Where? National Museum in Poznań
When? c. 1555
What do you see? Three of Sofonisba Anguissola’s younger sisters at a table in a grand setting, playing a chess game. They are observed by the family housemaid on the top right. It not only provides a glance at some of Sofonisba’s younger sisters who also studied painting at that time, but also showcases the sophistication of the Anguissola family, an aspect that is further emphasized by their luxurious clothing and jewelry.
The painting shows how the oldest of the three portrayed sisters, Lucia, has made the decisive move to win the game. We can see how she holds the black queen in her left hand, indicating that she has defeated her sister. Her younger sister Europa, on the right, has to concede and shows her admiration by looking at her older sister. The youngest of the three, Minerva, grins at Europa to see her reaction.
The Chess Game is a lively scene expressing the interactions between the sisters through their facial expressions, and the oldest sister engages the viewer by directly looking at us, as if asking for some praise for her achievement. And the nurse is still contemplating the sequence of moves that had led to the victory.
Backstory: The parents of Sofonisba Anguissola highly valued intelligence and education, and provided equal opportunities to their daughters and son, something that was quite unique in Renaissance Italy. That the girls played chess is evidence of their sophistication. Chess was already considered a highly intelligent activity during the Renaissance, but it was mainly played by men at that time.
Giorgio Vasari who had seen this painting in the house of Sofonisba’s father in 1566 commented that the work combined diligence, which we can see in the imaginary sfumato background typical for Renaissance art, and quickness, which makes the characters come alive. The only thing lacking according to Vasari was that we cannot hear the protagonists speak.
Who is Anguissola? Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was born in Cremona, about 80 km southeast of Milan as the oldest child of Amilcare Anguissola and Bianca Ponzone, who belonged to the minor nobility. Inspired by Baldassare Castiglione’s advice on the education of women in his Il Cortegiano of 1528, her parents ensured that Sofonisba, her brother, and five sisters all received a solid education and had the opportunity to further develop their talents. While one of her sisters, Minerva, and her brother Asdrubale pursued other artistic interests, Sofonisba and her four other sisters studied painting.
In 1558, her reputation had risen to the level that the influential art patron the Duke of Alba recommended her to the Spanish king, Philip II. He invited her to Madrid to become the lady-in-waiting to his wife, Queen Elisabeth of Valois. She would stay in Madrid for 14 years and would paint numerous portraits for the Spanish court. At age 39, she would marry to a nobleman from Sicily, and they would move back to Italy. She never had children and enjoyed a long and prosperous career.
Among her paintings are two well-known self-portraits, one showing her at the easel at age 24 and another one painted at age 32.
The Anguissola sisters: Today, Sofonisba is the best-known artist of the Anguissola sisters. Her parents stimulated her education, and she painted her family several times. She trained some of her younger sisters as painters. Her sister Elena gave up her art ambitions when she became a nun, and Anna Maria and Europa dedicated themselves to their family after their marriage. In contrast, Lucia, shown on the left of the painting, followed in Sofonisba’s footsteps as a professional artist. Some contemporaries have even mentioned that she had more talent than Sofonisba, but as she would prematurely die in her late twenties that potential was never fully realized.
Fun fact: As a teenager, Sofonisba was apprenticed to two local painters, something that was very uncommon for girls at that time. When Sofonisba completed her training, she started her career as a professional artist, though she did not stop learning. During her early twenties, she regularly traveled within Italy and build up a good network including some influential art patrons and artists. And her father continued to support her, as evidenced by a letter he sent in 1557 to Michelangelo, thanking him for the lessons he had provided to his daughter.
Sofonisba was well-connected in the art world and frequently received visitors in Palermo and she was happy to share her artistic expertise with them. Among her many visitors was the Flemish master Anthony van Dyck, who even painted a portrait of her at age 92. She did not only directly inspire other artists during her lifetime, she has especially inspired many female artists over the next centuries. The fact that she had a successful international career and her life story is relatively well documented, has allowed aspiring female artists and their families to use her life story as an example of how a woman could craft a successful career as an artist.
Where? Santa Maria delle Grazie Dominican Church and Convent in Milan
Commissioned by? Ludovico Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan between 1494 and 1499, for the renovations he had planned for the church and convent.
What do you see? The Last Supper where Jesus and the 12 apostles are sharing their final meal before the crucifixion. The fresco is designed so that the space in which the last supper takes place looks like an extension of the architecture of the room itself.
In the center is Christ. His outstretched arms touch the table. The 12 apostles are divided, first into two groups of six on each side, and second, into subgroups of three. Each subgroup is a tightly-knit group in composition. Scan the row of heads and see the wave-like arrangement, surging and ebbing.
The ceiling of the room is painted as if coffered, and the coffers provide a clear sense of depth to the mural. In the background are three windows with a view to the landscape. The center window behind Christ, has a semicircular pediment, suggestive of a halo. The right wall is illuminated and the left is in shadow.
Backstory: Leonardo da Vinci always carried a sketch book with him. He looked for facial expressions, bodily movement, and believed the artist had “two principal things to paint, man and the intention of his mind.” He has frozen these 13 men in a moment of time and by doing so, he captured all the drama and excitement of the Gospel verses in The Last Supper. Few sketches remain but below is an early version.
Da Vinci had indicated great concern about painting Christ’s face. Christ is larger than the others (hierarchical perspective) and this is also of theological importance. The spatial isolation of Jesus gives added importance to his image. Da Vinci also used the most expensive paint for Christ—ultramarine.
It is hard to imagine the reactions of the friars and nuns as they entered the refectory to see the mural for the first time (before the mural started to deteriorate). The light, bright, stunning colors of a well-known story told in a brand-new fashion must have been almost shocking. Gone were the traditional halos, the flat facial expressions, the formalism, and instead, a band of 13 young men are seen reacting to an announcement that none of them could believe would happen. The humanism of Da Vinci was a great surprise. In the silence of their shared meals it must have given them much to contemplate.
Restoration: Leonardo da Vinci had no experience painting frescos before he started on this mural and used an experimental technique similar to painting on a wooden panel. As a result, the painting is in very poor state as Da Vinci painted on an outside wall with no space to prevent water damage, and he painted with a mixture of oil paint and tempura. The paint did not adhere to the wall and it was decaying even during Da Vinci’s lifetime.
Numerous restoration attempts have been made over the centuries, but they usually caused further problems. In 1979, a small group of Italian art restorers began a huge project to properly do the job. It took them 20 years to complete.
Symbolism: Christ’s simple pose is complex in detail and meaning—he is silent, sad, and submissive. His right hand extends toward Judas, whose hand is near his. Christ’s hand is palm down, accusing Judas. “The hand that betrayeth me is with me on the table.” At the same time, Christ’s right hand refers to the glass of wine, the symbol of his blood used in the Mass, while his left hand extending to the bread refers to the symbol of his body.
The triangular pose of Christ is a reference to the Holy Trinity, an emblematic abstraction of his words, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” The hand with the forefinger pointing straight upward to the right of Christ, belongs to Thomas. His probing finger refers to the physical resurrection of Christ and points to heaven as a harbinger of the physical ascension.
Refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie: The Last Supper measures 460 cm x 880 cm (15 ft x 29 ft) and covers the end wall of the refectory (dining hall) of the monastery. Painting the mural was not easy and a hazardous task as it was placed 15 feet above the floor. The theme of the Last Supper was a traditional one for refectories.
The opposite wall of the refectory is covered by the Crucifixion fresco by Giovanni Donato da Montorfano, to which Leonardo da Vinci added figures of the Sforza family in tempura; these figures have deteriorated in much the same way as those in The Last Supper. Da Vinci worked very thoroughly but slowly and Montorfano was finished before him, to the consternation of Duke Sforza who exhorted Da Vinci to finish his project.
Who is Da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci was born April 15, 1452 near Vinci in Tuscany. He was the illegitimate son of a 25 year old aspiring lawyer/notary, who had come home for the summer and met the young peasant girl Caterina. He was already engaged to be married but these occurrences were not particularly remarkable at that time.
His paternal grandfather took custody of Leonardo after the birth. The fact that Leonardo was not a legitimate son may have been quite fortunate, as the first legitimate son would have had to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a lawyer. His grandfather allowed him free reign to pursue other interests.
When Leonardo was 15 years old, he was sent to Florence to work as an apprentice to Andrea del Verrocchio. He excelled and by the time he was 25, he had his own studio with students. He applied to the Duke of Milan and moved there when he was 30.
In 1499, following the Duke’s fall from power, he left Milan and spent a short time in Venice. He returned to Florence in 1500 and in 1516 he moved to France at the invitation of King Francis I. He died there in 1519 at age 67. Among his most famous works are the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the Madonna Litta in the Hermitage Museum.
Fun fact: The rules of perspective that were used, bring about an unusual effect. This is especially true when looking at the table. The top of the table is always visible, no matter the angle at which you look at the painting. The nuns and friars in the refectory would be sitting well below the mural and it was important that they could see the bread and wine in this fresco.
Another interesting aspect of the fresco is the bottom center of the mural, where a doorway has been cut into the painting. In 1652, the kitchens were relocated to the room behind the refectory and they wanted easier access to the room. They cut out a good portion of the painting, included the feet of Jesus.
Fortunately, in 1520, Giampietrino had made a copy of the original in oil on canvas. We can see Jesus’ feet and also the salt cellar spilled by Judas that is no longer visible in the original fresco by Da Vinci. This copy by Giampietrino was very important for the restoration of The Last Supper between 1979 and 1999.
Where? Room 9 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? The Pisano family, probably Francesco Pisani
What do you see? This painting is full of activity. The main attention goes to the two groups of life-size people in the foreground. The painting shows how the family of Persian King Darius (in the center) appears in front of King Alexander the Great and his following (on the right) to ask for mercy. The man on the right, dressed in red and gold, is Alexander the Great. To his right, with the orange cape, is his good friend and advisor Hephaistion who is pointing to himself. Alexander is further surrounded by other high-ranked officers in his army, some of which a carrying a weapon called a halberd.
The woman in blue in the center foreground is the mother of Darius, Sisygambis. She is pleading for mercy on behalf of her family. To her left, dressed in gold is the wife of Darius, Stateira, and to her left are their two daughters in beautiful identical dresses. To the right of Sisygambis is a small figure. Some say that this may be a son of Darius and Stateira, but most consider this to be a random dwarf.
Alexander uses his right hand to silence Sisygambis and his left hand to point at Hephaistion as Sisygambis initially incorrectly spoke to Hephaistion instead of Alexander. The meeting between both groups takes place in an open hall within a big palace. Veronese paints the various figures in this painting in colorful and expensive contemporary Venetian outfits. The other figures in this painting are not important for the story but are basically onlookers just like us (though most of them do not seem to be interested in the main scene).
Backstory: The painting is based on the third book of the "History of Alexander the Great" by Quintus Curtius Rufus (see the full text of this book here) and the third book of the “Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings” by Valerius Maximum.
In 333 B.C., the Greek and the Persians were at war. Darius III was the King of Persia and Alexander the Great was a Greek king and army general. Alexander was aggressively expanding his territories around this time. The Greek just won the Battle of Issus (which is depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder). Darius fled the battle, but the Greeks captured his family.
In this painting you can see the family of Darius asking for mercy to Alexander the Great. Typically, mercy was not granted and the family would be enslaved, raped, or killed. In this case, Alexander granted them mercy. Alexander actually married the oldest daughter in this painting, Stateira II, later on. The youngest daughter married later to Hephaistion.
Alexander the Great: This painting shows an important moment in Alexander the Great’s life. Hephaistion is of the same age as Alexander (around 22 years in this painting) and actually taller than him. Because of this, the mother of Darius makes a big mistake by actually addressing the advisor of Alexander instead of himself. You can see that her mouth is open and her fingers are spread as she realizes her mistake. Alexander, however, steps forward and by his hand gestures, you can see that he forgives the mistake and explains that Hephaistion is his advisor.
According to Valerius Maximus, Alexander says: “There is nothing amiss in your having taken him for me, for he too is Alexander.” This gesture shows that, besides Alexander being a great general, he is also a diplomatic leader. At the time that this painting was created, the Venetians were at war with the Turks. So, the Pisano family commissioned this painting to teach the values of Alexander the Great to the visitors to their villa.
Who is Veronese? Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) was born in Verona, Italy. He is especially known for his very large historical paintings. He learned a lot from Titian and Tintoretto, who were contemporaries and were a bit older than him. He used a lot of bright colors in his paintings, something that is typical for the painters from the Venetian School. The reason for this was that the pigments arrived in Italy through the port of Venice and thus the most beautiful colors were widely available there for the best painters.
In his work, Veronese was interested in using historical stories to provide some useful life lessons to the people in Venice. Veronese also liked to include some funny details in his paintings which were not part of the narrative. Often these were a variety of animals. See, for example, also all the animals in his masterpiece The Wedding at Cana, which is in the Louvre. While this was fine to do in paintings with a nonreligious context, he actually would get in trouble when he also did that in paintings with a religious subject.
Fun fact: Veronese included some funny details in this painting. Noticeable is the chained monkey to the left of the family of Darius. Look also at the young boy holding Alexander’s robe who is looking at us. On the bottom right, you can see a boy bending over a shield as he is trying to see what is going on.
On the top right is a gigantic horse, which is the horse of Alexander and is much bigger than the other horses on the left of the painting. You can even look through some of the horses on the left as the paint has become more transparent over time. On the bottom right, you can see a big dog being held back by one of the soldiers, while on the left, you see some small and friendly dogs being held.
Where? Gallery 4 of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1440 and 1460
Commissioned by? Most likely the Medici family
What do you see? This tondo in a gold frame shows hundreds of people lining up to worship Baby Jesus. The line starts at the top right of the painting, goes around the back of the stable and the white building, and continues on the left side of the painting where people are entering under the arch.
On the bottom right, the Holy Family is depicted. The Virgin Mary is wearing a blue dress and has Baby Jesus on her lap. You can see some pomegranate seeds next to the left hand of Jesus. To Mary’s right is Saint Joseph. To their left, you can see the typical donkey, ox, and manger.
Behind and to the right of Mary and Joseph, you can see the three shepherds present at the birthplace of Jesus. In front of the line of people are the three Magi (also known as the three wise men or three kings) and behind them is their following. The first Magus is kneeling down in front of Jesus and touches his right foot. Jesus raises his right hand to bless him. The other two Magi are waiting behind him. The horses of the Magi are taken care of in the stable.
Next to the stable is a group of blind and disabled people. Above them is a white architectural structure in decay and on top of this structure stands a group of five almost naked people.
The painting contains various animals, such as cows, horses, camels, a donkey, an ox, a falcon, a peacock, a pheasant, and a dog. The two birds on the right of the stable probably represent a falcon (or a goshawk) attacking a pheasant.
On the top right, next to the mountaintop, you can see even more faces cluttered together. Also, below the arch on the left, you can see sketches of more people and animals.
Backstory: This painting is also known as the Washington Tondo or the Cook Tondo (named after a former owner of the painting). Fra Angelico started this painting, but before completing it, he was called to Rome by the Pope to complete several commissions in the Saint Peter and the Vatican Palace. Fra Filippo Lippi was then commissioned to finish the painting. In addition, it may be the case that several people in the workshops of both friars may have contributed to the painting.
It is not entirely clear who painted which parts of the painting. The general idea is that Fra Angelico painted the figures with the thinner faces (like Mary) and Lippi painted the figures with the broader faces (like Saint Joseph and the Magus holding the foot of Jesus). It is thought that Filippo Lippi completed the majority of the painting.
Symbolism: The painting contains various symbolic references:
Why the Adoration of the Magi? This theme was popular among Renaissance painters and has been painted by, among others, Botticelli, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Leonardo da Vinci. For example, Adoration of the Kings by Bruegel can be found in the National Gallery in London and Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli can be found in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.
An important argument for the popularity of the adoration of the Magi theme is that artists could paint the luxury and colorfulness of the costumes of the Magi and their followers.
This theme reflects the biblical story in Matthew 2 about the three kings who traveled a large distance following a big star to worship Baby Jesus. They brought three gifts for Jesus: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Who is Fra Angelico? Born as Guido di Petro around 1395, he was better known as Fra Angelico or Il Beato Angelico. He lived a very pious life and died in 1455. He started his career as a manuscript illustrator and moved on to become a painter of frescos and paintings.
He was beatified in 1982 by Pope John Paul II, because of his pious life and the amazing quality of his paintings. He was especially good in painting the most beautiful depictions of the Virgin Mary. One of his great works is the Coronation of the Virgin in the Uffizi Museum.
Who is Filippo Lippi? Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469) was born in Florence. After his parents died and his aunt could not take care of him anymore, he was sent to a Carmelite convent. Unlike Fra Angelico, he lived a far-from-pious life, though he officially remained a friar throughout his life. He left the convent at age 26 and later in his life he even married and got a child, the well-known painter, Filippino Lippi.
The Medici family recognized the talents of Filippo Lippi, and during his career, he completed at least nine paintings for them. One of his most famous works is the Madonna and Child with Two Angels in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: An analysis by the National Gallery of Art has revealed that this painting was created over an extended period of time. It also seems that some of the animals in the painting were not initially included in the design, but only added later on, possibly by another painter than Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi.
Analysis revealed, specifically, that the peacock, falcon, pheasant, and hunting dog were added on top of areas that were already painted. This was probably under the influence of the Medici brothers Piero and Giovanni. Note that the birds are painted bigger than they should realistically be, compared to the rest of the painting, to emphasize their symbolism. They distract the viewer from the real theme of the painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Second floor, room 818 of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1435 and 1440
Commissioned by? Nicolas Rolin, the Chancellor of Burgundy under Duke Philip the Good.
What do you see? Nicolas Rolin kneels down in front of the Virgin Mary who is holding Baby Jesus. Rolin's hands are folded in prayer, and he has an open book on his lap. He does not seem to look at Mary and Jesus. Mary wears a red gown with jewelry in it and looks down with humility. Baby Jesus has his right hand raised to bless Rolin and holds an orb with a cross (called a globus cruciger) in his left hand.
In the background, you can see a city on the left, a river and bridge in the middle, and several church towers no the right, above the head of Jesus.
Backstory: This painting is also known as The Virgin with Chancellor Rolin or The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin. The painting entered the collection of the Louvre in 1805.
Nicolas Rolin commissioned this painting for the Saint Sebastian chapel (the Rolin family chapel) in the Notre-Dame-du-Châtel church in Autun, near Dijon in France. This was the church that Rolin visited when he grew up and where his ancestors were buried. Rolin was the main patron of this church, and there was even an elevated walkway from his house to the church such that he could enter it at any time.
Symbolism: The cross that Jesus holds in his left hand reminds the viewers that Jesus died for the sins of mankind. The three arches in the middle background represent the Holy Trinity, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The peacocks are a symbol of immortality. The flowers in the middle symbolize different virtues of Mary.
Behind the praying hands of Rolin is a church tower to symbolize his faith. The church towers behind Jesus signify him as the center of the Church. The bridge in the background unites the common people and the Church. Some people have identified the city in the background as the New Jerusalem, but others are not so sure about this interpretation.
Who is Van Eyck? Jan van Eyck was born around 1390 in Maaseik, Belgium, and died in 1441. He is one of the most important representatives of the Northern Renaissance. Until 1429, he was a court painter of Duke Philip the Good, which explains why he was asked for this painting. During this time, he undertook several diplomatic missions across Europe for the Duke. Among other countries, he visited Italy, where he could learn from the innovative Italian painters.
Van Eyck was ahead of his time by using a realistic and naturalistic style in his work. This was, in part, possible because he was one of the first painters who used oil paint. He has had a big influence on future artists, including Sandro Botticelli. One of his most famous works hangs in the National Gallery in London and is The Arnolfini Portrait, which was probably painted a year before the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin.
Fun fact: The capital above the head of Rolin contains some very interesting details. It contains the following scenes:
However, Van Eyck seems to have freely interpreted these Biblical stories as he has altered some details. For example, to the left of Noah, four men are depicted. These men should represent the sons of Noah. However, Noah only had three sons. It seems likely that Van Eyck has altered these scenes to draw some parallels with Rolin’s life. Rolin, for example, had four sons and each of the ‘sons of Noah’ seem to represent the different roles of the sons of Rolin.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Gallery 6 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned for? Most likely, either the engagement or marriage of Ginevra de’ Benci.
What do you see? The 16- or 17-year old Ginevra de Benci is painted. She is wearing a brown dress with blue laces and gold edges, and a black scarf. Below the dress she wears a subtle white blouse with a golden pin. She has a porcelain-like skin and her hair is styled in ringlets. Her expression is, one the one hand, a bit grumpy, and on the other hand, she seems proud. Her eyes emphasize this. Her left eye (for the viewer) is looking at the viewer, but her right eye seems to be looking down on something. Experts have interpreted the facial expression of Ginevra as an indication that she is not happy with the (upcoming) marriage. Note that Ginevra has only light eyebrows. Shaving the eyebrows was common at that time for women and can also be seen in the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.
Behind Ginevra is a juniper bush. The halo of spikes from the juniper leaves contrast nicely with the depiction of Ginevra. In the right background are the mountains, trees, water, a small town, and the hazy sky, which are typical for Leonardo da Vinci’s style.
Back of the painting: On the back of this painting is another painting from Leonardo da Vinci, called Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper. It shows a juniper sprig, with a circular arrangement of palm and laurel around it. It also includes the inscription “Virtutem Forma Decorat”, which means “beauty adorns virtue.”
Backstory: This painting was created to commemorate Ginevra de’ Benci’s engagement or marriage to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini. Sources have shown that the wedding between both of them took place on January 15, 1474. Bernardo Niccolini was twice the age of Ginevra. During the Renaissance, women were typically only depicted when they got engaged or married.
This is the first known portrait that Leonardo da Vinci painted and the only painting of him in the Americas that is available for public viewing. It was bought in 1967 for $5 million.
Symbolism: The juniper bush represents chastity, which was considered to be one of the most important moral standard for women in the Renaissance. At the same time, juniper is a reference to Ginevra’s name as juniper translates into Italian as “ginepro”.
The laurel and palm on the back of the painting symbolize, respectively, the intelligence and moral values of Ginepra. However, the laurel and palm were also the personal emblem of Bernardo Bembo, who was thought to have a platonic affair with Ginevra. Bernardo Bembo was the Venetian ambassador to Florence, and he probably commissioned the back of this painting (and according to some also the front of the painting, but this is not proven).
Who is Ginevra de’ Benci? Ginevra de’ Benci (born in 1457 or 1458) was the daughter of a wealthy Florentine banker. She was considered to be one of the most intellectual people of her time and was a poet. Later in her life, Ginevra was exiled at her own request because of an unknown illness and tragic love affair.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was born in the Italian village of Anchiano, which was very close to Vinci, which is where he got his name from. He was an architect, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, writer, and much more. Leonardo da Vinci is known to be one of the biggest multi-talented people that the world has ever seen. He created this painting while he was still a student of Andrea del Verrocchio. Other well-known paintings by Leonardo da Vinci include his Madonna Litta in the Hermitage Museum and Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre.
Fun fact: About one-third of this painting is missing. At some point in history, someone cut off the lower third of the painting, probably because it was damaged. Based on a drawing of Leonardo da Vinci, it is believed that the part that is cut off probably shows Ginevra folding or crossing her hands in her lap. It is a pity that this part is missing as Leonardo was a specialist in drawing hands. With his diverse interests, he was obsessed by the anatomical correctness when he painted parts of the human body. Ginevra was possibly holding a flower in her hand to symbolize devotion.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas of Ginevra de' Benci; poster of Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper.
Where? Room 3 on the ground floor of the Bargello Museum
Commissioned by? Raffaele Riario, a cardinal and art collector.
What do you see? A life-like statue of the Roman god Bacchus. He is naked and standing with a large cup of wine in his right hand. He has curly hair made up of grapes and a wreath of ivy leaves in his hair. The effects of drinking the wine are visible in the expression of his face and his unstable pose. Bacchus seems to be looking at the cup, but his eyes are rolling. His unstable pose can be seen best from the right side as illustrated in the drawing of Maarten van Heemskerck of this statue in the garden of its owner Jacopo Galli.
Bacchus is leaning somewhat backward with his shoulders pulled back and his belly pointing forward. Interestingly, when we look from the left side, the body seems to be quite balanced. So, when walking around this statue, he sometimes seems to be out of balance and from other angles he seems quite stable.
In his left hand, Bacchus is holding a large bunch of grapes and a piece of animal skin that touches the rock-like base. You can see the face of the animal from the back of the statue and some have suggested that this is a wolf, though there are several other opinions on what animal it is. Behind his left leg is a tree trunk for the stability of the sculpture.
Next to Bacchus is a young satyr, which is a male figure with a permanent erection and with the ears, horns, legs, and tail of a goat. The satyr is smiling an eating from the grapes.
Backstory: Michelangelo started to work on this painting in July 1596 when he was 21 years old. Cardinal Raffaele Riario commissioned the statue. He had earlier bought a statue from Michelangelo, called Sleeping Cupid. But after he bought it, he discovered that the statue was not an antique one as was told to him, but rather a statue created by Michelangelo (the statue is now lost). Nevertheless, Riario’s interest in Michelangelo’s talents was triggered, and he commissioned him to make a statue of Bacchus.
Who is Bacchus? Bacchus is the Roman god of wine, intoxication, fertility, religious ecstasy, and drama. His equivalent in Greek mythology is Dyonisus. He is the son of Zeus, and there are different stories about who his mother is, but the most popular one is that his mother was Semele who was a mortal. Bacchus is often depicted with grapes, ivy leaves, wine, and satyrs (like in this sculpture).
Bacchus has been a source of inspiration for many artists in ancient Greece and during the Renaissance. For example, Titian made a painting on Bacchus and Ariadne which is in the National Gallery in London. Caravaggio also created a famous painting of Bacchus which is in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.
Fun fact: The penis of Bacchus is missing. It seems to have been removed by a chisel rather than broken off. Also, the erection of the satyr, which was typical for him, is not present. Moreover, a hand of the statue had broken off (see the drawing of Van Heemskerck above) but was restored before 1553. It is unknown who removed some of these parts, but some people suggest that it could have been Michelangelo himself to make the statue look more like one from ancient Greece (where some of those body parts were often missing).
Michelangelo’s intention with this statue was indeed to create it in the style of the Greek antique statues, and he succeeded in this as this statue was regularly mistaken to be a statue from ancient Greece. Michelangelo wanted the statue to be in this ancient style to prove that at 21 years old he would already rival the famous ancient Greek sculptors. In that way, he could establish his reputation quickly.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Framed poster of statue (Amazon links).
Where? Room 57 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? Botticelli probably made this picture for himself
What do you see? In the center of this painting, you can see a naked baby Jesus. His mother, the Virgin Mary, is depicted to his right and is much larger than the other figures. His father, Saint Joseph, is on his left. Behind Jesus are a horse and an ox. Together they are staying in a stable. On top of the stable are three angels. One is reading a book, and the other two are holding an olive branch. To the left of Joseph is an angel in pink, holding an olive branch with a scroll attached to it, while reaching out to Joseph to introduce the three wise men. On the right of Mary is another angel with three shepherds who want to pay their respects to Jesus.
In the foreground are three pairs consisting of one angel and one man embracing each other. Each pair holds an olive branch in their hand with a scroll attached to it. They are surrounded by several little imps or devils who are killing themselves with their spears.
On top of the painting is a choir of 12 angels holding hands. The angels are doing a mystic ring dance. They are also holding an olive branch in their hands with a scroll attached to it and a crown hanging at the bottom of the branch. The angels are under the golden dome of heaven. Above this dome is a Greek inscription based on some parts of the Revelations of John related to the apocalypse.
Backstory: This painting is also called ‘The Mystical Nativity’, and it is the only painting that Botticelli signed. This painting combines the story of the birth of Jesus with his return to earth according to the apocalypse.
The title of this painting contains the word mystic because the parts of the painting referring to the apocalypse are prophetic and express a mystery. The word mystic is occasionally used to refer to exceptional paintings with mysterious and symbolic content. Another example of such a painting is the Mystic Crucifixion by Botticelli which is in the Fogg Art Museum in Boston.
Inscription: The inscription on top of the painting contains a message in Greek. It is translated as: “I Sandro painted this picture at the end of the year 1500 in the troubles in Italy in the half time after the time according to the 11th chapter of St. John in the second woe of the Apocalypse in the loosing of the devil for three and a half years. Then he will be chained in the 12th chapter and we shall see him trodden down as in this picture.” This message of Botticelli is based on the 11th and 12th chapter of the Revelations of John.
Botticelli believed that the apocalypse as described in the Bible was going to happen in 1504. Specifically, he believed that he was living in the Tribulation, a short period of time in which the world would suffer from hardship and disasters. He believed that the Millennium, a period of a thousand years during which Jesus would return to earth, would start in three and a half years. This belief of Botticelli was particularly based on the various wars going on at that time and the hanging, two years earlier, of the Florentine preacher Savonarola of whom Botticelli was a follower.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was born as Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi in Florence. Most of his paintings have a religious theme, but he also painted portraits and mythological scenes. The latter theme resulted in his most famous works, such as The Birth of Venus and La Primavera, both in the Uffizi Museum. His painting of Venus and Mars, which is also in the National Gallery, is also a masterpiece.
In the 1490s, Botticelli got heavily influenced by the extremist preacher Savonarola, and he even stopped painting for a while to become a full member of Savonarola’s sect. However, he picked up painting again after a while, though his productivity was lower than before (though this is not entirely certain as almost all paintings of Botticelli are undated).
Fun fact: The Nativity scene in this painting is the story of the birth of Jesus as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Mary was still a virgin, and God promised her that she would give birth to the Christ. The accounts of Matthew and Luke, however, differ quite a bit and both have their unique components.
According to Matthew, Jesus was visited by three wise men who followed a star to worship him. Luke describes that an angel announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds and that they subsequently visit Jesus. Also, according to Luke, but not according to Matthew, the birth of Jesus happened in Bethlehem and Jesus was born in a stable. Botticelli combined elements from both gospels for this painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas.
Where? Gallery 306 of the Philadelphia Museum of Art
When? About 1460
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see?
Symbolism: The skull and the bone refer to Golgotha which means ‘place of the skull’ and was the hill where the crucifixion of Jesus took place. The vermillion banners refer to the blood of Jesus. The dark sky refers to the three hours of darkness during the crucifixion. This darkness is described in Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, and Luke 23:44. After the darkness ended, Jesus died. Interestingly, John the Evangelist, probably the writer of the Gospel of John, is the only gospel writer who does not refer to this darkness during the crucifixion.
Who is Van der Weyden? Rogier van der Weyden, also known as Roger de la Pasture, was born in 1399/1400 in Tournai, Belgium. When he was about 36 years old, he moved to Brussels, where he probably lived until he died in 1464. Many of his surviving works are altarpieces, triptychs, diptychs, or portraits. He was a popular painter during his lifetime and received many international commissions for his work, which was rare for that time.
Together with Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck, Van der Weyden is considered to be the most influential 15th-century painter from the Northern part of Europe. Van der Weyden was an innovative painter. He was one of the first to include commissioners of his work as participants in the religious scenes that he painted. He also stood out from other painters by including the emotions of his subjects into the painting. One of his masterpieces is The Descent of the Cross in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Fun fact: This painting is on display at the end of European Art between 1100 and 1500 section on the second floor of the East Wing of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. So, you will have to work your way through a minimum of four other rooms with art from the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance before you can truly admire the painting. However, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has constructed their rooms in such a way that you can already catch glimpses of Van der Weyden’s masterpiece from the central hallway (about 250 feet away). The iconic red of Van der Weyden’s large diptych attracts people from a long distance to have a closer look at it.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? Room 58 of the National Gallery
What do you see? On the left, you see the goddess Venus who is carefully watching the god Mars on the right, who is asleep. Venus and Mars are having an adulterous affair. Uncharacteristically, Mars is unarmed, and he lies on a red cloak.
You can also see four fauns (mythological figures who are half human and half goat, have small horns and tails, and they are followers of Bacchus). The fauns are blowing a Triton’s shell (a hunting horn in ancient times) like a trumpet in the ear of Mars to show that after making love even this very loud sound will not wake him up. They are also jokingly playing with the weapon of Mars (a lance), his body armor (to be precise, a cuirass; see the faun on the bottom right) and his helmet (the faun on the left). Venus is wearing a beautiful dress. On the top right you can see a swarm of wasps. Also, if you look carefully, you can see the city of Florence in the distance.
Backstory: This painting is both inspired by Greek mythology and a description of the Greek writer Lucian of Samosata (125-180) of a lost painting on Alexander the Great and his wife, Roxana. According to the mythological stories, Venus is still married to the blacksmith Vulcan (the god of fire) when she is having an affair with Mars. Whenever Venus was having an affair, Vulcan would get so angry that he treated the metal with such force that it created a volcanic eruption.
Based on the dimensions of the painting (27 x 69 inches – 69 x 174cm), this painting was likely meant to be a decoration for the backboard of a bed or a storage box. The National Gallery acquired the painting around 1874 for £1,050.
Symbolism: The overall message of this painting is that love trumps war. Venus (the goddess of love) is awake, while her lover Mars (the god of war) is asleep. On the top right, you can see a swarm of wasps, which represent the stings of love. They may also refer to the Vespucci family (vespa is Italian for wasp). Simonetta Vespucci was a beautiful woman who most likely served as the model for this painting, and she was the inspiration for many of Botticelli’s paintings. The myrtle trees behind Venus are one of the main symbols of Venus as myrtles are known as a potent aphrodisiac.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a painter who belonged to the Florentine school of painters. Botticelli was initially trained by his brother to become a goldsmith, but at the age of 14, he became an apprentice to the successful painter Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), known from the painting Madonna and Child with Two Angels. Greek mythological stories often inspired Botticelli’s work, and he used Venus more often as a topic for his work. For example, Venus was also the center of attention in his famous paintings The Birth of Venus and La Primavera, both in the Uffizi Museum.
Botticelli was in love with Simonetta Vespucci (a cousin-in-law of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci), who was already married to someone else. Simonetta was known as the greatest beauty of her time and died in 1476. As a result, Botticelli never married. Throughout his life, he has been inspired by Simonetta, who has served, according to popular belief, as the inspiration for many of his paintings (including the current one). According to his wish, Botticelli was buried at the feet of Simonetta Vespucci.
Who are Venus and Mars? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. Venus is also known in the Greek mythology as Aphrodite. In Latin the noun Venus means ‘sexual desire’. Julius Caesar claimed to be an ancestor of Venus.
Mars, the god of war, is one of the lovers of Venus. Mars is also an agricultural guardian. The Greek counterpart of Mars is Ares. The third month of the year, March, is named after him. In many mythological stories, Cupid is portrayed as the son of Venus and Mars.