Titian: Love, Desire, Death

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square has reopened with a small exhibition about Titian’s interpretation of Classical myths. Known as the poesie, Titian: Love, Desire, Death, reunites all six paintings for the first time in centuries. Painted for Prince Philip of Spain, the future King Philip II, these artworks demonstrate Titian’s talent at the height of his career as well as his ability to capture a story. Unlikely to be displayed together again anytime soon, this exhibition is a rare opportunity to see some of the greatest paintings in Europe.

Titian had already had a long career before he started working on the poesie. Born sometime around 1488, Tiziano Vecelli (Titian was his anglicised name) was the son of Gregorio and Lucia, who, although there is little information about them, were related to notaries in Venice. When he was about ten years old, Titian and his brother Francesco (c.1475-1560) became apprentices of Gentile Bellini (1429-1507) and Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516), who were the leading artists in Venice at the time.

While in Venice, Titian met and became the assistant of Giorgione (c.1477-1510), but it was clear to clients that Titian’s paintings far surpassed his master’s. He was also in charge of finishing paintings left by Giovanni Bellini and received commissions to paint the portraits of five Doges of Venice.

After Giorgione and the Bellini’s had passed away, Titian began to come into his own, developing his mature style. For the following 60 years, he was considered the master of Venetian painting. Titian’s first masterpiece was the Assumption of the Virgin, which is still in situ in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari, Venice. He continued to paint for churches for the next few decades, producing many artworks on a religious theme.

During the 1520s, Titian also began to produce paintings on a mythological theme. A few of these artworks were commissions from Alfonso d’Este (1476-1534), Duke of Ferrara, for his private rooms. Titian also worked for Alessandro Farnese (1520-89), an Italian cardinal, for whom he produced one of his famous paintings, Danaë. Titian made several copies of this scene, including one that forms part of the poesie.

As time went on, Titian’s style became more dramatic and vibrant, plus he was a popular choice for portraits. He painted portraits of people high up in society, including royalty, Doges and cardinals, as well as artists and writers. “…no other painter was so successful in extracting from each physiognomy so many traits at once characteristic and beautiful.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913)

In 1546, Titian visited Rome and received the freedom of the city, a privilege that once belonged to Michelangelo (1457-1546). He was also in the running to succeed Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) as Keeper of the Seal to the Papacy and take Holy Orders, but he had to return to Venice to work for Charles V (1500-58) and his son, Philip (1527-98).

For the last 26 years of his life, Titian predominantly worked for Philip II as a portrait painter. By this time, he had become a perfectionist and was very critical of his work, often reworking paintings for years until he was satisfied. When Titian met Philip, the 21-year-old prince was on a tour of the European countries he would soon rule over. The first meeting was organised by Charles V, who was then Titian’s patron, to paint a portrait of Philip. Pleased with the result, Philip became another of Titian’s patrons.

The six poesie, produced between 1551 to 1562, were the result of an open commission from Philip in which he gave Titian free reign of the subject matter. Titian produced paintings of both religious and secular themes, six of which were mythological scenes based on Ovid’s (43 BC-c.AD17) Metamorphoses. These six paintings became known as the poesie because Titian considered them to be visual equivalents to poetry. They covered many themes, including, love, desire and death.

When Philip became the King of Spain in 1556, Titian’s importance increased. He was now the painter for the most powerful man in the world. As well as Spain, Philip II ruled over the Netherlands, Genoa, Milan, Naples and a handful of American colonies. He later became the King of Portugal and was briefly the king consort of England through his marriage to Mary I (1516-58). Philip was a great lover of art and filled his palaces and houses with paintings. Since he had no fixed place of residence, there were several buildings to decorate, making Titian and other artists of the time very valuable to the king.

Considered to be one of the first paintings of the poesie to be completed is Danaë, a copy of one of Titian’s earlier paintings. Since there are at least six versions, it is unsure which one he sent to Philip II. In some versions, a nursemaid is depicted with Danaë and in others, she is alone or with the figure of Cupid.

Princess Danaë was the daughter of Acrisius, the King of Argos, who had imprisoned her in a bronze tower after learning from an oracle that her future son was destined to kill him. Whilst the tower protected her from mortal suitors, it was no barrier for the Roman gods, particularly Jupiter, king of the Olympians, who had fallen in love with Danaë.

According to Ovid, Jupiter entered Danaë’s tower disguised as a shower of gold, which her elderly maid attempted to catch in the hopes of bringing her youth. Jupiter impregnated Danaë who later gave birth to a son, Perseus. Still intent on preventing his fate, Acrisius forced his daughter and grandson into a chest and threw them into the ocean. Fortunately, Polydectes, King of Serifos, rescued them and Perseus grew up to fulfil the prophecy. At a sports contest, Perseus’s discus struck Acrisius’ head, killing him instantly.

In the story, of which there are several tellings in addition to Ovid’s, Jupiter raped Danaë, but Titian did not depict a struggle. Instead, he painted the nude Danaë lying on a bed, seemingly expectant of events to come as she calmly let Jupiter’s golden shower descend upon her. British art historian, Kenneth Clark (1903-83) claimed in The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form, Danaë’s body was “clearly based on drawings of Michelangelo … At every point Michelangelo’s grandiose invention has been transformed from an embodiment of spiritual malaise into an embodiment of physical satisfaction.”

Danaë was sent to Philip in 1553 while he resided in either Madrid or Valladolid. There is some damage to the surface, possibly caused during transport, which has revealed some of Titian’s preliminary studies below the paint. It appears he originally intended to include an image of Jupiter’s head, which he later did in another version of the painting.

Diana and Actaeon, now owned by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland, portrays the moment the hunter, Actaeon, stumbled across the goddess Diana and her nymphs bathing. Diana, the goddess of the hunt, was renowned for being a virgin goddess, so it was forbidden for mortal men to see her naked. Outraged by the intrusion, Diana turned Actaeon into a stag so that he could not tell anyone what he had seen.

Titian painted Diana, who can be identified by her crescent moon crown, hastily covering herself with the help of a black woman. It is uncertain whether this woman is one of the nymphs or if she was Diana’s maid or servant. Given the era Titian worked, it is more likely to be the latter. Nonetheless, Titian has painted the dark-skinned woman with great care. Unlike Diana and the nymphs who have a generic body shape that is common to many Renaissance paintings, Titian may have used a model for Diana’s maid.

Ovid wrote that Diana was enraged with Actaeon, yet Titian did not depict that emotion in his painting. Instead, Diana fixes Actaeon with a glare, causing the innocent Actaeon to realise he has witnessed something he should not. The nymphs are more expressive, reaching for something to cover their bodies or hiding behind a pillar.

Although Actaeon is still in human form, Titian hid a few symbols in the painting to indicate the hunter’s fate. In the foreground, Diana’s lapdog barks at and frightens Actaeon’s much larger hounds. In the background, a small figure is hunting a deer and, on top of the stone pillar, is a stag’s skull, suggesting that not only would Actaeon be transformed into the animal, he will also be killed.

Titian painted Diana in another of his paintings based on Ovid’s story, Diana and Callisto. The scene Titian chose to depict occurs midway through the tale after Callisto has been raped by Jupiter who tricked his way into the nymph’s presence disguised as Diana.

Knowing Diana demanded chastity, Callisto kept the attack secret, but she was pregnant and could not hide it forever. When Callisto was eight months pregnant, Diana and the nymphs decided to bathe together. When Callisto did not remove her clothing, the other nymphs stripped her, revealing her swollen stomach. Although the situation was not Callisto’s fault, Diana, who once considered Callisto to be her favourite nymph, immediately cried, “Be gone! This sacred spring must not be polluted!”

It is this moment Titian captured in paint, revealing the struggling Callisto’s pregnant stomach and Diana’s dismissal of the nymph. Critics claim Diana and Callisto to be the most dramatic painting in the poesie. Callisto’s bloodshot eyes and body language indicate her desperation. She is a rape victim but is being shunned by her only friends rather than supported.

Callisto’s distress indicates her banishment from Diana’s presence is not the end of the story. After Callisto had given birth to a boy, Arcus, Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno discovered her husband’s infidelity. Rather than confronting Jupiter, she took her anger out on Callisto, transforming her into a bear. For years, Callisto roamed the forest until, many years later, she met her adolescent son out hunting. Frightened, Arcus pointed his weapon at his mother, but Jupiter intervened, picking them both up and transforming them into constellations: the Great Bear (Ursa Major) and the Herdsman.

Titian’s painting of Venus and Adonis is slightly different from the others in that there is no portrayal of violence, wrongdoing or punishment. It is a scene Titian painted several times, each slightly different, although the figures of Venus and Adonis remained in the same pose.

Adonis was an orphan who had been brought up by Proserpine, the Queen of the Underworld. Known for his good looks, Adonis attracted the attention of Venus, the goddess of beauty, who became his lover. The scene Titian painted shows the pair after a night of lovemaking. Venus, still unclothed, is begging Adonis not to go out hunting. She is warning him of the dangers of wild beasts, but he is insistent on going out with his hounds.

Venus was right to worry about her lover. Instead of heeding her advice, Adonis chased and hunted wild beasts and was killed by a boar. According to the story, Venus found her lover bleeding to death and, unable to save him, shed copious tears. Where her tears fell on Adonis’ blood, red anemones grew.

Titian captured the flexing muscles of the goddess as she desperately tried to prevent him from leaving. Adonis, on the other hand, is painted mid-stride, already determined to go out hunting. Titian included a slight hint of hesitation in Adonis’ stance but his face hints of incomprehension, unaware of his fate.

Titian sent this painting to Philip in London where he had just married Mary I. Titian explained in a letter, Venus and Adonis complemented his painting of Danaë. Both females had a similar, if not the same, body: one shown from the front and the other from the back. When placed together, the viewer could see the complete figure, thus competing with sculptures of a similar nature.

Of Titian’s poesie, his painting of Perseus and Andromeda has received the most damage over time. Sent to Philip while he was residing in Ghent in 1556, it was sold or gifted less than two decades later. In total, the painting has changed hands at least fifteen times, resulting in its poor condition. A lot of the colour has faded, making the paint seem darker than intended. The blue pigment, for example, has become grey in some places.

The story of Perseus, the son of Danaë, is fairly well-known, or at least bits of it, such as how he killed the snake-haired gorgon, Medusa. On his return, wearing winged sandals, Perseus flew across the Kingdom of Ethiopia where he came across Andromeda chained to a rock. Andromeda was the daughter of Queen Cassiopeia who boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs. Offended by this, Neptune, the god of the sea sent Ceto, a giant sea creature, to attack the kingdom. To appease Neptune, Andromeda sacrificed herself as bait for the monster.

Fortunately, Perseus arrived before Ceto could attack Andromeda. Using the head of Medusa, whose gaze turned living beings to stone, Perseus froze the sea monster. Having fallen in love with Andromeda on sight, Perseus had secured her hand in marriage before saving her, and they went on to live a relatively happy life – at least in comparison to the majority of Classical myths.

Titian’s use of expressive brushstrokes helped to capture the movement of Perseus as he swooped towards the sea monster. They also make the sea look violent and dangerous, and the dark rocks forbidding. In comparison, Andromeda’s pale skin makes her appear vulnerable and innocent.

The Rape of Europa

The Rape of Europa was the final painting Titian sent to Philip and thus concluded his poesie. Similar to Perseus and Andromeda, time and handling have damaged parts of the painting, causing some of the blue pigment to turn brown. Nonetheless, Titian’s expressive brushstrokes and detail are still visible.

Europa, the daughter of King Agenor of Phoenicia, had unknowingly drawn the attention of Jupiter with her beauty. While Europa and her friends were relaxing on the beach, Jupiter approached the princess in the guise of a snow-white bull. Fascinated by the creature, the girls gathered around him and Europa, rather foolishly, climbed on his back. Suddenly, the bull took off, carrying her to Crete where Jupiter raped her.

Despite not being the nicest of stories, the myth was widely interpreted in art and literature. Ovid had written about Europa in his Metamorphoses as well as his previous work, Fasti. Titian also used the 2nd-century book The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius for inspiration.

Titian’s rapid brushstrokes emphasise the speed of the bull as it charges through the water. Europa’s hair and clothing appear to be flailing around in all directions as she desperately clings onto the bull so that she does not drown in the sea. Her eyes are wild in fear, but some critics suggest her body language evokes excitement and her red scarf symbolises passion.

To contrast with the rapid speed of the bull, Titian included a graceful dolphin in the background and a couple of cherubs gliding through the air. A third cherub sits upon a fish while another more vicious-looking fish swims alongside the bull, foreshadowing the next part of the story.

The Death of Actaeon

The National Gallery included a seventh painting in their exhibition that is not considered part of Titian’s poesie. Titian may have intended to send it to Philip, however, he never completed it. It is thought someone else tried to complete the painting, although they left out the bowstring and arrow held by the female archer.

The Death of Actaeon concludes the story Titian depicted in Diana and Actaeon. After being turned into a stag, Actaeon fled from the scene but was chased by his hounds who eventually caught him and tore him apart. Titian portrayed Actaeon in mid-transformation between man and stag surrounded by a blur of movement to indicate the vicious attack from his dogs.

In the foreground, a female archer, presumably Diana, aims an invisible arrow at Actaeon. In the story, Diana is not involved in Actaeon’s death, so Titian has embellished the myth with his imagination. All the paintings in the poesie featured fleshy women, which may be why Titian included Diana in this scene.

Titian was in his mid-80s when he was working on The Death of Actaeon. He had been working on his poesie for just over a decade. Whilst they are considered to be some of his best works, these paintings did not remain in the Spanish Royal Collection for long. Philip’s successors were prudish and did not like Titian’s nude figures.

Pietà

While working on the poesie, Titian accepted other commissions, including decorations for churches. He continued to take on these jobs right up to the end of his life. His last painting was a rather dark Pietà, which, along with his other artworks of a similar nature, suggests he was very aware of his age and inevitable mortality.

Titian spent his final days in Venice where the bubonic plague raged through the city. It is not certain if Titian caught the plague, but he passed away after suffering from a fever on 27th August 1576. As it is impossible to determine his exact date of birth, Titian would have been somewhere between the ages of 85 and 100 at his passing.

Before his death, Titian had chosen the chapel of the Crucifix in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari as his final resting place. When interred, there was no memorial to mark his grave, although one of his paintings hung nearby. Centuries later, the Austrian rulers of Venice commissioned Antonio Canova (1757-1822) to produce a monument in Titian’s honour, which remains in the church to date.

Titian left no will, but other documents have revealed information about his family. His first wife was called Cecilia with whom he had two sons, Pomponio and Orazio (1528-76), and a daughter who died in infancy. Sadly, Cecilia died in 1530, and it is thought Pomponio also predeceased his father. Titian remarried and had another daughter called Lavinia, who often modelled for his paintings. A fourth child, Emilia, may have been the result of an affair with a housekeeper. When Titian died, Orazio was his only heir but died soon after from the plague.

Titian produced around 400 paintings of which 300 survive. Many of these ended up in private collections, but galleries have been able to purchase a handful. Diana and Actaeon was bought by the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland for £50 million in 2009. Diana and Callisto was bought for a similar amount three years later.

It may seem expensive at £12 a ticket to attend the exhibition Titian: Love, Desire, Death, which only consists of seven paintings, however, it is a once in a lifetime chance to see the entire poesie in one room. Titian is considered to be the most important member of the 16th-century Venetian school and earned the nickname “The Sun Amidst Small Stars” from his contemporaries. He was one of the most versatile Italian painters and has influenced generations of artists. This small exhibition allows each painting to be admired in detail, thus receiving the respect they deserve.

Titian: Love, Desire, Death is open until 17th January 2021. Tickets must be bought online in advance. Concessions are available, including for NHS workers.

Spot the Cat

When the world closed down around them, museums began to embrace technology, producing virtual exhibitions that people could visit from the comfort of their homes. Teaming up with museums all over the world is UMA – Universal Museum of Art, an online platform that uses virtual reality to show exhibitions made by specialists at different establishments. In collaboration with RMN-Grand Palais, UMA has designed an exhibition in a virtual eighteenth-century mansion about one of the internet’s favourite subjects: cats.

Cats in Art History combines 75 works of art to demonstrate the appearance of cats from antiquity to our times. There are cats hidden in all of the paintings, whether they are big, small, cuddly, playful, tigers or kittens. They appear in all sorts of scenes, often where they are least expected. Cats have often been associated with extraordinary power, for example, fictional wicked witches usually have a cat. In Ancient Egypt, felines were worshipped as a god, however, in other religions, a cat may be likened to the devil. Cats in religious art usually hold significant meaning, for example, treason or bad luck. Since they are independent creatures, some cultures have deemed them untrustworthy.

Of course, not every painting containing a cat has an obscure or negative meaning. Cats were companions of many artists who isolated themselves in their studios. Cats were and still are cuddly companions of both children and adults. Whatever the artists’ intentions, cats can add a bit of fun to art, particularly when they are not spotted straight away.

Here are a few examples of the paintings in the UMA exhibition. Look out for the cats.

Hanging of Seigniorial Life: Reading (c.1520)

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Hanging of Seigniorial Life: Reading

This is a tapestry from a series called La Vie Seigneuriale (The Nobleman’s way of life) that was woven in France during the early 16th century. The figures, who are dressed in Italian fashions that had become popular in France, are thought to be a Lord and Lady going about their daily activities. The Lady’s activity appears to be spinning wool.

The tapestry’s background, a typical design from the 15th and 16th century, is known as the millefleurs (Thousand Flowers) style. It features a pattern of flowers and leaves with the occasional bird. This may have been inspired by an old tradition of scattering cut flowers on the ground on special occasions. This style was later adopted by William Morris (1834-96) and is still used by Morris & Co. today.

lw1290_the_lecture_6Spot the Cat: The tiny cat almost goes unnoticed between the plants in the background of the medieval-style tapestry. He is playing with a thread from the Lady’s spindle, which hangs by her feet. During the Middle Ages, cats were a symbol of femininity, which may be one reason for its inclusion in the tapestry. Its behaviour, however, suggests an alternative meaning of slyness and cunning. This was a trait assigned to cats in many medieval bestiaries.

The cat is not the only animal in the tapestry. On the Lady’s lap is a tiny dog, which peers down to see what the cat is doing. Despite its small stature, it is as though the dog is guarding his mistress and keeping an eye on anything that could cause her harm. The actions of both cat and dog, however, go unnoticed by the couple in the tapestry. It is almost as though they have been frozen in time in a static tapestry, whereas the cat and dog look as though they could move at any moment, thus adding a little humour and cheerfulness to the scene.

The Wedding Feast at Cana – Paolo Veronese (1528-88)

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The Wedding Feast at Cana – Veronese

Paolo Caliari, also known as Paolo Veronese, was an Italian Renaissance painter based in Venice. He is remembered for his large history paintings of mythological and religious stories, of which The Wedding Feast at Cana is one. Painted in the Mannerist style, the artwork was commissioned by the Black Monks of the Order of Saint Benedict in 1562 for their new refectory. Veronese was instructed to paint “the history of the banquet of Christ’s miracle at Cana, in Galilee, creating the number of [human] figures that can be fully accommodated”.

The Wedding Feast at Cana depicts the New Testament story of the wedding Jesus, his mother and his disciples attended in the Gospel of John 2:1-11. It is also the scene of Jesus’ first miracle. At the wedding party, the host ran out of wine to serve the guests but Jesus told him to fill the containers with water. Miraculously, the water became wine.

Veronese positioned Jesus at the centre of one of the tables, looking out of the painting at the viewer. Either side of him is his mother and disciples, seated in a similar way to paintings of the Last Supper. Yet, Jesus’ party is relatively small in comparison to the number of people at the wedding feast – 123 people in total. Whilst Jesus is, arguably, the most important figure in the painting, Veronese included several famous faces amongst the guests. These include Eleanor of Austria (1498-1558), Francis I of France (1494-1547), Mary I of England (1516-58), Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58).

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå Gallerix.ruSpot the Cat: The cat is in the bottom right-hand corner of the painting where it is caught mid-movement, sharpening its claws on a silver amphora. The cat is indifferent to the party and is more concerned with its own comfort. It is not, however, the only animal in the painting. Dotted around the scene are dogs of various sizes and breeds. Only one dog looks in the direction of the cat, but he may be too engrossed in the servant pouring wine into the amphora rather than the cat nearby. One tiny dog can be seen walking on one of the tables.

In religious paintings, cats are usually a reference to the devil or sin. Whilst Satan does not play a part in this story, the amphora the cat is playing with is decorated with an image of a Satyr, a symbol of drunkenness and infidelity. Yet, when cats and dogs both feature in a religious painting, there is often an alternative meaning. Dogs are sometimes used to represent Jesus’ disciples, and that is likely the case in The Wedding Feast at Cana. The cat, however, represents one particular disciple, Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus. Dogs are seen as loyal, friendly creatures, hence the connection to the eleven disciples. In this instance, the cat represents treason and disloyalty.

Historical Hanging of Scipio: the Tessin Battle – Giulio Romano (1492-1546)

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Historical Hanging of Scipio: the Tessin Battle – Giulio Romano

Giulio Pippi, better known as Giulio Romano, was a painter, architect and decorator of the Mannerist style. Born in Rome, hence his name, Romano was a student of Raphael (1483-1520) and was the only Renaissance artist to get a mention in a Shakespearean play. “That rare Italian master, Julio Romano.” (The Winter’s Tale, Act V, Scene II)

The tapestry is based on a cartoon produced by Romano for a set of twenty-two panels depicting the heroic deeds and triumph of Scipio Africanus (236-183 BC). “Scipio the Great”, as he is sometimes known, was the son of the leader of the Romans in the Second Punic War, also known as the War Against Hannibal. This particular scene, which is based on Livy’s (64 BC-AD 12) account in his book History of Rome, took place at Tessin or Ticinus on the bank of the River Ticino in northern Italy. Although the Roman’s eventually beat the Carthaginian Army, led by Hannibal (247-183 BC), this battle scene shows the Romans on the losing side. The Carthaginian’s attacked on horseback, giving the Romans neither time nor space to throw their javelins. If 18-year-old Scipio Africanus had not been on the field to rescue him, his father would not have survived the battle.

04-22_12-533602Spot the Cat: The cat does not appear in the scene of the battle but rather on the edge of the frieze. The frame is decorated with flowers, fruit, birds, dancing children and a single cat. All these images are a complete contrast to the bloody battle. They represent what the men will receive at the end of the war: peace. The images are also symbols of hope, courage and freedom, thus the cat is supporting the Roman warriors. Unfortunately, the cat is looking away from the scene, perhaps indicating the Romans’ defeat, and has its eyes on something it finds far more interesting: a small rodent.

Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables – Frans Snyders (1579-1657)

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Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables – Frans Snyders

Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables is typical of the paintings by Frans Snyders or Snijders, who was one of the leading artists in Antwerp at the turn on the 17th century, alongside Rubens (1577-1640) and Van Dyck (1599-1641). Snyders initially devoted himself to painting flowers, fruit and still life but later began to focus on animals, making him one of the earliest animaliers. Arguably, his earliest works feature animals since his market scenes often included dead animals in the stages before they were prepared as food. Snyders also included a few live animals as a contrast between animate and inanimate objects.

Some art critics have interpreted Snyder’s paintings as a propagandistic message in favour of the Spanish who ruled over Flanders at the time. Antwerp was a wealthy area full of luxuries that were supposedly supplied by the Spanish, therefore, suggesting they were superior to the Protestant Flemish government. On the other hand, apart from being one of the Antwerpen artists who assisted Rubens in a large commission for decorations for the hunting pavilion Torre de la Parada of Philip IV of Spain (1605-65), Snyders appeared not to have any other dealings with Spain.

04-10_95-014361Spot the Cat: There is more than one cat in this painting: one adult and three kittens. Standing on its back paws, the adult cat has decided to help herself to the peacock on the left side of the paintings. Whilst she drags the bird off the table by its neck, her kittens wait by a basket for their meal. One of the kittens is attempting to follow in his mother’s footsteps, pouncing on a small bird that has fallen onto the floor.

The actions of the cat in this painting could be interpreted as a mother looking after her young, however, the inclusion of a small dog asleep on the right side of the painting suggests otherwise. Some infer the dog belongs to the owner of the market stall and has been instructed not to touch the game while his master is away. Being obedient, the dog curled up into a ball and fell asleep, thus not giving in to temptation. The cat, on the other hand, has been tantalised by the peacocks, pheasants, swans and quails. She is either unaware that touching the game is forbidden, or she does not care.

The Painter’s Studio – Gustave Courbet (1819-77)

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The Painter’s Studio – Gustave Courbet

Subtitled A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life, this painting is a visual summary of French painter Gustave Courbet’s career as a Realist painter. Courbet and his associates rejected the Romanticism style of the previous century, which was still taught in art schools, and only painted what they could see. Courbet challenged convention by painting unidealised scenes on a scale that was traditionally reserved for religious or historical subjects. His themes included peasants, landscapes, hunting scenes and nudes.

Courbet depicted himself painting a landscape in the centre of The Painter’s Studio, which is being admired by a young boy. The landscape painting is of the Loue River Valley where Courbet grew up. Directly behind him, as though trying to get his attention, is a barely concealed nude woman. She represents Academic art, which Courbet pointedly ignores.

The left side of the painting represents “the other world of trivial life, the people, misery, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters, the people who live off death”, i.e. the people of everyday life in France. People depicted include a Jewish man and Irishwoman who Coubert met on a trip to London in 1848, a priest, a gravedigger, a merchant and other people of similar professions. Interestingly, the man with the two hunting dogs is not a person living in poverty but rather an allegory for French Emperor Napoleon III (1808-73), who Courbet detested, depicting him as a criminal for, as Courbet believed, illegally owning France. Needless to say, Courbet’s political views often got him in trouble.

Also on the left is a mannequin that has been contorted to resemble the crucified Christ. Religious scenes were a topic belonging to the Academic art styles that Coubert rejected. Art critics have interpreted the figure not only as death but the death of the Royal Academy of Art in France.

The right side of the painting depicts Parisian elites and friends of the artist. Most of the people either inspired Courbet or played a part in the development of his career. Figures include the art critics Champfleury (1821-89) and Charles Baudelaire (1821-67), and Courbet’s patron Alfred Bruyas (1821-77).

bigSpot the Cat: A white angora cat is at the foot of the artist in the centre of the painting where it is playing with a small insect. Being in the centre, it is neither associated with the figures on the left nor the right. Instead, it represents individuality. The cat is one of the few living entities in the painting that is not observing the artist at his work. The carelessness of the cat’s play suggests it does what it wants and does not conform to rules, just like Courbet painted what he wanted and did not restrict himself to the constraints of Academic art. The cat represents neither good nor evil but rather the taste of freedom.

Peasant Family in an Interior – Louis Le Nain (1603-48)

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Peasant Family in an Interior – Louis Le Nain

The Le Nain brothers, Antoine (1600-48), Louis and Mathieu (1607-77) were genre painters and portraitists active in 17th century France. The eldest was a member of the Paris painters’ guild and allowed his siblings to train under him for free. This painting, Peasant Family in an Interior, was produced by the middle brother Louis and is the largest of the three brothers’ “peasant” paintings.

Seated around a table close to the fire are eight members of a peasant family. Half of them look out of the painting as though interrupted by the presence of the viewer; four of the children, however, are engrossed in their activities. In the centre, one boy is playing a tune on a pipe, whilst two children are warming themselves by the fire. One girl stands behind her mother’s chair, and the fifth child, whose attention is on the viewer, is sitting barefoot on the floor.

Louis Le Nain’s main intention was to offer a glimpse into the reality of the life of a peasant family. His ability to handle light in a painting emphasises the dullness of the interior, lit only by the fire and window, which lies somewhere to the right of the painting. The family wear clothes stained with dirt and the children have no shoes, indicating their poor financial situation. Nonetheless, Le Nain is not mocking the family for their way of life, nor is he trying to shock the people of Paris with his portrayal of the lower class. Instead, the family appear content with what they have, which would resonate with the pious and moral teachings of the Catholic church at the time. The size of the canvas, which was usually reserved for religious paintings, makes the family appear important, almost as though the artist is suggesting their way of life is something to which one should aspire.

louvre-famille-paysans-dans-interieurSpot the Cat: The cat lies behind a pot on the floor in the centre of the paintings. Cats were important to peasant and farming families because they were good at catching mice and other vermin. A cat, however, cannot be trained like the dog who sits on the right side of the painting, and will only work when it feels like it, usually putting its own interests first. In this instance, the cat has decided it would much rather keep warm by the pot, which was likely filled with some sort of soup or broth. The cat also keeps a wary gaze on the dog who does not quite seem to fit in with the family, suggesting he may be a new addition to the household.

The Fruit and Vegetable Seller – Louise Moïllon (1609-96)

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The Fruit and Vegetable Seller – Louise Moïllon

Louise Moïllon was a French Baroque painter who, despite being a woman, became one of the best still-life painters of her time. Many of her paintings were purchased by French royalty as well as Charles I of England (1600-49). Known for her use of Trompe l’oeil, Moïllon’s paintings are recognised by the texture of fruit on a dark background, as is the case with The Fruit and Vegetable Seller.

In this painting, a wealthy-looking woman is purchasing fruit from a tired-looking woman, struggling under the weight of a basket of peaches. Moïllon was one of the first artists to combine figures and still-life in one painting and it is interesting to observe how she distinguished between two classes of people. The richer woman is identified by her curled hairstyle and the lace on her dress. The working-class woman’s clothing is less elaborate and her head is covered by a scarf.

ob_ff6121_03-013376Spot the Cat: The cat is resting on the table on the right-hand side of the painting. Initially, the cat does not appear to have a significant meaning, however, some critics believe Moïllon added it as a comical feature. The cat’s facial expression suggests he is unenthusiastic about his surroundings. Unlike the cat in Frans Snyder’s Kitchen Table with Prey, Fish and Vegetables who is helping himself to a bird, this cat is not interested in the fruit and vegetables. Whether intentional or not, the cat appears to be glancing rather sourly towards the viewer or the painter, as though asking why she could not paint something better and more suitable for a self-respecting cat.

The Painter’s Studio – David Ryckaert III (1612-61)

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The Painter’s Studio – David Ryckaert III

David Ryckaert III was a Flemish artist who contributed to genre painting, usually with scenes of peasants or workers, although he later painted aristocratic people and scenes of Hell. It is not certain whether The Painter’s Studio was staged or if the scene was based on Ryckaert’s studio, however, it provides an accurate portrayal of a 17th-century workshop. The artist is seated in the centre, making it clear he is the most important person in the painting – it is his studio. Posing for him is a male model whose likeness can also be seen on the artist’s canvas. Genre artists did not need to set up a tableau from which to paint but built the scene up in stages.

In the background is another painter working on a canvas. Since his features are blurred and his clothing less interesting than the other artist, it is assumed he was an assistant or pupil of the studio. On the right is another assistant who is preparing the pigments for the artist. Unlike today where paints come in tubes, artists had to make their own paints or hire someone to do it for them.

8cc74697d7f6a97972e0235f0b2a37bbSpot the Cat: Behind the artist’s stool, the cat is curled up in a ball, fast asleep. The colours of its fur reflect the hues of the artist’s clothing and painting, subliminally suggesting it belongs to the artist. Whilst the rest of the painting is busy, full of activity and movement, the cat is absorbed in its own world, indifferent to the hustle and bustle around him, thus asserting his independence.

The Reading – Jean-Baptiste Hilaire (1753-1828)

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The Reading – Jean-Baptiste Hilaire

Jean-Baptiste Hilaire was a French artist and student at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. Very little is known about him, however, his work is regularly likened to Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who worked a century before Hilaire. Watteau had revived an interest in colour and invented the genre Fête Galante, which often combined women in ball gowns with park and outdoors settings. When Watteau applied to the Royal Academy, his paintings did not fit into any of the traditional categories, which would usually mean rejection. The staff at the Academy, however, liked Watteau’s work so much, they created this genre so that he could join the school. Thus, when Hilaire joined the Royal Academy, this category was there ready and waiting.

The Reading combines a rural setting with the upper-class. The expensive material of the two women’s clothes suggests they are of gentle-birth, as does the water feature in the background of what may be part of their, or at least their father’s, estate. The ladies are also educated since they can read their lengthy correspondence, some of which lies on the ground. There is no indication as to who the letter is from, however, since they have gone into the garden away from prying eyes and ears to read, it could be from a close friend, betrothed or lover.

2013-01-23_09-13-46Spot the Cat: The cat is almost unnoticeable at first, posing like a statue on a pedestal as though it belongs there in the garden. With its face turned towards the viewer, the cat appears to be indifferent to or even bored with the girls and their gossip. Standing so still and motionless, the cat also seems detached from the world, once again suggesting cats are independent creatures with only concerns for themselves.

 

The Orphans – Louis Welden Hawkins (1849-1910)

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The Orphans – Louis Welden Hawkins

Louis Welden Hawkins was a Symbolist artist originally from Stuttgart, Germany, who took on French nationality later in life. Hawkins studied at the Académie Julian in Paris where he chose the path of Symbolism, which was a reaction against Impressionism. Hawkins was also influenced by the British Pre-Raphaelites, who he came across either in his studies or through his British father.

Symbolist painters often emphasised fantasy elements in their artwork, using metaphors and symbols to suggest mystical themes and hidden meanings. Hawkins is mostly remembered for his painting of dreamy female portraits, which are a stark contrast to his painting The Orphans. This sad painting contains two children embracing in front of their parent’s graves, which are slightly hidden by the overgrown grass. The sky is dismal and grey, reflecting the children’s emotions.

Screenshot 2020-06-03 at 14.18.34Spot the Cat: For a Symbolist painting, The Orphans seems rather devoid of symbols except for the silhouette of a ginger cat on the wall at the back of the graveyard. Unlike previous examples where the cat has symbolised evil, indifference or self-absorption, this cat is a sign of the orphans’ fate, left to wander alone without their parents. Where will the children sleep? How will they fend for themselves without a roof over their head or food in their stomachs? Whilst the cat is not necessarily a negative creature, its presence symbolises loneliness, adding to the mournful feel of the painting.

Portrait of Madame M. – Henri Rousseau (1844-1910)

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Portrait of Madame M. – Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau was a self-taught painter nicknamed Le Douanier (the customs officer) in reference to his job as a toll and tax collector, from which he retired aged 49 to concentrate on his art full-time. Rousseau claimed he had “no teacher other than nature”, which is why his paintings are described as Naive or Primitive art. Yet, to look at Rousseau’s work, it is hard to fathom what part of nature had inspired him since his figurative style is unrealistic, childish and does not respect the codes of colour and perspective.

Rousseau rarely painted full-length portraits but Portrait of Madame M. is an exception. Here, all traditional principles of perspective are thrown out of the window with Madame M. towering over everything. The trees are too small and the flowers to tall in comparison with each other and the giantess. Rousseau claimed to have invented the new genre of portrait landscapes, composed of a specific view with a figure of a person in the foreground.

It is not certain who Madame M. was, however, the Medici sleeves, bracelets, parasol and scarf suggest she was a wealthy middle-class woman. The painting may have been a commission to rival the traditional society portraits but whether the model was flattered by the dissymmetry of her arms, legs and head remains a mystery.

436px-Henri_Rousseau,_known_as_le_Douanier_-_Portrait_of_Madame_M;_-_Google_Art_ProjectSpot the Cat: Dwarfed by its imposing mistress, the tiny cat is playing with a ball of wool on the edge of the path. Unlike Madame M., the cat is more at home in the natural setting. It also helps to offset the rigidity of the portrait and contrasts with the colour of the woman’s clothing and stormy sky. The cat’s presence adds a sense of playfulness to the painting, without which would make the scene too serious.

Nebamun fowling in the marshes

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Nebamun fowling in the marshes

Nebamun fowling in the marshes is a fragment of a painted bird hunting scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun, an official scribe and grain accountant from Ancient Egypt (c.1350 BC). In this scene, Nebamun is shown hunting on the River Nile with his wife Hatshepsut and their young daughter. Nebamun dominates the scene with his huge size, expressing his importance. Fertile marshes were considered symbols of rebirth and the hunted animals a sign of triumph over nature.

The hieroglyphs in the image translate as “enjoying himself and seeing beauty,” which paired with the youthful depiction of Nebamun, hints at what the painters thought or hoped was in store in the afterlife: eternal youth and happiness.

1a64d496c116c8d33d37ce50817735fa9a0a742cSpot the Cat: Appreciated for their talents of catching mice and scaring birds away, cats were prized pets for the Egyptians. This cat, a true hunter, perches on a papyrus reed with a bird caught by the tail feathers in its mouth and two more under each paw.

The cat may have belonged to Nebamun and his family, however, in Ancient Egypt cats were celebrated as gods. In this instance, the cat may represent the Sun-God or the ancient deity Amun who fused with the Sun-God Ra to become Amun-Ra. Nebamun’s name translates as “My Lord is Amun”, which adds considerable weight to this theory.

Jupiter as a Satyr with Antiope and her Twins – Vincent Sellaer (1490-1564)

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Jupiter as a Satyr with Antiope and her Twins – Vincent Sellaer

Vincent Sellaer was a Flemish Renaissance artist known for his mythological and religious subjects. In this painting, he depicts the nymph Antiope of Thebes with her twin sons Amphion and Zethus. Jupiter, the king of the gods, was attracted to Antiope’s beauty and took the form of a satyr to take her by force. Pregnant and worried about the reaction of her father, Antiope ran away to Sicyon where she married King Epopeus. Antiope gave birth to twins, but only one was the son of Zeus; the other was the son of Epopeus. Amphion and Zethus went on to become the founders of Thebes.

Sellaer painted the semi-nude Antiope with her two sons who both have similar hair and complexions. Hugging Antiope from behind are two putti – chubby male children – who were often used in paintings to represent desire and passion. They were also associated with the god of erotic love, Cupid. In the background is a frightening satyr who is really Jupiter in disguise. The putti express the god’s desire for Antiope, the same desire that resulted in the birth of Amphion.

jupiter_satyr_antiope_twins_a_hiSpot the Cat: One of the twins rests his arm on an oversized cat in the bottom left-hand corner of the paintings. Unlike the lustful putti and satyr, the cat’s purpose is to highlight Antiope’s beauty. In Ancient Greece, cats were both good and bad depending on the circumstances. On the one hand, they were considered evil and were associated with Hecate, the goddess of death, darkness and witches. On the other hand, cats were considered symbolic of feminine beauty and love. As in most civilisations, cats were useful creatures who could control vermin, thus protecting the household from plague and disease. After Christianity arrived in Greece, a legend was born that a cat was responsible for protecting the baby Jesus from rodents and snakes.

Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee – Philippe de Champaigne (1602-94)

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Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee – Philippe de Champaigne

Philippe de Champaigne was a French Baroque painter who founded the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, which later became the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Initially inspired by Rubens, De Champaigne’s style became less decorative after working with Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) who favoured clarity, order and line over colour. Many of De Champaigne’s artworks were based on religious scenes, such as Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee.

Simon the Pharisee is mentioned in the Gospel of Luke 7:36-50 where he invited Jesus for a meal but fails to show his guest the usual marks of hospitality, for example, washing his feet. During the meal, a sinful woman, sometimes identified as Mary Magdalene, entered the house and anointed Jesus’ feet with a jar of perfume. Outraged at the actions of the woman, Simon protested that the woman was a sinner and unworthy of touching Jesus, however, Jesus contrasted her faith with Simon’s lack of common decency. “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)

christ-in-the-house-of-simon-the-pharisee-philippe-de-champaigneSpot the Cat: The cat goes almost unnoticed under the table near Simon’s feet. Sitting there unmoved by the scene around him, it seems at first that the cat is insignificant, however, knowing that cats often represent evil in religious paintings, its presence is symbolic. Having opposed Jesus’ forgiveness of the sinful woman, the cat’s appearance at Simon’s feet may indicate he is on the path to evil. The cat is not the only animal in the scene. A dog, which usually represents the disciples, paws at Simon’s robes as though pleading with him to listen to Jesus’ teachings.

Supper at Emmaus – Titian (1488-1576)

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Supper at Emmaus – Titian

Tiziano Vecelli, or Titian as he is better known, is one of the most celebrated painters of the Renaissance. His work has inspired many painters and the way he portrayed religious scenes became the principal method for artists for over a century. At the end of the 16th century, Biblical feasts were a key theme for painters and Supper at Emmaus was a close second to The Last Supper in popularity. In the lead up to this meal, Jesus joined two men, possibly disciples Luke and Cleopas, on the road to Emmaus but they did not recognise him. It was only when Jesus “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (Luke 24:30) that they realised who he was, at which point Jesus vanished.

Titian’s painting reflects the famous layout in Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) The Last Supper with Jesus at the centre of a horizontal table with a view of a landscape behind him. Some critics liken the posture of one of the men to Judas, suggesting he was shocked about Jesus’ return.

Screenshot 2020-06-04 at 15.59.56Spot the Cat: The activity under the table also suggests there is a link between one of the men and Judas. Behind one of the table legs is a cat that is backing away from a dog that is bearing its teeth menacingly, as though trying to scare the cat away from Jesus. The cat’s snake-like tail is another indication of its evil intentions. Many people do not notice the cat at first because it is hidden in the shadows – shadows which almost look like demon wings.

Cats in Art History reveals how cats have been stigmatised for their independence, causing them to become symbols of evil, treason and selfishness. Yet, the exhibition reveals that this is not always the case. Cats can represent positive attributes and many cat-lovers may argue that they can be affectionate creatures. It is interesting how many artists have used cats as subliminal messages, many of which probably go unnoticed today. Thanks to the Universal Museum of Art, a cat’s presence in a painting will be appreciated more by many art viewers. Next time you see a feline in a painting ask yourself, what does it represent? Is it evil? Is it good? Or, does the artist just really like cats?

Following the Stars

Stars, very large balls of bright glowing light that appear tiny when viewed from earth, have fascinated humans for millenniums. An online exhibition provided by the National Gallery takes a look at the ways stars are portrayed in art. Star Trail traces the stars from one painting to another in the National Gallery Collection, pointing out the stars illuminating the night sky but also revealing them in less obvious places.

As well as being natural phenomena, stars hold meanings for different cultures, religions, mythologies and individuals. For some, a star is a sign from God, for example, the Star of Bethlehem that led the three wise men to the baby Jesus. In Judaism, the six-pointed Star of David is an important symbol and a similar star is found in Hinduism.

A star’s meaning can alter depending on whether it is static or moving. Shooting stars are often symbolic, the most common being the opportunity to make a wish. Once again, different cultures have various ways of interpreting these so-called miracles (meteors to the scientifically minded). For some, a shooting star is a sign that you are close to your destiny but in Asia, they are considered a bad omen. For the Greeks, these stars symbolise the raising or lowering of human spirits, whereas, in some branches of Christianity and Judaism, they are believed to be falling angels.

Typically, stars carry positive meanings. They often represent hope, faith and new beginnings and artists throughout time have depicted them as objects of wonder. Just as there are hundreds of meanings, there are several ways of drawing and painting stars to signify their importance.

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The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea – Duccio

Duccio di Buoninsegna (d.1319), the Tuscan painter, chose to use real gold to represent stars and heaven in the altarpiece The Virgin and Child with Saints Dominic and Aurea. This portable altarpiece may have been commissioned by Cardinal Niccolò da Prato (d.1321), who was both a Dominican Friar and the Cardinal of Ostia. This would explain the saints on the wings of the triptych: Saint Dominic and Saint Aurea of Ostia.

In the tympanum above the central panel are seven figures who have been identified as Old Testament prophets: Daniel, Moses, Isaiah, David, Abraham, Jacob and Jeremiah. They stand above a portrait of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus, which is where Duccio has placed two stars; one on Mary’s shoulder and the other on the hood of her shawl. Duccio mixed gold leaf into his paint to draw these stars on top of the rich, blue egg tempera. The background of the entire wooden altarpiece was also painted in gold to represent the importance of heaven.

The famous English Romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) took a completely different approach to depict stars. The evening star is barely visible in Turner’s painting of the same name. It is the merest speck of yellow paint towards the top of the canvas. If it were not for the reflection of the star’s light in the sea, the star would go unnoticed.

The evening star is an incorrect term because, whilst it may take on the appearance of a star, it is actually sunlight reflecting off another planet, usually Venus, although Mercury, Mars and Jupiter can also cause this phenomenon. Turner was particularly interested in transitional moments such as the evening and morning star, which are the same “star” but appear at different times depending on Earth’s proximity to the sun.

The Evening Star was painted at dusk rather than night because, once the moon had risen, the star would no longer be the brightest thing in the sky. As can be inferred from Turner’s painting, the star is barely discernible in the early evening, therefore, it would be almost impossible to see in the competing glow of the moon.

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The Ambassadors – Hans Holbein the Younger

Studying the night sky, or stargazing has been a popular pastime for centuries. Long before humans understood what they were seeing, astronomers, astrologers and scientists were producing maps of the night sky, pinpointing the individual stars they spotted, first with the naked eye and later with a telescope. It was through these studies that the Earth was eventually proved to be round rather than flat plus not the centre of the universe as previously thought.

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As well as maps, astronomers produced globes showing the stars that could be seen from Earth at different times of the day. One of these celestial globes can be seen in Hans Holbein the Younger‘s (1497-1543) painting The Ambassadors. Similar to Duccio’s painting, the stars appear to be painted in gold paint, making them stand out from the blue background of the globe.

The painting, produced during the same year that Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was born is a double portrait of two men. The identity of the men has been under debate for centuries but the most accepted identification of the man on the left is Jean de Dinteville (1504-55), a French diplomat. He may also be the person who commissioned the painting, particularly as he appears to be the grander of the two men. De Dinteville’s motto was Memento mori, meaning “Remember thou shalt die,” and there are several references to death in the painting. One is the anomorphistic skull at the bottom of the painting, which must be viewed from the side to be seen properly. Another is the crucifix in the upper left-hand corner.

The man on the right is believed to be Georges de Selve (1508-41). He would have been 25 when he sat for the painting and had just been appointed Bishop of Lavau in France. This explains his clergyman vestments and the other religious symbols in the painting, including the crucifix and Lutheran hymnal.

There is no written evidence that De Dinteville and De Selve were interested in the stars, however, the objects in the painting suggest they were involved with science. As well as a celestial globe there is a terrestrial globe, a sundial, a shepherd’s dial, a quadrant for measuring angles, and a medieval astronomical instrument known as a torquetum. It is possible De Dinteville and De Selve, or their associates, were among some of the earliest people to discover scientific truths about the universe.

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Bacchus and Ariadne – Titian

Before humans understood the science behind the stars, they often featured in myths and legends. In Greek and Roman mythology, constellations were often linked to particular gods or goddesses, as were the planets.

The constellation Corona Borealis features in the top left-hand corner of an oil painting by Titian (1488-1576). Bacchus and Ariadne was produced for Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara (1476-1534) and is considered to be one of Titian’s greatest works.

Ariadne was a Cretan princess who had been abandoned on the Greek island of Naxos by her lover Theseus. The Roman god Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek) discovered Ariadne on the island whilst leading a procession of partygoers in a chariot drawn by two cheetahs. In the painting, Bacchus is either in mid-leap from the chariot to save Ariadne, or Bacchus has just thrown Ariadne’s crown into the sky where it transforms into the Corona Borealis, also known as the Northern Crown.

There is more than one story that explains the Northern Crown constellation. The first, which is presumably being shown in Titian’s painting, is that Bacchus throws the crown into the sky. The other, claims Bacchus fell in love with Ariadne and promised her the whole sky. He then raised her into the heavens where she became the constellation.

The Corona Borealis is one of many constellations that can be found in mythology. Others include Andromeda, Aquarius, Cassiopeia, Orion and Pegasus.

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The Origin of the Milky Way – Tintoretto

As well as the individual stars and constellations, the Ancient Greeks and Romans had a story to explain the existence of the Milky Way.

The story, which is shown in The Origin of the Milky Way by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94), involves Jupiter’s desire for his son Hercules to be immortalised. Hercules was the son of Alcmene, a mortal, therefore he could never be fully immortal unless he had been nursed by a goddess. Jupiter’s wife Juno refused to nurse a child that was not hers, especially the son of her unfaithful husband, however, whilst she was asleep, Jupiter held Hercules up to Juno’s breast so that he could drink her milk. At that moment, Juno awoke and milk spurted upwards into the sky, forming the Milky Way. The milk droplets that fell to earth became white lilies.

Instead of depicting milk, Tintoretto represented the beginnings of the Milky Way with ten shooting stars. The original painting also showed lilies forming on the ground, however, about a third of the canvas was cut off at the beginning of the 18th century.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Gossaert

Of all the different genres of paintings, the one where you are guaranteed to find stars or at least a star are scenes of the Nativity. According to the Gospel of Matthew, wise men or magi followed a star from the East, which led them to a humble stable in Bethlehem. Paintings of this nature are often called The Adoration of the Kings or The Adoration of the Magi.

Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) was one of many artists to depict this biblical scene. Mary, dressed in blue, sits with the Christ-child in the ruins of a building, receiving a gift from one of the “kings”. The Bible never mentioned the visitors were kings and nor did they have names. Art historians, however, have given this figure the traditional name Caspar. Melchior stands to the right of Caspar and Balthazar to the left. Alongside the “kings” are several exotically dressed attendants and more can be seen approaching in the distance.

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Floating above the scene are angels and right at the top, slightly dwarfed by everything else in the painting, is the Star of Bethlehem. The entire composition was painted on oak panels that when pieced together measured 177.2 cm (69.8 in) by 161.8 cm (63.7 in), and the star does not take up much space at all. Nonetheless, when studied closely, Gossaert’s precise brushstrokes and painstaking detail emphasise the importance of this star. Most likely painted in lead-tin-yellow, the star lights up the sky around it, appearing to push the surrounding clouds away so that it can shine over the Christ-child.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Carlo Dolci

The star is much more prominent in the Baroque painter, Carlo Dolci’s (1616-86) version of the subject. This highly finished picture contains fewer people than Gossaert included, keeping the focus on the three “kings” in opulent robes as they kneel before Mary and the Christ-child. Although their gifts look important and expensive, they are executed in paint, whereas the haloes over Mary and Joseph and the light surrounding Jesus’ head was painted in gold.

Although the figures and their robes were painted in rich colours, the Star of Bethlehem outshines them all. The star’s light bursts forth from the clouds above, making it the brightest part of the painting. When looking at the composition as a whole, the eye is constantly drawn upwards to the star, which some see as a symbol of God looking down on his precious son.

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The Adoration of the Kings – Filippino Lippi

In contrast to the previous two paintings, Filippino Lippi’s (1457-1504) version contains a less obvious star, fading in the light of the daytime sky. Probably due to the star mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel, artists tended to portray the visit of the magi at night rather than during the day.

Another difference between Lippi’s version and the traditional version is the landscape. The Holy Family sit in the ruins of a building in a rocky landscape. They have very little shelter and there appear to be no other establishments nearby. As well as the “kings” and their retinue, there are several saints hidden in the background. These have been identified as Mary Magdalene, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerome and Augustine. There is also a representation of the Archangel Raphael and Tobias.

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The way Lippi chose to portray the star is very different from the previous two examples. To begin with, it appears much lower in the sky, floating above the Holy Family. Rather than a solid or compact star, it resembles a firework. Lines of golden light appear to be shooting in all directions, some landing within touching distance of the figures below. Yet, this slightly faded star does not make it seem less important than other versions. The explosion of light beams emphasises God’s magnificent power that, although it is not easy to see in the daylight, is always there.

Lippi’s painting was the last to feature in the National Gallery’s Star Trail. The handful of paintings they looked at revealed that stars have been important in science, mythology and religion. Of course, there are so many more examples of stars in the National Gallery and other locations. Each artwork demonstrates one method of representing stars. Some artists opt for a five-pointed star, whereas others choose a greater number. Alternatively, a star can be represented by a ball of light or the smallest of dots, as Turner chose.

Vincent van Gogh‘s (1853-90) Starry Night and Starry Night over the Rhône are perfect examples of alternative ways to paint stars. As an impressionist painter, Van Gogh’s stars are less precise with no clear outlines. They are made from swirls or dabs of yellow paint and yet, everyone knows they are stars.

The National Gallery’s online exhibition Star Trail provides a new and interesting way of looking at art. Sometimes a painting has so much going on that it is impossible to appreciate every detail. Also, when walking around a crowded gallery, it is not always possible to pay the artworks the attention they deserve. Looking for stars, or any other object, helps people to understand the artwork and the artist. By first studying how the star is depicted, it is then possible to step back and admire how it interacts with the rest of the scene.

Challenge: next time you visit a gallery, look out for stars in paintings. Until then, enjoy looking at them online.

The Renaissance Nude

San Sebastian

Saint Sebastian – Agnolo Bronzino, 1533

Today, we live in a censored world where young minds are shielded from the harsh realities of life and people are quick to complain about things that never once crossed previous generation’s minds. The word “nudity” sets alarm bells ringing and is presumed by many to be synonymous with sexual content. Ironically, despite society trying to block nudity from the impressionable minds of under 18-year-olds, anyone can gaze upon the naked body in public in nearly all art galleries.

Once upon a time, nudity was culturally acceptable, as the Royal Academy of Arts showed in their recent exhibition The Renaissance Nude. The 15th and 16th century was a crucial moment in the history of western art with the birth of the Renaissance period and a renewed interest in the human body as represented in ancient Greek and Roman art. The exhibition explored the use of nudity in art from 1400 to the 1530s, exploring works in a variety of media and produced by some of the most famous names in the business: Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Michaelangelo and Leonardo.

Renaissance is a French word meaning “rebirth” and aptly describes the period when Europe was rediscovering the art and values of the classical world after a long, stagnant period of decline during the Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages”. Not only was the art world affected, the Renaissance saw a number of new discoveries including scientific laws, new religious and political ideas, and sightings of new lands, for instance, America. Therefore, the art shown at the Royal Academy’s exhibition was once a welcome change in a world where people’s minds were being opened to endless possibilities.

The nude flourished in Renaissance art, achieving an increasingly dominant role across Europe. Unlike today where nudity often goes hand in hand with pornography and offensive content, the study of the unclothed body was welcomed by sacred and secular communities alike and produced some of the most magnificent works in existence today. It is Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) who takes the blame for the world’s more prudish attitude to nudity after he ordered concealing draperies to be painted over some of the figures in Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) Last Judgement (1541) in the Sistine Chapel.

One of the first artworks in the exhibition was Jan Gossaert’s (1478-1532) Christ on the Cold Stone (1530). Christ is rarely depicted as fully naked in artwork, apart from as a young child, and in this case, a strip of cloth covers his nether regions. Looking anguished and weary, Gossaert imagines Christ’s demeanour as he awaits his physical ordeal and eventual death. His body is based on the Greek sculptures Gossaert would have seen when visiting Rome, hence the exaggerated musculature.

Religion and art had a tight relationship during the Renaissance and Biblical scenes, such as Christ’s death and resurrection, presented artists with plenty of opportunities to work with the naked figure. As a result, religious subjects became much more realistic than they had been during the Middle Ages as well as more accessible.

As well as Biblical narratives, saints and religious heroes or heroines, were also popular subjects for Renaissance artists. Saint Sebastian (d.288 AD) was one of the more prevalent being the saint of the plague-stricken at a time when outbreaks of contagious diseases were common. Saint Sebastian was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s (244-311) persecution of Christians, initially being tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows, although it was not this that eventually killed him.

Cima da Conegliano’s (1459-1517) version of Saint Sebastian (1502) referenced his martyrdom with a single arrow piercing the right thigh of a young man with glossy hair, who stands naked but for a white cloth concealing his genitals. The youth is composed and appears unaware that he had been shot; nor is there any blood spilling from the wound. Cima replicated the physical beauty of Greek gods in his composition, thus making him appear pure, fit and healthy. The artist has achieved what the German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) urged: to use “the most beautiful human shape” which the ancients had used for their “false gods” when drawing the body of Christ or the saints.

The idea of representing the saints or the holy in the beautiful manner of the ancient Greek artists can be explored further in Dirk Bouts’ (1415-75) The Way to Paradise (1469). This shows one of the possible outcomes of the last judgement in which those who are saved ascend to paradise or heaven. Whilst naked, the figures in the painting have their lower bodies wrapped in pure white cloth and their stature and pure facial features emphasise their godliness. On the other hand, the opposite scenario shown in Bouts’ The Fall of the Damned (1469) shows the victims entirely naked, tumbling down into the infernal landscape. In this instance, the nudity references the shame Adam and Eve felt when they realised they were naked after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

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Adam and Eve – Albrecht Dürer, 1504

Adam and Eve are undoubtedly the most famous characters of the Bible who allow artists to experiment with nudity. In an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Eve is about to succumb to temptation and eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in the Book of Genesis. At this moment, Adam and Eve are unashamed of their nudity, however, Dürer has prudently obscured their genitalia with leaves. Unlike his contemporaries, Dürer tried to avoid using live models, preferring to draw people using a compass and ruler, therefore, creating his nudes geometrically. Although the figures have similar bodies to those in classical art, Dürer was quoted warning his fellow artists, “Your ability is impotent compared with God’s creativity.”

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Bathsheba Bathing – Jean Bourdichon, 1499

Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504) proves that Renaissance art was not limited to the painted medium. As well as paintings, the Royal Academy displayed book illuminations, sculpture and drawings amongst other media. For instance, a French copy of Book of Hours contains an illustration of Bathsheba bathing naked in the open air. In the background, King David can be seen spying on her from the palace window. It is thought that this and similar images were intended to be erotic, wrongly depicting Bathsheba as a seductress rather than a passive victim.

As described earlier, the Renaissance was a time of discovery, and people were exposed to new and old thoughts and religions. Since artists were inspired by classical sculptures, it is no surprise that their subject matter turned to the mythologies of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In a similar fashion, these stories from classical literature allowed artists to continue exploring the nude.

Piero di Cosimo’s (1462-1522) A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (1500) is fairly typical of the way classical stories are depicted. Despite the sorrowful scene, the landscape, colours and figures have a beauty about them that make them appear otherworldly. The peacefulness of the painting also relates to the scene inspired by Ovid (43BC-18AD) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) in which a nymph has been killed by a wound to her throat. The wound is not gruesome and the nymph appears to have swooned rather than crashed to the ground, almost a graceful death. Yet, nymphs were known for their singing and this nymph will sing no more, hence the peaceful quietude the painting evokes.

The nymph’s nudity links this painting to Bouts’ The Way to Paradise, in which the semi-naked people are portrayed as beautiful and pure. Despite the painful wound to her neck, the nymph’s suffering is nothing like the deaths of those in The Fall of the Damned. The other characters in the painting – a satyr and a dog – are quietly mourning her death, a stark contrast to the hideous characters in Bouts’ painting. A similar, peaceful figure can be seen in Dosso Dossi’s (1486-1542) A Myth of Pan (1524). Unfortunately, the precise meaning remains a mystery and it is not clear whether the naked lady is slumbering or condemned to eternal rest.

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Venus Anadyomene – Titian, 1520

Typically, male nudes were based upon one of the most important Olympian deity, Apollo. The Renaissance artists had more choice for the female nude since all goddesses were beautiful, however, Venus, the Roman goddess of Love, was usually the most represented. The myth surrounding Venus’ birth is a popular subject for artists. In Pliny the Elder’s (AD 23-79) Natural History, written around AD 77, he describes a long lost painting by the Greek artist Apelles (BC 370-06), which depicts the birth of Venus. Born fully formed from the sea, the most famous version of this story can be seen in Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) painting from the 1480s. The painting displayed in the Royal Academy’s exhibition, however, was the less elaborate Venus Anadyomene or Venus Rising from the Sea (1520) by the renowned Titian (1488-1576). In an attempt to rival Botticelli, Titian focuses on the nude Venus standing in the water in a natural, human-like pose. The youthful goddess is wringing her long golden hair and glancing over her shoulder rather than at the audience. Whilst Venus’ isolation makes her seem vulnerable and innocent, Titian wanted her nudity to add to the erotic allure of the painting.

Despite their unearthly beauty, the adventures of the Greek and Roman gods often resulted in adultery, lust, drunkenness, debauchery and deception, which encouraged Renaissance artists to explore impulsive behaviours that had been condemned by the Christian Church. Once, this would have had disastrous effects for the artist’s reputation, however, humanist ideas were beginning to infiltrate society with themes of seduction, powerful women and same-sex relationships.

The woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513) by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) explored the growing interest in powerful women. Medieval texts claim the Greek philosopher Aristotle (BC 384-22) punished his pupil, Alexander the Great (BC 356-23) for spending too much time with his lover Phyllis. The philosopher blamed Phyllis’ presence for arousing unwanted sexual feelings. Rather than taking the blame for sexually tempting Aristotle, Phyllis sought revenge on the behalf of her lover and demanded to be walked around the garden upon Artistotle’s naked back, while Alexander stood witness to the humiliating scene.

Other artists dealt with themes of temptation, especially the erotic dreams of some men, which due to their religious upbringing, were considered to be impure thoughts. The Flemish artist Hans Memling (1440-94) took these vices and vanities further in his book panels for the Loiani family from Bologna. Memling depicted beauty as vanity and vices as something to be punished for after death, hence the illustration of the devil. The final panel, Memento Mori, reminds us that regardless of our pure or irreligious behaviour, death comes to us all.

As the Royal Academy proved midway through the exhibition, nudity in art was not necessarily either religious, mythological or erotic; there were many more purposes for the naked body. Previous to the Renaissance, paintings of the human body (usually clothed) were unrealistic, often with awry proportions or strangely shaped faces. The introduction of nudity to art allowed artists to start studying the human figure with live models in their studio. It was standard for artists to produce preparatory drawings before starting a painting, therefore, there are a large number of anatomical sketches by famous artists in the possession of art galleries today.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1483-1520) are life studies of the same model in different positions captured in red chalk. By studying the way the body moves in each position, Raphael was confident enough to paint the Three Graces in The Feast of the Roman Gods at the Farnesina in Rome. Likewise, Michelangelo (1475-1564) also produced sketches before putting brush to canvas, wall, etc. The Italian artist concentrated on the musculature of the human body and surrounding his sketches are annotations that may have had instructive purposes.

Cesare Cesariano (1475-1543) was one of a few artists who produced a detailed drawing of The Vitruvian Man. Based on the treatise of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (BC 80-15), which demonstrates the three central themes of architecture and engineering: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty); The Vitruvian Man is an anatomically correct drawing of the proportions of the human body. The most famous of these drawings, of course, was by the famous polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

Of course, the Royal Academy could not display sketches by Raphael and Michelangelo without showing the detailed drawings of the anatomy fanatic himself, Leonardo. During his busy career as an artist, sculptor, architect, inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, astronomist, geologist, botanist, writer, historian and cartographer, Leonardo somehow managed to find the time to dissect numerous bodies and make detailed drawings of human anatomy. The sketches displayed at the Royal Academy were those of the shoulder and neck. Unlike Raphael and Michelangelo, who were preparing for larger paintings, Leonardo was making preparations for his treatise about the human anatomy. Surrounding the illustrations of several views of the shoulders and neck are Leonardo’s tiny annotations. Known as mirror script, this can only be read when held up to a mirror and was probably an attempt by Leonardo to prevent others from stealing his ideas.

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Saint Jerome – Donatello, 1460s

Taking the naked body into consideration allowed artists to considered the vulnerabilities of the human condition. Prior to the Renaissance, artworks of the human figure were based on ideals rather than reality. Even in death, paintings of Christ looked pure and holy, if not regal. After being able to study human anatomy, however, artists learnt to portray suffering in a more realistic manner.

Donatello’s (1386-1466) polychromed wooden sculpture of the naked Saint Jerome (1460s) is a vivid example of the vulnerable human body. Scourging himself with a rock to quell carnal desire, Saint Jerome’s body is gaunt and aged, reflecting his long-term exposure to the elements in the desert. Unlike the paintings of Saint Sebastian seen at the beginning of the exhibition, in which his body remains unaffected by the torture imposed upon him, Saint Jerome is a stark visual reminder of the hardships of religious commitment and the evidence that the body can benefit from material needs.

The final section of the Royal Academy’s exhibition about The Renaissance Nude reveals that paintings involving nudes were readily accepted by society and even commissioned by notable patrons, for instance, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), Marchioness of Mantua. The Marchioness commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her distinguished studiolo, which she had designated for studying and contemplation. The themes of these paintings prove that secular subjects were welcome in a once predominantly strict religious country.

Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune depicts a semi-naked young man clasping a bunch of lottery tickets – apparently, Isabella d’Este’s personal emblem – which in this instance represent Chance. The nude woman opposite with her arms supporting a cornucopia represents Fortune. The latter is seated upon a bubble that could burst at any time, symbolising that fortune or luck can easily disappear. Why, however, did Isabelle D’Este request such a painting? Allegory of Fortune and similar paintings would have been a stark reminder to wealthy ruling families that they may not always be able to rely upon their good fortune.

Other paintings commissioned by Isabella d’Este had mythological connotations. Combat between Love and Chastity painted by Pietro Perugino (1445-1523) was produced from the instructions to paint an allegory representing the duelling forces of libido and restraint. The central female figures represent the Roman goddesses Venus (libido) and Diana (restraint). Diana, or Artemis as she was known in the Greek, was the goddess of chastity amongst other things. The clothed people in the painting represent her followers, whereas, those belonging to Venus are entirely naked. This suggests that nudity was associated with sexual impulses, much like it is today.

Telling people you are going to see an exhibition called The Renaissance Nude is met by mixed reactions: those who concentrate on the word “Renaissance” and those who focus in on “Nude”. The former are unfazed by the nudity aspect, believing that the Renaissance painters could not have painted anything sordid, whilst the latter question your morals and interests. Both, however, are wrong in their presumptions. Whilst Renaissance artwork cannot be considered pornography, they did tackle themes of debauchery, lust and eroticism.

If their aim was to explain how the nude became a common occurrence in Renaissance art, then the Royal Academy can congratulate themselves. Initially, nudes in the 15th and 16th centuries were produced for churches and private collections and it was only the erotic woodcut prints that circulated more widely. Ironically, the latter no longer exude sensuality and desire as they originally intended due to the changing of the times, morals and behaviours of recent generations.

Despite only focusing on artworks featuring nude figures, the exhibition taught visitors a lot about the Renaissance era. By combining artists from both north and south of the Alps, the differing attitudes towards the new ideas can clearly be seen. Whilst the Italians embraced the human body, its beauty and the opportunity for anatomical study, the northern European artists were more severe in their approach. The exhibition The Renaissance Nude included some of the most famous names from the Renaissance era as well as some of the greatest work from this period of momentous change. Most importantly, however, it shows the Renaissance nude to be far more diverse than previously imagined.