned the artist, Bronzino, and had the painting sent on to King Francis I of France as a gift.
Notoriously lecherous in his appetites, the King of France would have taken pleasure in the conspicuous eroticism of the work, as well as the erudite puzzle it presented.
So, what is the deeper meaning?
It is thought that the whole painting is an allegory on the dangers of unbridled desire.
Take the girl in green with the scaly body hidden beneath her dress, for instance. She leans forward, proffering a sweet honeycomb in her right hand — whilst behind her back a long winding tail has a scorpion’s barb at its end. This dual-nature represents Deceit, or else the double-edged nature of love: pleasure and pain.
The other figures in the painting similarly emphasise the conflicts that might accompany unchaste romance.
In the upper section, an old man who represents Father Time (notice the hourglass on his shoulder) sweeps a rich undulating blue fabric across the scene. It is thought that the gesture implies the fleeting nature of time and how things may come to an end at any moment.
This interpretation is given added meaning by the figure shown opposite Time, who has eyeless sockets and a mask-like face, who is thought to signify Oblivion — the eternal nothingness that may face us after death.
The subject of death seems even more present when we turn our attention to the figure below on the left side of the painting. This hell-raised woman has been painted with extraordinary vigour.
It is believed she is a representation of Jealousy, or possibly Suffering with her expression of anguish. Alternatively, this tormented figure might represent the ravaging and sometimes deadly effects of syphilis — a disease that had reached epidemic levels during the 1500s, especially in France.
And so, when seen altogether, this claustrophobic painting begins to lose some of its salaciousness and take on a somewhat darker, chilling tone.
The unpleasant consequences of illicit or wanton lust are revealed like a riddle solved, encouraged by Folly and aided by Deceit.
Dare you enter this pleasure palace?
Michelangelo’s David-Looking for the Sublime
The most famous statue in the world still has the power to inspire
What tends to strike viewers when they first see Michelangelo’s David is its size: it stands at over 5 metres from top to bottom, so that when you’re standing beneath it, your only choice is to look upwards.
In this way, the statue looms. It rises like a column, dominating the environment of the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence where it is currently housed.
Then, after a few more moments of looking, some people begin to sense that David’s proportions are a little off-kilter. For a heroic statue, his hips and legs are curiously narrow, whilst his neck and head are weighty and substantial.
The meddling of proportions was intentional. Michelangelo carved the statue to meet its original commission, to stand along the roofline of the east end of Florence Cathedral alongside a series of other prophets. As such, the statue would have been seen from street level; Michelangelo’s solution was to follow classical methods by enlarging the proportions upwards so that from below everything would look correct.
Yet there’s no escaping the fact that this is a sublime work from the hands of an exceptional artist. And it isn’t only art history that confers greatness on this marble sculpture: Michelangelo’s contemporaries thought it was far too good to place high on the roof of the cathedral and instead placed it in the busiest square of the city. In the Piazza della Signoria, where a copy still stands, it could hardly have been more prominent.
And then there is Giorgio Vasari’s famously gushing judgement: “Anyone who has seen Michelangelo’s David has no need to see anything else by another sculptor, living or dead.” Praise indeed from the first historian of art…
The young hero
The statue depicts the youthful David, the future king of Israel. Over his left shoulder he holds a slingshot with which he has (or is about to) fling a rock at Goliath, the Philistine giant. The rock will hit Goliath in the centre of his forehead and Goliath will fall to the ground, whereupon David will cut off his head to finish the fight.
Despite the valiant narrative, Michelangelo has given David a decidedly brooding posture. His distant gaze, and the way his arm hangs impassively at his side, seem to tip the scales away from heroic vigour towards a more introspective poise.
What we are looking at, then, is David in a moment of contemplation. Most interpretations conclude that the sculpture shows David before his battle with Goliath, sizing up his opponent. The furrowed brow, the thick stare, and the veins bulging from his lowered right hand, make the case for a man calmly sizing up his enemy.
Yet I always found David to be a lonely figure. He appears somewhat companionless, an outsider even. I take this ambiguity as part of the statue’s meaning. For this is really a portrait of a noble figure, intended to represent the psychological balance of the whole man rather than a moment in a narrative drama. David the warrior is easy to glorify, but David the honourable, worthy, distinguished yet also real, vulnerable, contemplative, is a much more complex prospect. And works of art that aim at such complexity tend to last the test of time.
The hardest block of marble
The statue of David was also an opportunity for the young Michelangelo to display his unprecedented skills as a sculptor. He was 26 at the time of the work’s commission, having just returned to Florence in 1501 after a period working in Rome. Famously, the statue was carved from a single piece of Carrara marble, a huge block of stone that had been rejected or abandoned by at least two other artists prior to Michelangelo’s undertaking.
The marble block had languished untouched for over a quarter of a century. Another Florentine sculptor by the name of Agostino di Duccio had been assigned the task originally. Beginning in 1464, Duccio wrestled with the massive piece of stone, getting as far as marking out the legs, feet and torso, perhaps even chiselling a hole between the legs. Ten years later another sculptor, Antonio Rossellino, was commissioned to take over from Agostino, who seems to have left the project midway. Rossellino didn’t last long either, and the unfinished sculpture remained untouched for the next 26 years.
The block that Michelangelo inherited was in rough condition. In September 1501, the church authorities settled on the 26-year-old as the next to try his hand at the imposing mass of marble. Michelangelo had recently proved his worth by carving the emotionally powerful Pietà, showing the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion. By April 1504, the statue of David was complete.
David’s languid pose
How does a person look when they are standing upright? In Egyptian sculpture, the answer to this question emphasised the natural symmetry of the human body. Egyptian sculpture was front-on, with level shoulders, symmetrical arms and hips.
These traits passed onto early Greek sculpture. Yet one of the most interesting aspects of the development of sculpture in Greece was the inception of a new type of posture. Known since the Renaissance as contrapposto, this nuanced but fundamental invention offered a turning point in the course of naturalistic representation.
The contrapposto technique can be readily seen in this sculpture, the so-called “Spear Carrier” attributed to the Greek sculptor Polykleitos. The image shown below is a marble Roman copy made after the bronze original, which has been subsequently lost.
Notice the distribution of weight, being borne on one leg whilst the other is relaxed. The deliberate asymmetry of the legs instigates movement throughout the rest of the body. The hips tilt, thereby causing the torso to squeeze on one side and open on the other. In this way, broader symmetry gives way to a more flexible pose overall; one arm is raised (holding the missing spear) whilst the other hangs down to one side. The head is turned as if gazing into the distance. The sculpture can be viewed from many angles — seen “in the round” — and still deliver its full impact.
During the Italian Renaissance, this classical pose was explicitly revived. Taking inspiration from Roman sculptures that were being unearthed across Italy at the time, Italian sculptors reawakened and expanded the method. Indeed, contrapposto is an Italian word meaning “counterpoise” and was coined in the time of the Renaissance.
Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is probably the most famous statue that makes use of contrapposto. David’s left leg is emphatically relaxed, adding further weight onto the right leg. The important tilt of the hips is there; along with it the right arm hangs long, almost heavily, so that the entire torso and shoulders lean to one side. In all, the arrangement is asymmetrical yet harmonised, yielding a gentle S-shape in the body to give a sense of serene contemplation predicated on muscular strength.
A Florentine emblem
With its imposing naturalism and understated sense of self-confidence, the figure of David soon began to attract attention. A 30-strong committee gathered to reconsider its purpose — including venerable artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Giuliano da Sangallo. Given that the six-tonne statue was probably too heavy to lift to the roof of the cathedral, the committee considered several alternative locations, with the Piazza della Signoria — the political heart of Florence — eventually selected.
First, the great statue had to be moved the half-mile from Michelangelo’s workshop behind Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral to the piazza. The event was captured in a diary entry from a local herbalist Luca Landucci:
“It was midnight, May 14th, and the Giant was taken out of the workshop. They even had to tear down the archway, so huge he was. Forty men were pushing the large wooden cart where David stood protected by ropes, sliding it through town on trunks. The Giant eventually got to Signoria Square on June 8th 1504, where it was installed next to the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, replacing Donatello’s bronze sculpture of Judith and Holofernes”.
The statue soon became a symbol of the Republican ideals of Florence. Fearless, sovereign and self-sufficient, it seemed to say so much about the independent spirit of the city.
It remained in the Piazza della Signoria until 1873, when it was moved into the Galleria dell’Accademia to protect it from weathering. A replica was placed in the Piazza della Signoria in 1910.
Repoussoir-To Push Back
Can You Spot What All these Paintings Have in Common?
A powerful trick that so many paintings employ
It’s a rainy day in Paris. The street teems with umbrellas, hats and frock coats.
On the right side of the image, a couple walks toward us. Meanwhile on the left the street opens out, giving us a view of modern Paris in the late 19th century.
The question is: can you spot the similarity between Paris Street; Rainy Day — painted by Gustave Caillebotte in 1877 — and the painting shown below, The Roman Campagna, painted by another French artist Claude Lorrain in around 1639?
The landscapes of Claude Lorrain were some of the first images to consciously use this particular effect, which has since become a favourite technique of painters.
Notice the contrast between the glowing light in the background and the shadowy trees in the foreground. Take a moment to let your eyes roam around each image. Try to notice where your gaze is drawn to…
Here’s another image that shares the same attribute. It was painted in 1871 by Frederic Edwin Church, the American artist and member of the Hudson River School of landscape painters.
The painting looks over the famous ruins of the Parthenon, located at the Acropolis, the ancient citadel above the Greek city of Athens. Notice again how the foreground lies in shadow — a shadow that runs diagonally upwards from left to right. Also take note of the column on the right-hand side, which again sits in shadow. The effect is to elevate the temple both visually and symbolically, as it is uniquely bathed in this glowing light.
So what’s happening in all of these paintings?
Well, they all utilise a powerful technique that helps to draw the viewer’s eye into the painting.
The word for this technique is repoussoir, and it refers to an object in a painting that is positioned in the foreground and to one side. It comes from the French verb répousser, meaning “to push back”. (The word is pronounced reh-poo-swahr if it helps.)
In art, the meaning of repoussoir is “a thing or person that emphasises another by contrast”.
Often this contrast is made by setting near and far against one another. A spatial contrast is generated, often helped along by casting the foreground area in shadow, thereby serving to direct the viewer’s attention toward the main subject of the work.
Here is a painting by the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich in which the repoussoir technique is most apparent. Chalk Cliffs on Rügen was painted in 1818 on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea.
The other aspect of repoussoir that the Friedrich painting makes clear is how it can be used to frame the main motif of the image. The darker shades of the foreground act as a kind of window frame through which we peer outwards.
(Apart from the brilliant clarity of this painting, I also like the detail at the front where the man appears to have dropped something over the edge of the cliff; the woman points downwards whilst he scrambles on his knees in vain.)
The repoussoir technique is not confined to landscapes. Take this memorable Caravaggio painting. The subject is a biblical scene as told in the Gospel of St. Luke: three men are sitting eating at a table when one of them reveals himself to be Christ. Like many of Caravaggio’s paintings, he achieves a powerful sense of tension by means of light and shadow.
Notice the disciple on the left-hand side, who has been identified as Cleophas. See how he thrusts out his elbow towards us, painted with brilliant foreshortening, thereby giving us something to look beyond toward the figure of Jesus in the middle.
Finally, to round up this exploration of the repoussoir technique, here is a painting by Johannes Vermeer called The Art of Painting, completed in 1668.
In the image, a tapestry hangs along the left-hand side. Notice how it has been drawn aside like a drape and is also held back by a chair pushed up against it. The effect of the drape is, or course, to reveal the scene in front of us, almost like a curtain lifted in front of a stage at the theatre.
In this painting, Vermeer’s use of the drape is emphatic: it successfully pulls us into the space beyond it, emphasising the depth of the room and encouraging us to feel as if we are peering into this most private and intimate of spaces.