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?
A tiny section of the Sistine Chapel masterpiece explored
When you step into the Sistine Chapel, it’s like stepping into an immense jewellery box. The rectangular space, some 40 metres long, is an overwhelming arena to enter.
The first thing visitors tend to notice is the array of frescos that adorn the walls, painted by the likes of Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio — made in the 1480s when Michelangelo was still a child.
Up until the recent cleaning and restoration work completed in 1999, the true intensity of the painted frescoes was not fully understood by modern audiences. Centuries of candle soot had cloaked the walls and ceiling with a layer of dirt. When this layer was removed, the full vibrancy of the chapel decoration was revealed. Most especially, Michelangelo’s unrivalled ceiling cycle.
Michelangelo was an Italian artist who grew up in Florence and quickly established himself as a supremely talented sculptor with the house of Medici. Apprenticed under the Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s rise to prominence was crowned when in 1504 he carved the mighty statue of David, now housed in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.
Michelangelo caught the attention of Pope Julius II and was called to Rome in 1505. His initial project in Rome was to work on the tomb of the Pope, who was already planning his grand commemorative mausoleum. It was during his work on the tomb that Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — which at that time was painted blue and dotted with golden stars.
The technical process of creating the ceiling frescoes for the Sistine chapel began with the artist developing his thoughts in sketch form. The small-scale studies were essentially about working through and narrowing down ideas, which considering the size and complexity of the finished work, was an imperative step in the planning process.
The sketches later developed into full-figure studies, and these were then converted into full-scale cartoons. These one-to-one images were transferred onto the wet plaster, probably using a technique known as “pouncing” where the outline of the image is pricked with a pin and charcoal dust dabbed through the pinholes to leave the tracing of the cartoon on the plaster. In later sections of the ceiling, Michelangelo used a more direct method of incising or cutting through the cartoon to leave a physical mark in the wet plaster.
For the lunettes (the semi-circular corners), it is believed that Michelangelo worked without transferring any cartoons but rather painted directly from his sketches — an unprecedented and remarkable feat given the fresco medium and the intricate nature of the final image.
The wider ceiling image shows the story of Genesis split into nine panels, from The Separation of Light from Darkness, through to The Creation of Adam, and culminating in The Great Flood and The Drunkenness of Noah. All of these panels are oriented towards the priest at the altar, who of course would often have been the Pope.
This central section of the ceiling is part of a broader narrative that is designed to express the salvation offered by God through Jesus. Around the outer edges of the ceiling, Michelangelo painted sibyls and prophets who predicted the coming of Christ, whilst the lunettes in each of the four corners show Biblical scenes associated with the salvation of Israel.
The physical working conditions that Michelangelo worked under were intensely difficult. Scaffolding was erected at nearly 25 metres in height, with all the associated carrying of materials up ladders or hoisting them via pulleys.
Michelangelo painted in a standing position which necessitated a constant tilting of the head backwards. And since the ceiling was painted in fresco it was essential to work fast: the freshly plastered area had to be painted during the course of one day before the plaster dried.
One of the qualities of fresco is that it must be painted with confidence and speed, since there is little room for error and incomplete sections usually have to be re-plastered and painted again.
This aspect means that fresco paintings often have a vivid and monumental feel, where finer details must be simplified in favour of prominent and clear designs — all of which contributed to the resulting feel of Michelangelo’s compelling imagery.
The Libyan Sibyl
Michelangelo’s sketch for the Libyan Sibyl is one of the best surviving drawings from the artist’s preparatory process.
The drawing, made largely in red chalk, shows the torso of the figure shown from behind. Notice how Michelangelo has drawn her as a nude — probably based on a real-life male model — and only clothed her in the final painting. The muscular definition of the sibyl’s torso and the way that the upper and lower halves of the body are twisted allow Michelangelo to fully delineate the robust structure of the human body.
Notice too the attention placed on the toes of the sibyl’s left foot: Michelangelo worked through multiple studies of these weight-bearing toes to get the action just right. The meaning is not a symbolic one but all about the display of the human body through a coiled contrappostoposture — not unlike a dancer expressing physical agility and strength through a difficult pose.
The finished image of the Libyan Sibyl appears in one of the pendentives — the curved triangles of the vaulting — as part of the series of twelve figures who prophesied a coming Messiah. She is clothed except for her muscular shoulders and arms, and wears an elaborately braided coiffure.
The term “sibyl” comes from the ancient Greek word sibylla, meaning prophetess. The Libyan Sibyl is a depiction of Phemonoe, the priestess of the Oracle of Zeus-Ammon, an oracle located in the Libyan desert at Siwa Oasis, once connected with ancient Egypt.
The classical world was inhabited by many sibyls, with the Libyan Sibyl being one of the most important for foretelling the “coming of the day when that which is hidden shall be revealed.”
The Libyan Sibyl on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is depicted with deliberate grandiosity, holding a serpentine pose whilst stepping down from her throne. She holds an enormous book of prophecy which she is about to open up before us, or else close shut. With her clothes finished in shades of vibrant yellow, peach and green, she stands as one of the most visually striking and emblematic sections of the whole Sistine Chapel decoration.
Given the difficult working conditions, and the fact that Michelangelo was so close up to his subject — which was to be viewed from nearly 25 metres below — the final painting is a remarkable accomplishment of artist planning, vision and technique.
Small wonder then that the Sistine Chapel has inspired so many admirers, including the following praise from the German writer Goethe: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.”
And their controversial relationships with their maestros
When viewing art, we are often only aware of two individuals — subject and artist. There is, for example, Mona Lisa and Leonardo DaVinci. And for simple portraits, this is as far as it goes. But there is often a third hidden figure in art, one we know very little about — the artist’s model.
By the very nature of their work, their identities are mostly erased, but we do know something about these people drawn from the highest and lowest rungs of society. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the faces that made the masterpieces of the renaissance possible.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a complicated individual. He was one of the most celebrated painters of his age, but he was also a volatile and lustful man, spending the last years of his life on the run following a murder.
Caravaggio’s choice of models could also be controversial. Firstly, Mario Minniti. A fellow artist and one of Caravaggio’s go-to models, Minniti appears in Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593, Bacchus, 1596 and Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1593–1594. Their working relationship lasted from around 1592 and 1600, though they seem to have been friends until Caravaggio’s death in 1610. He even provided shelter to the artist in Sicily during his time on the run. The flower behind the ear of Minniti in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, a common symbol of a prostitute, and the ‘close relationship’ between the two men have led some to speculate that they were lovers, but there is relatively little hard evidence to support this theory.
Two women often painted in tandem by Caravaggio were Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni. In Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Anna (right) can be seen as Mary Madelene, being convinced to give up her sinful life by her sister Martha (left), portrayed here by Fillide. The scene is a masterful study of light and emotion, typical of Caravaggio and the religious intensity of the scene is not undercut by the fact that Anna and Fillide were both courtesans.
That is not to say that using courtesans as models for religious figures came without controversy though. In his Death of the Virgin, 1505–6, Caravaggio used the high-class courtesan Fillide Melandroni as the model for the mother of God. A controversial move for sure, though he was by no means the first to do so. She was also the model for Judith in Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–99 or 1602, and as such is perhaps the most recognisable figure in Caravaggio’s art.
Sandro Botticelli is one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and his most famous work, The Birth of Venus, 1484–86 owes a great debt to the tragically short life of one woman — Simonetta Vespucci. Married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, Simonetta became a favourite at the Florentine court of the newly resurgent Medici family and as such became a favourite of numerous artists. Botticelli here depicts her as the face of the Goddess of Love.
Given the nickname, La Bella Simonetta (the beautiful Simonetta), she is present in many of Botticelli’s paintings, such as Venus and Mars, 1485 and La Bella Simonetta, 1480–85. Sometimes, she can even appear multiple times in the same painting, as appears to be the case in Primavera, 1482.
As ever, such affinity for one woman has led many to believe that Botticelli may have harboured feelings for Simonetta, and while this is possible, there is no evidence that these were acted upon by either of them. Perhaps he had simply found a woman he believed to be the height of beauty and everything he stood for, as Beatrice was for Dante. Much like Beatrice though, Simonetta would die tragically young at the age of 23, from an unclear cause, though her beauty lives on as the face of Love itself today.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that the most famous artist model is associated with the quintessential artist of the Renaissance — Leonardo DaVinci. That model’s name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, a student and servant of Leonardo’s from the age of ten, who is remembered by history as Andrea Salaì or just Salaì.
While famous for his detailed studies of anatomy for his art, Leonardo also used models to great effect. Salaì is most strikingly rendered in the celebrated Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?), as well as Bacchus, 1510–15. It has also been erroneously claimed that Salaì is the real model for the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, though this is disputed by most mainstream art critics and theorists. There is some similarity between the soft features of Salaì and Lisa del Giocondo (the suspected subject of the Mona Lisa). The letters of ‘Mona Lisa’ can also be rearranged into Mon Salaì (‘my Salaì’ in French). Neither the slight similarity of their features nor the apparent anagram has convinced most experts that Salaì is the Mona Lisa’s true subject, however.
Once again, the relationship between the two men has frequently been called into question. Leonardo was charged with homosexuality when apprenticed to Verrocchio, but he was acquitted. He is not recorded as having had a relationship with any woman, but there remains little compelling evidence of his relationship with men either.
The Face Behind the Art
Researching and understanding exactly who these models were can be challenging. Many wealthy patrons had portraits done of themselves, but many of the names behind the faces we today associate with the Renaissance have been lost to history. But understanding who these individuals are is crucial to understanding the art world of the Renaissance.
Even the most traditional of art can be made radical by understanding more about artists’ models, many of whom came from the lower classes. There is something wonderful in knowing that many of the faces we associate with sainthood and religious zeal belonged to people who in their real lives were prostitutes and ‘sinners’.
It could be argued that it doesn’t matter who the artist’s model is. Once they strike a pose, they are erased, becoming instead a character on the canvas.
But I think there’s more to it than that. We, as viewers, can enrich our appreciation of even these masterpieces by understanding the world they came from and the often simple, ordinary people that made them possible.
To be a creative can often feel like a choice that is both insane and thrilling in equal measure. There are thousands of jobs that are far more certain and stable than an artist’s work, yet true creatives know that there really is not a choice to be made. The artist must art. Therefore, the artist must find a way to live in the uncertain, wild space between what success looks like to others and what success feels like to themselves. Choosing a creative career is not something for the weak-willed, the comfort-chasers, the ones who need to know how their life will splay out ahead of them for years and years to come. Those are noble endeavors — to value comfort and security — but a creative sacrifices almost all convention in the name of art.
I doubt any of us regret it. We know that life is impermanent and we never know when our last day will be. We’d rather create the work that inspires us most and let it kill us.
1. Highly creative people sacrifice a comfortable life for a big, messy, weird, interesting life
Most creatives learn quickly that comfort and inspiration do not live harmoniously. You can have one, but not the other. Inspiration comes from action, from experimentation, from the chaos, the fire, the big wins and the big fails. In order to art and art well, you must live and live well. And, to live well is to constantly be pushing yourself out of what’s comfortable and into what’s unknown. This is the source of inspiration: whatever lay on the outer edges of comfort.
2. They sacrifice certainty for a big question mark about the future
Creatives have mastered the art of the unknown. Most of them wear this as a badge of honor, because they have learned the hard way that the best laid plans are the easiest sources of disappointment. Nothing about a creative life exists on a straight line. It’s like a squiggly line that often goes backward and then propels forward then stays in one place for an unnervingly long amount of time. There is no plan. The future is a shrug of the shoulders. The words “I don’t know” are the artist’s anthem. To not know is to be open to knowing, to be led, and the creative thrives there.
3. They sacrifice a stable life for the freedom to say yes at any moment
While creatives might have a yearning to build a life and put down roots, they know that there’s always a chance that their lives could be uprooted at any moment. Because an artist does not follow a set path, they have to be consistently open to saying YES quickly and without reservation. They have to be willing to uproot their lives in order to follow the inspiration or the opportunity whenever it comes up. Freedom is the artist’s currency.
4. They sacrifice approval from others for approval of themselves
Most art is created alone in a dark room. It’s thankless work. It’s like doing spec work constantly with the hope that, one day, it will pay off. If creatives needed approval from others to begin, they would never start (and some brilliant creatives never do start, sadly). Instead, artists know that it’s a necessity to approve of themselves, to believe in their work and, as equally important, to believe in the process. Creatives know that chasing approval will always prolong the work from ever leaving their minds, so they simply learn to give themselves the permission they may desire from others.
5. They sacrifice being accepted and understood by the world for being a visionary who may or may not be ever understood
Creatives know that any visionary work will not always be immediately understood or accepted. They accept that they may not ever be accepted or understood — yet make their art any way. They don’t look outside of themselves for the answers, for permission. They simply create whether anyone appreciates it or not.
6. They sacrifice all the “shoulds” for what their heart leads them to create
Creatives know that they can easily “should” their way into a miserable, uninspired life. They know that the world is built on “shoulds” — what this person should or shouldn’t do, how others should or shouldn’t live. Artists know that conventions and traditions hardly inspire creative work, that the only way to listen to what their heart yearns to make is to shut out the “shoulds” of the world and find their own way. This is an arduous process, to empty out themselves from all the beliefs of who they should be and, instead, to allow themselves to simply be who they are now and create what they need to create now.
7. They sacrifice constant happiness for the emotional spectrum of self-growth
Artists know that pursuing self-growth means letting go of the desire to be in a constant state of happiness. To grow is to shed old versions of self, which is to also say to grow is to be able to create new versions of art. The only way the art grows and evolves is when the artist grows and evolves. Every creative soon realizes that self-growth is a state of being and that means to be in almost constant flux. The process of evolvement has no room for holding tight to only one emotion — say, happiness — and needs to endure the entire spectrum of emotions to truly evolve. To face who they are as angry, sad, grief-stricken, resentful, bored is to allow themselves to evolve.
8. They sacrifice superficial relationships and work for vulnerable relationships and work
While creating uninspired art is something all creatives have likely had to do in their past — bills are hard — highly creative people feel even more strongly about making art from a vulnerable, real place. They know that at the heart of artistic genius is vulnerability, a brave person who is willing to be rejected, who is willing to share their soul with a world who may not be very kind to it. While creatives know that superficial work and relationships are oftentimes easier to maintain — and success is often easier to come by for the superficial — they know that art is a choice and a privilege and they always want to create from the deepest parts of themselves.
9. They sacrifice their pride for empathy and compassion
The best kind of art comes from a place of empathy and compassion, from an inherent curiosity around the human experience. Highly creative people understand that their curiosity around humanity is what brings them to the page, the instrument, the canvas, the laptop, the camera, the drawing board. Empathy does not exist with pride. It takes a certain degree of humility to have an empathic view of the world and artists understand that at the core of their work is a desire to move people with their art. This means they have a high level of respect for whoever will come into contact with their work. Creatives know that their tender heart, their empathy, their compassion is at the heart of their brilliance and they will eschew pride and arrogance in order to step deeper into that brilliance.
10. They sacrifice the perception of success for their own definition of success
From the outside, a creative’s life may not look very successful if success is defined by cultural expectations. An artist learns quickly that they must define success for themselves otherwise they will drown underneath other people’s expectations. In their conviction of self, they are free to create and build their life however they desire. Not having to “measure up” or prove anything to others is one of the most important things a creative must learn for themselves — because they could spend their entire artistic life trying to prove themselves and always come up short.
11. They sacrifice the life people told them they should have for a life they love, a life that is inspiring and fucking thrilling
Because that’s the whole point. To create is a privilege, one that artists know not to take for granted. To deny a conventional life is a risk, but not as great a risk as to deny their heart.