Interested in a Copy for Yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? First floor, room 710 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? Prior Bartolomeo Scorlione and the Confraternity for the Chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in the church of San Francesco Maggiore in Milan.
What do you see? The Virgin Mary, the children Jesus and John the Baptist, and an angel are pictured in a triangular composition in a rocky environment. The Virgin Mary sits on the ground, which is referred to as the Madonna of Humility. She is the center of attention in this painting. The right hand of Mary is on the shoulder of John the Baptist (who is the child on the left). The left hand of Mary is right above the head of Jesus, which can be interpreted as a protective gesture. John the Baptist is folding his hands and is praying towards Jesus. At the same time, Jesus, who is directly to the left of the angel, is raising his right hand to bless John the Baptist. The angel most likely represents the Archangel Gabriel, even though the angel looks quite feminine (the painting of androgynous figures was a trademark of Leonardo da Vinci). The angel is pointing towards John the Baptist. In the background you can see the rocky grotto and a river, most likely inspired by the Dolomite Mountains, which are to the northeast of Milan. In the foreground and in the grotto various flowers and plants are depicted (including irises, lilies, and ivy). The painting has been finished using the sfumato technique, the smoky/hazy effects, which creates a somewhat magical atmosphere.
Backstory: The commissioner of this painting wanted Leonardo da Vinci to paint the Immaculate Conception (a Catholic dogma that Mary was born without sin) to serve as the center of an altarpiece for the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception. This chapel is part of the Saint Francesco Grande church in Milan, and the chapel was founded before 1335 by Beatrice d’Este, who was the wife of Galleazzo I, the Duke of Milan. On the left and right of this painting would be two paintings of angels playing a musical instrument to complete the altarpiece. On the left is An Angel in Green with a Vielle painted by an associate of Leonardo, possibly Francesco Napoletano. On the right is An Angel in Red with a Lute by Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis. This work is thought to be painted entirely by Leonardo da Vinci, which is not always the case for paintings of Leonardo.
Symbolism: The rocks and caves represent sanctuary. The rocks also refer to Jesus, who is often called the rock of the Christian religion. The flowers and plants are carefully chosen. For example, the palm leaves, which can be seen behind the head of John the Baptist, are a symbol of Mary and a symbol of the victory of Jesus over earthly temptations. The angel is identified based on his wings. Mary is directly visible by her blue. This painting is one of the first known paintings in which the halos are left out. The halos were used in the Middle Ages to indicate that somebody was holy or sacred but were in contrast to the realistic painting style of the Renaissance.
What is sfumato? Sfumato comes from the Italian sfumare, which means ‘to evaporate like smoke’ and Leonardo da Vinci famously used the sfumato technique to create the atmosphere in his paintings. Leonardo applied the sfumato technique when the painting was almost finished by applying a coat of a mix of varnish and black pigment to create a hazy/smoky effect.
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. Leonardo was notorious for being substantially late in delivering his paintings and was not afraid to abandon projects halfway. Leonardo has created various famous portraits, including Ginevra de' Benci (in the National Gallery of Art) and the Mona Lisa (in the Louvre).
Fun fact: Interestingly, there are two versions of this famous painting. The other version of The Virgin of the Rocks is in the National Gallery in London. The version in the Louvre was the first to be completed and is much less conventional. For example, the version in the National Gallery contains halos on top of the heads of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Mary, and John the Baptist is carrying a cross with him (these elements are not present in the version in the Louvre). You can also see a clear difference in the face of Jesus. Also, in the National Gallery version of the painting, the angel is not pointing at John the Baptist and seems to gaze into the distance (as if the angel is dreaming/imagining this scene, instead of participating in it). The reason that there are two versions of this painting is that the Confraternity rejected the first version of Leonardo. It was not traditional enough (for example, no halos and a lack of symbolism) and thus did not suit the purpose of representing the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (which was the sole purpose of the Confraternity). Leonardo da Vinci considered the Louvre version of the painting a real masterpiece in which he could perfectly express his artistic ideas. After the Louvre-version of the painting was rejected, Leonardo created another version of this painting (the version in the National Gallery in London), which included all elements that the Confraternity asked for.
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 has his hands folded in prayer and 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. Above Mary, an Angel with rainbow-colored wings holds a crown. It seems that the Angel is going to crown Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Van Eyck included many interesting details in this painting. Several flowers are growing outside the building, including irises, lilies, and roses. Two peacocks walk around, as well as two magpies to the left of the flowers. Two small figures are in the background. One of them looks at the city while the other looks at the peacock. The meeting between Rolin and the Virgin Mary is situated in a beautiful, Roman-style, palace-like building on top of a hill with a view of the world in the background. You can see the stained glass windows on the top and sculpted figures on top of the columns. 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. 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. The painting entered the collection of the Louvre in 1805.
Symbolism: The cross that Jesus holds in his left hand reminds the viewers that Jesus died for our sins. 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 Rolin? Nicolas Rolin (1376-1462) was the Chancellor of Burgundy under Duke Philip the Good. He was Chancellor for more than 40 years and was instrumental in the successes of Burgundy and France during the 15th century. Together with his second wife, he founded the Hospice the Beaune, a charitable house for poor people to live in. In 1434, he commissioned a large altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden for the hospice. Van der Weyden painted Rolin and his wife on two of the back panels of the altarpiece. He also founded a new religious order called ‘’les sœurs hospitalières de Beaune’, which was a sisterhood of nuns who would care for the poor people in the Hospice.
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. He 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 this painting.
Fun fact: The capital above the head of Rolin contains some very interesting details. It contains the following scenes: Adam and Eve expulsed from Paradise, Abel killing Cain, and Noah’s drunkenness with the Ark on the top left. On the capital on the right side of the room is a scene about Abraham and Melchizedek. 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.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 41 of the Uffizi Museum
Created for? A wedding gift of Raphael to his friend Lorenzo Nasi.
What do you see? This painting – also known as Madonna del Cardellino – shows the Virgin Mary (referred to as the Madonna), Jesus, and Saint John. Mary sits on a rock and wears a red dress with a blue mantle on top of it. She protectively watches the two children in front of her. Saint John, the boy on the left with the gold curly hair, is dressed in animal skins. He holds a goldfinch bird in his hand. He wants to give the goldfinch to Jesus who is touching the head of the bird. Jesus is close to his mother and places his foot affectionately on his mother’s foot. The three figures in this painting are shown in a pyramidal form – known as the Renaissance triangle – a popular composition in the early Renaissance to represent symmetry in a painting. In the background, you can see a blue and green landscape with bushes, trees, hills, a river, a bridge, a castle, and some houses.
Backstory: Raphael created this work for his close friend Lorenzo Nasi, a wealthy wool merchant from Florence. The painting shows the meeting between Saint John, Jesus, and Mary. This scene is based on a medieval religious text, Meditationes Vitae Christi (see a later translation here), which describes the Holy Family meeting Saint John in the desert on their way back from Egypt (a story not mentioned in the Bible). The composition of the work was directly inspired by the painting Saint Veronica by Hans Memling, which was created between 1470 and 1475. The clothes of Mary, the composition, and the city in the background are all elements that can also be seen in Memling’s painting. Raphael's painting deteriorated severely over time, and in May 1999 it was taken down for restoration. It took almost ten years to finish the restoration. In the meanwhile, a much-lower-quality copy of the painting was on display in the Uffizi Museum.
Symbolism: The Virgin Mary is dressed in red and blue. Red is a symbol of the passion of Christ and blue is the symbol of the Church and of Mary. It was one of the more expensive pigments and therefore appropriate to use for an important figure like Mary. The European goldfinch is associated with the crucifixion of Jesus. In this painting, Saint John passes the bird on to Jesus as a forewarning of his violent death. From the book that Mary is holding, experts have identified the words “Sedes Sapientiae”. This is one of the devotional titles given to Mary and means “seat of wisdom”. It emphasizes that Mary gave birth to Jesus (who represents wisdom). When Mary is depicted in the role of the “seat of wisdom”, she is typically shown seated on a throne with Jesus in her lap. However, in this case, the rock on which Mary sits serves as the throne.
Flowers: Several flowers can be seen in the painting. While not all flowers have been identified conclusively, many believe the flowers to be: anemones (representing Mary’s sorrow for the passion of Jesus), daisies (representing the innocence of Baby Jesus), plantains (representing the path to follow Jesus), and violets (representing humility).
Why a goldfinch? In European art, the goldfinch is frequently used as a symbol. The European goldfinch, Carduelis Carduelis, has a red face and a black and white head. Hundreds of paintings from the Renaissance have depicted the goldfinch. The European goldfinch is often associated with resurrection, but also with the soul, sacrifice, and death. Legend has it that the goldfinch got the red spot on its head during Jesus' crucifixion when it wanted to pluck a thorn from Jesus’ crown, and a blood of drop from Jesus splashed on its head. The goldfinch is indeed known to eat thistles and thorns and has therefore been associated with the crown of thorns that Jesus wore at his crucifixion.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), popularly known as Raphael, was born in Urbino, a small city a few hours east of Florence. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he is considered one of the great masters of the Renaissance. He was a very talented architect, drawer, and painter, but is best known for his paintings of the Virgin Mary (called Madonnas) and his large-scale depictions of humans. The current work was created during Raphael's period in Florence and shares many similarities with two other paintings of Raphael: the Madonna of the Meadow in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and La Belle Jardinière in the Louvre. A few years later, in 1508, he moved to Rome where he completed many works for the Pope, such as the Portrait of Leo X with Two Cardinals.
Fun fact: IIn 1547, the house of the Nasi family, which was several feet away from the Ponte Vecchio, collapsed. Two of the occupants were killed and much of its decorations got damaged. Raphael's painting was also badly damaged. Battista Nasi, the son of Lorenzo Nasi, did all he could to retrieve the remainings of this painting as it was a very valuable asset of his father. The painting had broken into six large pieces and even more smaller pieces. Battista could recover most pieces, except one large piece from the bottom left corner. The painting was restored by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, a good friend of Raphael. He did a great job in restoring the painting as this painting has become a very popular part of the Uffizi collection over the next centuries.
Where? First floor, room 711 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1503 and 1517
Commissioned by? Francesco del Giocondo, the husband of Mona Lisa.
What do you see? A half-body portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. She is sitting outside in a chair with a straight posture. Her curly hair hangs along her head, and she has a transparent veil on her head (which may be a sign that she is pregnant). She is wearing a dress with a bit of lace and a scarf over the shoulders. The light skin of her contrasts nicely with the darker tones in the rest of the painting. Note that she has no eyebrows, something that was not uncommon in portraits from that time, though research has shown that the Mona Lisa may originally have had some faint eyebrows. Her hands are crossed and laying on an armrest. She looks at us with an ambiguous expression. Her eyes and her small mysterious smile have been intriguing to viewers all across the world. What is she thinking about and what is she looking at? The background shows a rocky landscape, and Leonardo da Vinci was the first to include such a background in a portrait painting. You can see almost snowy mountains, a winding road on the left and a bridge on the right. It seems that the landscape on the left and the right of Mona Lisa do not match up as the left side is lower than the right side.
Backstory: Mona Lisa means ‘my lady Lisa. The word ‘mona’ is a short version of Madonna, which means ‘my lady’. This painting is also known in Italian as La Gioconda named after her last name. This painting was a very innovative one in the time that it was painted due to its composition and the painting technique used by Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci accepted the commission for this painting during a time in which he had little money. However, soon after he received some big commissions and it took him, therefore, many years to complete this painting. While Leonardo da Vinci was traveling in France, this painting was acquired by King Francis I of France. So, he never delivered this painting to its commissioner. The painting remained in France ever since and Napoleon Bonaparte put the painting in his bedroom. In 1804, the painting was moved to Louvre and people could now see the painting that Napoleon was sleeping with. The painting is now displayed in a climate-controlled room and behind bullet-proof glass.
Sfumato? One of the things that makes this painting so popular is the use of sfumato by Leonardo da Vinci. This is a technique that Da Vinci developed in which he blended colors on the canvas. Sfumato is derived from the Italian word ‘fumo’, which means smoky. When we translate sfumato to English, it means something like soft or blurry. The transitions from light to dark are barely visible on the canvas, and you cannot see the brushstrokes on the painting. This transition is in stark contrast to the impressionist paintings, where the brush strokes are very visible. For example, look at Wheat Field with Cypresses by Van Gogh. The use of the sfumato technique leads to more realistic paintings. Other good examples of the sfumato technique are Da Vinci’s paintings of the Virgin of the Rocks of which one version is in the Louvre and another one in the National Gallery of Art. The sfumato technique had a big influence on other artists, including Raphael, who adopted this technique for some of his portraits.
Who is Mona Lisa? Born as Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini in the Republic of Florence in 1479, Lisa married with Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo in 1495. She was the third wife of Francesco, who was a merchant. He later became a government official in Florence. It seems that their marriage was based on real love, which was not that common during that time, and together they got five children. Francesco came from a family of art lovers and commissioned a painting of Lisa to celebrate the purchase of a new home. Mona Lisa lived a normal life and apart from this painting not much is known about her.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (1452-1519) was born in Vinci in the Republic of Florence. He is considered to be the ultimate Renaissance man as he was not only an artist, but also, amongst others, an astronomer, a geologist, an inventor, a mathematician, a musician, and a writer. Together with Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael, he is considered to be one of the four leading artists from the Renaissance. He created a large variety of art, but he often did not finish his works. Among his surviving works are various magnificent portraits including his Ginevra de’ Benci, which is in the National Gallery of Art.
Fun fact: In August of 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. This theft was a big shock as the Louvre was heavily guarded and it was a big mystery how the painting got stolen. However, it was not a complete disaster as, in 1911, the Mona Lisa was not yet considered to be one of the best paintings in the world yet. The robbery spurred a lot of attention for the painting in the media. One of the popular theories from those days was that Picasso stole the painting. The police even questioned Picasso but found no evidence against him. In 1913, the painting was retrieved when an employee of the Louvre wanted to sell the painting for $100,000 to an Italian museum. After this robbery, the Mona Lisa was suddenly one of the most special paintings in the world, and it has only grown in popularity since. Nowadays, about six million people visit the Louvre, and most of them want to see this painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas (Amazon links).
Where? First floor, room 711 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
Commissioned by? The Benedictines of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore to decorate their refectory (silent dining-room).
What do you see? This enormous painting of 7.40yd x 10.87yd (6.77m x 9.94m) shows the biblical story of the wedding at Cana in which Jesus converted water into wine. Jesus is sitting in the middle of the table, and Maria is sitting to the left of him (you can recognize them by their halos). They are surrounded by a mix of biblical figures and Venetian contemporaries of Paolo Veronese, including some of the other apostles, princes, Venetian noblemen, and servants. In total there are more than 130 people. The bride and groom are in the left bottom corner sitting at the table. A servant is offering a glass of wine to the groom to taste the new wine. The bearded ceremonial master, dressed in a green mantle, is standing behind the servant. On the right, you can see a man pouring the wine from one of the white stone water jars into a smaller jar. To the left of him is the head wine taster, who approves the wine. The wedding at Cana is illustrated as a lavish Venetian feast, evidenced by the abundance of 16th-century Venetian elements, such as the presence of Dorian (in the foreground) and Corinthian (in the background) columns, the clothing of many of the guests, the silver tableware, etc. Do you also see the dogs, birds, parrot, and a cat?
Backstory: This painting is based on the story of the wedding at Cana in the Gospel of John 2:1-12. Mary, Jesus, and some of the apostles are invited to a wedding in Cana. During this multi-day wedding, they ran out of wine, and Jesus gave the servants the instruction to fill six stone water jars, each holding 20-30 gallons, with water. The water turned into wine and was better than the earlier wine that was served at the wedding. This was one of the first signs of the wonders that Jesus could do. It took Paolo Veronese 15 months to complete the painting (with some assistance of his brother). He created a very colorful painting, and some of these colors were very expensive and imported through the Silk Route from the Middle and the Far East
Symbolism: On top of Jesus, on the balustrade, meat is being cut. This is most likely the meat of a lamb and refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God (we can interpret the meat cutting as symbolism as the wedding guests are already eating their dessert, which means that the meat was already consumed earlier). The dog that is chewing a bone at the bottom of the painting refers to the sacrifice of Jesus at the end of his life. There are also several references to the wedding. The guests are getting quinces (a pear-like fruit) for dessert, which serves a reminder that bitterness and sweetness are mixed in a marriage. On the table in between the musicians stands an hourglass, which represents vanity. The dogs on the foreground of the painting are a symbol of loyalty.
Why the wedding at Cana? On the one hand, the wedding at Cana is a great subject to express the opulence and beauty of the Venetian life. On the other hand, it still presents a biblical story, which can remind the viewers of the importance of Jesus. In this painting, Jesus is not interacting with the other guests like you would expect based on the biblical story, but he looks straight at the viewer. Jesus is sitting in the middle of the table instead of the bride and groom, who you would expect there. This shows that the religious motives (reminding viewers of the wonders that Jesus did) are more important than an accurate depiction of the biblical story. Other artists have also used the wedding at Cana as the theme of their paintings. Giotto created a fresco of the Marriage at Cana and Vasari created a painting of the Marriage at Cana.
Who is Veronese? Paolo Veronese (1528 – 1588) was born in Verona (which explains his surname). He is one of the three most important members of the 16th-century Venetian school of painters; the other members are Titian and Tintoretto. He is known for his large, dramatic, and very colorful paintings. In his early years he used the mannerist style, but later on, he returned, under the influence of Titian, to a more naturalistic style. Many of his magnificent works are nowadays on display in and around Venice. One painting that is outside Venice is The Family of Darius before Alexander, which is in the National Gallery in London.
Restoration: The painting has had a turbulent life. Napoleon confiscated the painting in 1797. Due to its enormous size, the painting was cut in half, rolled up, and transported to Paris, where it was stitched together. It was stored in a box during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-1871. During World War II, the painting was taken out of its frame and transported throughout France by truck. In the 1990s, during renovations to the Louvre, water was spread all over the painting. When they wanted to put the painting back on the wall after restoration, it fell, leading to several cuts in the painting. In addition, Veronese used many bright colors in this painting some of which have deteriorated over time and needed very significant renovations to get the painting in its current state.
Fun fact: This work is the biggest canvas painting in the Louvre and contains many funny details. Paolo Veronese included various contemporaries into the painting, not all of which we can identify nowadays. For example, the musician in white is a self-portrait of Paolo Veronese, and the musician in red is Titian. In addition, you can find various animals in the painting. On the top left, you can see a dog looking down at the feast. There is also a dog at the bottom left, two dogs in the bottom middle, and a small dog walks on the table on the right. At the bottom right is a cat curled around the white water jar. On the bottom left, you can also see a midget holding a parrot.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? Room 35 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Mary sits on a paved terrace in front of a palace-like building and is reading at a richly decorated desk carved from marble. She gets surprised by a visit of the youthful Archangel Gabriel, who explains to her that she will be the mother of the Son of God. Gabriel raises his right hand to greet Mary and holds a white lily in his left hand. Mary hesitantly raises her left hand to greet the angel. The landscape in the back shows mountains, a sea, and cypresses, all typical elements present in the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci. All perspectives – height, width, and depth – converge on Mary, making her the center of attention. Interestingly, the desk of Mary and the palace-like building seem somewhat out of place in this setting, and the figures of Mary (who is usually described as a simple woman) and Gabriel seem to fit better with the bed of flowers and the nature-like background.
Backstory: This painting has been in the Uffizi since 1867. There has been a constant debate on who painted this work. The consensus is now that this painting was created in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. A popular explanation is that the painting was started by Andrea del Verrocchio, who left a note to his pupil Leonardo da Vinci to finish the painting. This painting is now considered by many to be Leonardo’s first major work, as he made the background, the wings of the angel, and the finishing touches to the painting. The painting is based on Luke 1: 26-38, where the Archangel Gabriel foretells the birth of Jesus to Mary.
Symbolism: The angel holds a Madonna lily in his left hand. This lily represents the purity of Mary and is also the symbol of the city of Florence. Mary can be identified by her dress which is largely blue. The enclosed garden in which Gabriel is kneeling is a symbol of Mary’s virginity. The marble desk or sarcophagus in the middle has been painted after the tomb of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici which was carved by Verrocchio.
Who is Mary? The Virgin Mary has been the most popular subject in Christian art. She represents four Roman Catholic dogmas, which are at the basis of Catholicism: Perpetual Virginity (when she gave birth to Jesus), Mother of God, Immaculate Conception (Mary was already without sins in the womb of her mother), and the Assumption into Heaven at the end of her life.
Why the Annunciation? The ‘Annunciation’ has already been the subject of art since the fourth century. It has been a very popular theme in Florentine art. It shows the moment that the Archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God.
Who is Leonardo da Vinci? Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an architect, astronomer, engineer, inventor, mathematician, musician, painter, writer, and much more. He is known to be one of the biggest multi-talents the world has ever seen. The fact that he studied science and nature extensively helped him in his artwork. He has produced a large number of sketches in which he practiced to draw specific human features, such as hand gestures, facial expressions, bone structures, and other anatomical features. Some of his most famous paintings include the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and the Virgin of the Rocks of which one version is in the Louvre and another version in the National Gallery in London.
Fun facts: The wings of the Archangel Gabriel are painted by Leonardo da Vinci and are most likely copied from a bird in flight. However, if you look carefully, these wings have been extended later on by another unknown artist. People have also noticed some rookie mistakes in this painting, indicating that the young Leonardo was still mastering the tricks of perspective. For example, look at the right hand of Mary, which rests on the reading desk. The desk is closer to the viewer than Mary. However, that makes it strange that Mary’s right hand is on the left side of the reading desk. In other words, her right hand is too close to the viewer compared to the rest of her body.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Room 6 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? King Philip II of Spain
What do you see? On the left, the hunter Actaeon arrives together with his dog to a bathing scene of the goddess Diana and her five nymphs and one slave. Actaeon is wearing his arrows on his back, and his bow fell on the ground. The nymph on the left draws back the curtain to reveal that Actaeon is looking at the naked Diana at the other side of a small stream. She is sitting on the right, next to a fountain, on the red cloth and is washed by one of her nymphs. Diana wears a diadem with a crescent moon. She is surprised by the arrival of Actaeon, and the dark-skinned slave behind her helps to cover her identity by putting a cloth in front of her face. Next to Diana, you can see one of her lapdogs who is barking at the dog of Actaeon. Above the knees of Diana, you can see a skull of a deer on top of a pillar, which is part of an arched canopy. To the right of the skull, you can see a deerskin hanging in the tree and to the right of that hangs another deerskin at the edge of the painting. In the background, above Diana, you can see a very small figure of a person dressed in white who is chasing a deer. This person is probably another depiction of Diana while she is hunting. There are various other details in the paintings. For example, in the middle of the painting, you can see a vase and a mirror. You can also see that the water enters the stream through the mouth of one of the carved lion heads below the nymph on the left.
Backstory: This painting is part of a series of seven mythological paintings that Titian painted for King Philip II of Spain. Titian entitled this painting as Diana at the Fountain Surprised by Actaeon. Titian based this painting on the third book of the Metamorphosis by Ovid (Amazon link to the book). The story goes: “While Titania is bathing there... Cadmus’s grandson [Actaeon]… strays with aimless steps through the strange wood, and enters the sacred grove… As soon as he reaches the cave mouth dampened by the fountain, the naked nymphs, seeing a man’s face, beat at their breasts and filling the whole wood with their sudden outcry, crowd round Diana to hide her with their bodies... Diana’s face, seen there, while she herself was naked, was the colour of clouds stained by the opposing shafts of sun... She [Diana] caught up a handful of the water that she did have, and threw it in the man’s face... Without more threats, she gave the horns of a mature stag to the head she had sprinkled, lengthening his neck, making his ear-tips pointed, changing feet for hands, long legs for arms, and covering his body with a dappled hide... They [the dogs of Actaeon] surround him on every side, sinking their jaws into his flesh, tearing their master to pieces in the deceptive shape of the deer.”
Symbolism: The skull of the stag (a male deer) with antlers refers to the fate that awaits Actaeon. After having seen Diana naked, she changes him into a male deer and was killed by his 50 hounds. The skull and the deer skins also refer to Diana as the goddess of hunting. The diadem with the crescent moon is one of the important attributes of Diana and also refers to her being the goddess of the moon. The top of the dress of the slave is in the form of a crescent moon, which is also a reference to Diana.
Who is Diana? Diana (comparable to Artemis in Greek mythology) is the daughter of Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology; god of the sky and thunder) and Latona. She was also the twin sister of the God Jupiter. Diana is the goddess of hunting and wild animals. She could communicate with animals. She was also a virgin goddess who promised never to marry a man. Diana’s story has been a popular subject for artists, and she has been painted by, among others, Rubens and Rembrandt. For example, below is the painting Diana and Callisto by Peter Paul Rubens, which is on display in the Prado Museum.
Why Actaeon? Actaeon was a famous hunter. He was trained by the centaur (half human, half horse) Chiron. He is best known for his cruel death as described above. The reason that Actaeon is killed is either that he claimed to be a better hunter than Diana or because of his sexual interest in her. After he was transformed into a stag by Diana, he was killed by his own dogs who did not recognize him anymore. After the dogs killed him, they went back to Chiron to search their master Actaeon as they could not find him. Chiron, who knew what happened, created an image of Actaeon to help them in their grief.
Who is Titian? Tiziano Vecelli (or Vecellio) was born around 1488 and died in 1576. He was the most important member of the Venetian School of Painters. He was an all-round painter and was able to paint superb portraits, landscapes, religious and classical paintings. A large number of paintings of him have survived of which several can be seen in the National Gallery in London. For example, two other famous paintings of Titian are The Death of Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, which are both also on display in the National Gallery. Just like Diana and Actaeon, these paintings were also a part of the series of seven mythological paintings that Titian created for King Philip II. Another painting in the National Gallery is Bacchus and Ariadne.
Fun fact: This painting is jointly owned by the National Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Scotland. The painting will rotate every five years between both museums. It was bought by both museums, after an extensive public campaign to raise the money, for a sum of $70.6 million. One of the reasons for the high price of this painting is that the painting was well-preserved over time. One exception may be that the deer skins hanging in the trees are hard to see. The reason is that the copper color that was used here changes into brown after extensive exposure to light. The painting is currently listed in the top 100 of most expensive paintings ever. Two other paintings of Titian are also listed in this top 100. One of those two paintings is Diana and Callisto, which was bought by the National Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Scotland through a similar construction in 2013 for a total of $71.7 million.
Where? First floor, room 710 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
When? 1507 or 1508
Commissioned by? Fabrizio Sergardi, a nobleman from Siena, Italy.
What do you see? The young Virgin Mary sits on a rock. She wears a red dress with golden sleeves, a dark blue mantle on top of that, and a veil around her head. She holds Baby Jesus with her hands and looks down affectionately at him. Saint John the Baptist is the boy to the right of Jesus. Baby Jesus reaches out with his left hand to grab the book that Mary holds. He looks up to his mother with a loving expression, asking her to read the book to him. The left foot of Jesus stands on top of Mary’s right foot. The position of Jesus is similar to the one in the Madonna statue by Michelangelo – created between 1501 and 1504 – in the Onze Lieve Vrouwenkerk in Bruges. Saint John the Baptist holds a reed cross in his right hand and wears a camel skin. He looks at Jesus with an adoring gaze. All three figures have a faint halo above their head. In the foreground is a beautiful garden with several plants and flowers, including violets, columbines, anemones, and dandelion leaves. In the background is a lake with mountains, some bushes and trees, and on the top right is a village.
Backstory: La Belle Jardiniere means ‘the beautiful gardener’ and refers to the plants that surround the trio in this work. This painting is also known as Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist. This scene is based on a story in the book, Meditationes vitae Christi, in which the family of Jesus visits Saint John the Baptist on their way back from Egypt. There is some speculation, based on the art history book by Vasari, that Raphael did not finish the painting. Vasari suggests that Ridolfo Ghirlandaio finished the last parts of this painting (to be precise, the blue mantle of Mary). Evidence against this claim is that Raphael signed and dated this painting in the mantle of Mary, suggesting that he finished it himself. This painting was commissioned by Fabrizio Sergardi who sold it later to Francis I, King of France. The pyramidal composition of this painting is very similar to two earlier Madonna paintings by Raphael: Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi Museum (1505-1506) and Madonna of the Meadow (1506) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Symbolism: The red dress of Mary symbolized the Passion of Christ and her blue mantle refers to the Church, which is the link between Mary and the crucifixion of Jesus. The book that Mary holds contains the story of the life of Jesus including the crucifixion. While Saint John the Baptist is older than Jesus, he sits on one knee such that he is positioned lower than Jesus. This positioning indicates that Jesus is above Saint John the Baptist in the Christian hierarchy. Saint John the Baptist is holding a reed cross which refers to the sacrifice that Jesus will make at the end of his life by dying for the sins of humanity. The reed cross and the camel skin are typical symbols associated with Saint John the Baptist. The violets in the right foreground are a symbol of the humility of the Virgin Mary. The columbines to the left of Jesus refer to the future sacrifice of Jesus.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio was born in 1483 in Urbino, less than 100 miles east of Florence. Between 1504 and 1508, Raphael worked primarily in Florence where he created multiple Madonna paintings, including the Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi Museum, Madonna of the Grand Duke in the Palazzo Pitti, Madonna of the Pinks in the National Gallery, and the Alba Madonna in the National Gallery of Art. In 1508, he moved to Rome to work for the Pope. He stayed there until his death in 1520. His last painting was the Transfiguration which is now in the Vatican Museums. His works are often characterized as soft and sweet. He achieved the softness by using the sfumato technique, which he learned from Leonardo da Vinci. This technique mixes different colors in the painting to create soft transitions between different objects. The sweetness is achieved by the harmony in Raphael’s compositions. For example, in this painting he used a triangular composition, where the figures are neatly balanced in space.
Fun fact: There is some debate about whether this painting is the original one painted by Raphael. As Raphael’s painting was well-received, over time, many great painters, including Eugène Delacroix, have copied the painting. Therefore, many replicas of the painting exist. These copies have also spurred the debate on which version is the real Raphael. Another reason for the debate is that the whereabouts of this painting are somewhat uncertain between the 16th and 18th century. A recent claim for the original was made in 2014 by the Swiss lawyer Hanspeter Sigg. He is in possession of a painting entitled, Madonna Leo X. This is a painting by Raphael that is very similar to La Belle Jardinière. Raphael painted this work in 1513 for Pope Leo X. Sigg, however, claims that La Belle Jardinière is a replica of his painting and that he owns the original. Until now, there is a lack of support for this claim and Le Belle Jardinière remains the original.
Where? First floor, room 708 of the Denon wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1435 and 1460. The dating of this painting has been the subject of much debate, but most critics believe it was painted between 1435 and 1440.
Commissioned by? Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni, a rich Florentine man who had a strong commercial interest in the battle of San Romano.
What do you see? This painting shows a scene from the battle of San Romano on June 1, 1432. This battle was fought between the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Lucca with its allies. The central figure is the Florentine general Micheletto Attendolo (also known as Michele Attendolo or Micheletto da Cotignola). There are several more figures and horses depicted in the foreground, each with their own role, creating a sense of movement in the painting. The soldiers on the right are waiting to participate in the battle. Micheletto on the black horse is giving the command to start the attack with his right hand, in which he is holding a sword. Unlike the other soldiers, Micheletto is wearing a big hat to signal that he is the general. Behind Micheletto, on the left, you can see two men holding a trumpet to communicate Micheletto’s commands to the Florentine army. The soldiers on the left are starting the attack with their lances in attacking position. In the background, you can see a forest of soldiers, horse legs, and lances conveying the chaos of a battle. Uccello used foreshortening to include perspective in this painting to make it look like a three-dimensional scene.
Backstory: The battle of San Romano (a small place in Italy, near Lucca) was part of the war between the Republic of Florence and the Republic of Lucca with its allies from Genoa, Milan, and Siena. An important element of the war was about who would get access to the port of Pisa for trade. The battle of San Romano took place on June 1, 1432, and lasted less than a day. This battle was only a relatively minor battle, but the Florentines remembered it as a turning point in the war. This painting commemorates the Florentine victory in this battle, though Sienese sources disagree with this conclusion. The battle started by Florentine general Niccoló Tolentino (who is at the center of the National Gallery version of this battle) who was attacked after he was separated from most of his army while exploring the area. Tolentino and his small group of soldiers fought a brave fight and did not give up until another Florentine general, Micheletto Attendolo, arrived at the battle scene with reinforcements. Attendolo and his army helped Florence to win this battle. The war dragged on for another year without a clear winner, and in the end the war was settled through negotiations.
Other versions of this painting? This painting is a part of a triptych (a work of art divided into three parts) made by Uccello. The three paintings represent different moments in the battle of San Romano. There are two alternative explanations about the order of the paintings. The simple explanation is that the three paintings represent the morning of the fight (the version in the National Gallery in London), the afternoon (the Uffizi version), and the evening (the current version). However, the question is whether the current version represents the evening or whether as the paint in the background has deteriorated over time. A more popular alternative is that the National Gallery version represents the beginning of the battle with Niccoló da Tolentino. The current version represents the arrival of Micheletto Attendolo and his army, and the Uffizi version shows the last episode where Bernardino della Ciarda from the opposing army has been unhorsed.
Who is Uccello? Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) was born as Paolo di Dono in Pratovecchio in Tuscany. In his teenage years, he was an apprentice of Lorenzo Ghiberti and later he got influenced by contemporaries such as Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Masaccio. He was named Uccello, which is Italian for ‘bird’, because he liked to paint birds. He developed strong scientific interests and was very interested in representing perspective in paintings, something that he and contemporary artists just introduced to painting. The appropriate use of linear perspective was often more important in his paintings than what the painting should represent. In his paintings, he combines elements of the older Gothic tradition (the decorative parts) and the newer Renaissance movement (which introduced depth and perspective).
Linear Perspective? Linear perspective was developed around 1420 by Brunelleschi. It was a completely new approach to represent space in paintings. A simple explanation of linear perspective is that the size of objects becomes smaller the further away they are from the observer. Paintings with perspective have one or multiple vanishing points which help the painter to create perspective. Foreshortening is a specific form of perspective in which an illusionary trick is used to provide the idea of depth. A great example is when someone wants to paint a picture of a person laying with his feet towards you. To create the idea of depth, the painter will paint the feet of the person bigger than his head. The lamentation of Christ by Mantegna is a great example of such a painting. Note that the linear perspective in Uccello’s paintings is not perfect, but it did help to create depth in two-dimensional paintings. His work served as an inspiration for many artists in the next generations who perfected his ideas about linear perspective in paintings.
Fun fact: This painting has deteriorated over time. For example, the background is much darker than initially painted by Uccello. Another area of strong deterioration are the armors in this painting. Uccello used gold and silver leaf for various parts of the painting. The gold leaf, which you can see on the decorations of the horses’ bridles, has remained in good condition over time. However, the silver leaf, mainly found on the armors of the soldiers, has oxydized over time and now looks more like dull grey or almost black. Uccello was an apprentice of the goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti in his teenage years and was thus very familiar with the application of silver and gold leaf. Imagine this painting if the silver was still blinking in its old glory...
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Gallery 258 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, he 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.
Where? Gallery 23 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Venus looking in the mirror with two Cupids. Venus wears some makeup, visible in her rosy cheeks and red lips. We see the upper part of Venus’ body. She covers one of her breasts with her left arm. The lower part of her body is covered by a thick velvet drapery, decorated with beautiful gold and silver embroidery. The drapery contrast nicely with her pale skin. She wears earrings, two bracelets, and two rings. Venus studies herself in the mirror. One Cupid holds to mirror in front of her while the other wants to put a garland on her head as a symbol of love.
Background: Titian painted two quite similar versions of Venus with a Mirror, but one of them is considered lost. The current version remained in the studio of Titian until his death and was sold in 1581 by his son Pompino to the Barbagio family. Possibly, Titian did not finish the painting completely which would explain why the work was still in his studio. In this case, someone else, maybe the son of Titian, has completed the last parts of the painting before selling it. In 1851, the Barbagio family sold the painting to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. In 1931, Andrew Mellon acquired the painting for the National Gallery of Art. X-ray analysis has revealed that Titian had some different ideas at first about this painting. Under the current layer of paint, traces have been identified of three other compositions before he settled on the current one.
Other versions of this painting: Titian got inspired by the Venus de’ Medici for this painting. The pose of Venus in this painting is the same as in the Venus de’ Medici. While that sculpture is now in the Uffizi Museum in Florence, he must have seen the work when it was in Rome in the middle of the 16th century. This painting by Titian may be the most-copied work of art from the High Renaissance. Many lesser and better-known artists copied it and created variations on its theme. Some have kept a very similar composition, others have deviated from Titian’s composition but kept the theme of Venus looking in the mirror. One great example is Venus and Cupid by Peter Paul Rubens in the Thyssen Museum in Madrid. Another wonderful painting inspired by Titian’s work is the Rokeby Venus by Velázquez in the National Gallery. According to many, none of the copies or paintings inspired by Titian’s work have surpassed the Titian’s original.
Who is Venus? The Roman goddess of love, beauty, and desire. The myths about her are based on the Greek goddess Aphrodite. She was very appealing to the Roman people as she could provide beauty, military victories, prosperity, and a good sex life. For these reasons, she is the most popular goddess in art. She has inspired many artists, including Botticelli, Canova, David, Ingres, Raphael, Rubens, Velázquez, and Veronese. The most famous painting on Venus is probably The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli which shows how Venus was born from the sea as a mature and sexual woman.
Why a mirror? The presence of a mirror is a great trick that painters can apply in their work. There was often debate between sculptors and painters, whereby the sculptors claimed that only they could show a person from all different angles. A mirror was a way for painters to mitigate this problem as they could show other sides of a person in a natural way. A well-known painting in which the mirror plays an important role is The Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck in the National Gallery. Mirrors have also frequently been used by painters to paint self-portraits. Caravaggio was a frequent user of the mirror. Young Sick Bacchus in the Galleria Borghese is one of several paintings for which Caravaggio used a mirror.
Who is Titian? Tiziano Vecelli(o) was born around 1489 near Venice, Italy, and died there in 1576. He was the most influential member of the Venetian School of Painting. Other well-known members are Jacopo Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese. The Venetian painters are known for their use of a wide variety of colors which were available to them because Venice was an important port with lots of import from the Middle and Far East. Titian was an expert in all sorts of paintings, including mythological and religious works, landscapes, and portraits. However, he is probably best known for his female nudes. His works include Diana and Actaeon in the National Gallery in London and the Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: While Titian is considered to be one of the best and most versatile painters from the 16th century, he also had his limitations. Michelangelo, perhaps the most famous painter ever, criticized the limited drawing skills of Titian. In this painting, we can see some examples of that. First, the left arm of the Cupid holding the mirror does not seem to support the bottom of the mirror. Second, the left wing of this Cupid is placed in an unnatural position. Third, the reflection of the hand of the Cupid in the back does not reflect accurately in the mirror. Fourth, the eye of Venus does not seem to be properly painted in the mirror. If you study her eye in the mirror carefully, it seems that she is actually not looking into the mirror. However, these ‘errors’ are easily overlooked because the rest of the canvas is painted so well.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 41 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Agnolo Doni to celebrate his marriage with Maddelena Strozzi (from the powerful Strozzi family).
What do you see? Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus are shown in the center. Mary is sitting on her knees and looks up to Jesus while handing Jesus to Joseph. On the right, a young John the Baptist is depicted and in the background a group of five young and naked people. Look at the body of Mary, which is partly turned around in a somewhat unnatural pose. This painting has been influential for future work and has been labeled as one of the foundations of mannerism, which is an art style in which ideas such as proportions, balance, and ideal beauty are violated on purpose. Look also at the frame, which contains five carved heads. The head of Jesus is on top, and the other four heads represent the four prophets that told about the coming of the Messiah. This painting stands out because of its bright colors, which are due to the tempera pigment used by Michelangelo. This pigment typically keeps its color over time.
Backstory: The Doni Tondo (also referred to as the Holy Family) is painted by Michelangelo around the same time that he sculpted the world-renowned statue of David. The painting is still in its original wooden frame, which may have been designed by Michelangelo (but there is some debate about this). There is quite some debate about the meaning of this painting. For example, it is unclear to several art historians why the nudes are included in the background. Another issue of debate is whether the man in this painting is actually Joseph. Some people suggest that as the man looks much older than Mary that it could also be Joachim, the father of Mary.
Symbolism: The most common interpretation of this painting is that the young nudes in the background represent the pagan people, who are still not converted to Christianity. John the Baptist (the patron saint of Florence) is strategically posed in between the Holy Family and the pagan people in the background to bridge the gap between both worlds. In front of John the Baptist, there is a plant that is a combination of a hyssop (a symbol of the humility of Christ and baptism) and a cornflower (a symbol of Christ symbolizing heaven). The clover in the foreground represents the Trinity (God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit). The carvings on the frame include crescent moons, lion heads, stars, and vegetation, and are believed to refer to the Doni and Strozzi families.
Who is Doni Tondo? Agnolo Doni was a wealthy Florentine banker. The word ‘tondo’ was used to refer to a circular work of art. Tondo is derived from the Italian word ‘rotondo’, which means round. The term ‘tondo’ is typically only used for large round paintings (over two feet in diameter)
Why the Holy Family? The Holy Family is a model for Christian families. The Holy Family is depicted in two different ways. Most commonly, it consists of Jesus of Nazareth, his mother, the Virgin Mary, and his foster father, Saint Joseph. However, there are also other versions in which Saint Joseph is replaced by Saint Anne, the mother of Mary.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was an architect, engineer, painter, poet, and sculptor. He is considered to be one of the greatest artists ever and was considered the best artist of his time. He is probably most well-known for his sculptures (think about the David and the Pietà) and his frescos at the Sistine Chapel.
Fun fact: This is the only finished panel painting by Michelangelo that exists nowadays. In the National Gallery in London, there are two other panel paintings of Michelangelo, The Entombment and The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels, but he did not finish these paintings. Michelangelo was quite good in not finishing his work, as can be seen by the fascinating series of unfinished sculptures in the Galleria Accademia. Of course, Michelangelo has also painted frescos, like the famous ones in the Sistine Chapel.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? On the North wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Pope Sixtus IV
What do you see? This fresco illustrates four different scenes:
The baptism of Christ: The baptism of Christ is described in Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11, and Luke 3:21-23. John the Baptist was baptizing people with water in the Jordan River. Jesus arrived there and asked John to baptize him as well. While John refused at first, Jesus convinced him that this was what God wanted. After Jesus was baptized, he came out of the water, and the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove. The dove said to Jesus: “You are my Son, the one I love. I am very pleased with you.” After that, the Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the desert for 40 days to prepare him for his public life. In John 1:29:34, John the Baptist also tells that he witnessed the Holy Spirit coming down on Jesus in the form of a dove.
Backstory: This is the only work in the Sistine Chapel that is signed. Due to the large size of the fresco, and because Perugino was commissioned at least five other frescos in the Sistine Chapel (but only three survived), he used various assistants to help him . The best-known assistant was a young Pinturicchio, who continued to develop a successful career as a painter. Pinturicchio probably painted the landscape, and the scenes on the middle left and right.
Surrounding frescos: The Baptism of Christ is the first out of seven frescos describing the life of Jesus. It is located on the right side of the North wall, directly next to The Last Judgment by Michelangelo. To the left is the second painting about the life of Jesus, which is Temptations of Christ by Botticelli. On the opposite wall are the seven frescos about the life of Moses. Some scenes from the life of Moses can be paired directly with scenes from the life of Jesus. In this case, the circumcision of the son of Moses in the right bottom of Moses Leaving to Egypt by Perugino is directly related to the baptism of Christ. Whereas in the Old Testament, circumcision of kids was the way to create a bond between God and the child, this was replaced by baptism in the New Testament.
Who is Perugino? Pietro Vannucci, better known as Pietro Perugino, was born around 1450 and died in 1523. Perugino was an apprentice of Del Verrocchio around the same time as painters like Leonardo da Vinci and Filippino Lippi. Perugino was also the master of Raphael. He was one of the first Italian painters to use oil painting, a technique that was developed earlier that century by Jan van Eyck. In 1480, he was called to Rome by Pope Sixtus IV to paint several works in the Sistine Chapel. The most famous of his works is probably the Delivery of the Keys, which is also in the Sistine Chapel.
Fun fact: Perugino created six frescos in the Sistine Chapel. However, three of them have been removed to make place for The Last Judgment which Michelangelo painted between 1536 and 1541. It must not have been difficult for Michelangelo to remove the frescos of Perugino as Michelangelo was not a big fan of Perugino’s work. The legend goes that Michelangelo told Perugino in his face that he was an amateur painter. Indeed, at the end of the 15th century, the career of Perugino went downhill, and he mainly repeated some of the compositions he had used earlier in his life.
Interested in a Copy for Yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 56 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? Possibly Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, an Italian merchant living in Bruges, as a memory of his deceased wife.
What do you see? On the right is a woman in a green dress. On the left is a man with a big hat who raises his hand to the woman. The couple is holding hands. It is believed that this is their wedding day and they are dressed in expensive silk and fur. A small dog is standing in front of them. At first, it looks like the bride is pregnant, but this is not the case. When you look carefully, she pulls up her dress merely to indicate her desire for children. In between them, you can see a small part of an expensive Oriental rug. In the mirror, we can see two other people that entered the room. The mirror is surrounded by ten small paintings of the passion of Christ. Below the mirror is the signature of Van Eyck which reads: ‘Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434’, which means ‘Jan van Eyck was here, 1434’. This signature may suggest that Van Eyck is one of the people we can see in the mirror. To the left of the mirror hang, so-called, prayer beads of crystal. Above the couple is a chandelier with candles. Only one of the candles above the groom is lit. The couple has both taken off their shoes. The white with black shoes of the man are in the left foreground and under the red bench is a pair of red shoes from the woman. On top of the bed is a wood carving of Saint Margaret with a dragon at her feet. To the left of this carving hangs a hand brush. On the left of the painting are four oranges and outside you can see a small part of a cherry tree.
Backstory: This painting is known by several alternative names, such as The Arnolfini Double Portrait, The Arnolfini Marriage, and The Arnolfini Wedding. The painting probably depicts Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife Giovanna Cenami on their wedding day, and the painting serves as a kind of marriage certificate. Giovanni was a rich Italian merchant from an influential family in Lucca in Italy. At the time of this painting, he was living in Bruges, which was an important trading city. He probably remained there for the rest of his life. This painting not only celebrates their marriage but is also a way to show off the valuable possessions of the couple. Around 1438, Van Eyck also created a portrait of Giovanni, which is now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.
Symbolism: This painting is full of symbolism. The couple holding hands represents the unity of the couple through marriage. The prayer beads are a gift from the groom and represent purity in the marriage. The couple has both taken off their shoes indicating that this is a sacred place. Besides, standing with bare feet represents fertility. The green dress of the woman also represents fertility. The carving of Saint Margaret symbolizes her role as the patron of childbirth. The bulge in the dress of the woman indicates her desire for children. She is standing in front of the bed, which further emphasizes this desire and shows her role in the marriage. The man is standing near an open window symbolizing his role in the outside world. The red color of the bed and the bench represent passion. The dog represents fidelity. The hand brush represents the role of the woman as a housewife. The oranges are also referred to as Adam’s apples and represent the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve ate in the paradise. They should remind the couple not to fall prey to the sin of lust. Only a single candle above the man on the chandelier is lit. The candle above the bride is not lit anymore (you can still see the leftovers of a burnt candle) and may refer to the fact that she died already. If Giovanni di Nicola Arnolfini is indeed the commissioner of this painting, his wife died in the year before the creation of the painting. The lit candle also represents the eye of God who can see everything.
Who is Van Eyck? Jan van Eyck was born between 1380 and 1390 in Belgium and died in 1441. He was well educated and active in Belgium, France, and The Netherlands. He was a court painter, but also took private commissions of which most were portraits. In addition, he served as a diplomat for the government. He is considered one of the most important painters of the Northern Renaissance. He has created both religious and nonreligious works which was fairly rare during his time. He was one of the first painters to sign his paintings and one of the first to use oil paint instead of the tempera method which was common during his time. He had a big influence on many future Flemish and Dutch painters, including Johannes Vermeer. His most famous work is the Ghent Altarpiece in the St Bavo's Cathedral. He created this piece together with his brother Hubert van Eyck.
Fun fact: It is hard to believe that during the time of this painting, couples could marry without the presence of a priest or any witnesses. In this painting, the couple gets married in a domestic setting, and only the presence of a notary was required. This is surprising given the important role of the church in society during that time. Only since the Council of Trent, between 1545 and 1563, it was required that a priest and two witnesses needed to be present for the marriage to be valid. The presence of witnesses is still a requirement for weddings in a large part of the world.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster of canvas (Amazon links).
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 41 of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1485 and 1516
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? The final moments of the life of a miser, who is a stingy person collecting a lot of wealth. The painting consists of three scenes.
Symbolism: The moral message of this painting is a warning against greed. Humans often face the tradeoff between earthly wealth, also referred to as avarice, and faith. The items in the trunk (the dagger, metal cups, and the golden weight) represent various items that people pawned when they were in need of money. These items were typically pawned against a high interest rate, which was against the laws of the Church.
Who is Bosch? Hieronymus Bosch, also known as Jhernoymus or Jeroen Bosch, was born around 1450 under the name Jheronymus van Aken in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, in the south of The Netherlands. He also died there in 1516. He was an innovative painter who found novel ways to depict existing themes. He is especially known for his satiric paintings. Not too much is known about his life and therefore there is also a lot of debate whether Bosch really created certain paintings and when he created them. However, his innovative works have had a big influence on future painters, such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Salvador Dalí. His most famous work is the Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Fun fact: Based on infrared pictures, various adjustments to this painting by Bosch have been discovered. For example, in the underdrawing, the miser initially held a covered goblet that he seemed to offer to the figure of Death near the door. This would be an obvious clue that the miser wanted to offer Death some earthly wealth to change his decision. In the final version of the painting, the miser is looking at Death while pointing with his right hand to the money bag that is held by the devil. This clue is a bit more ambiguous but still suggests that the miser wants to offer money to Death. Another example is that the underdrawing shows the inclusion of a flask with drinking glasses and a rosary in the scene in the foreground.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
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. However, 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). However, Riario’s interest in Michelangelo’s talents was triggered, and he commissioned him to make a statue of Bacchus. However, upon completion, Riario rejected the statue. While it is not clear why he rejected the statue, it was probably because it was too radical. More specifically, it could be for reasons similar to other people who have criticized the statue, which include its uncommon pose, the vulgar face, and the somewhat unmanly body of Bacchus. It is interesting in itself that a cardinal commissioned such a pagan statue. The statue was instead acquired by the banker Jacopo Galli to put it in his garden. Together with the famous Pietà statue in St. Peter’s Basilica, created between 1498 and 1499, Bacchus is the only statue by Michelangelo that survives from his early period in Rome.
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). He 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.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was an architect, painter, poet, and sculptor. He was born in the Republic of Florence. Except for short periods in Venice and Bologna during his teenage years, he spent the rest of his life in Florence and Rome. In 1596, Cardinal Riario invited him to Rome where he was commissioned to make the statue of Bacchus. While in Rome, he also completed the Pietà statue. In 1499 he moved back to Florence. He only returned to Rome in 1505 to work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. After finishing the ceiling, he moved back to Florence for 20 years, only to return to Rome in 1534 where he would soon start his work on the fresco of The Last Judgment.
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 7 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1430 and 1435
Commissioned by? The nuns of the Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence.
What do you see? Jesus and the Virgin Mary are on top of a series of small clouds, floating in the sky. This painting depicts paradise. Jesus is crowning the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Mary has her arms crossed on her chest, slightly bends forward, and has a humble look on her face, while Jesus is decorating her golden crown with a jewel stone. Surrounding Jesus and Mary is a crowd of angels, blessed people, and saints. A choir of angels is playing music and dancing. You can see several angels scattered throughout the painting, recognizable by their wings, who are either playing music or are dancing. Three angels are dancing directly to the left of Mary, and you can see three others directly to the right of Jesus. On the top right and top left you can see some trumpets high up in the air and in the center foreground you can see two angels playing musical instruments. The angel in blue, turned with the back towards us, is playing a portable organ, and the angel to the left is playing a string instrument.
Backstory: The painting probably formed an altarpiece together with two side panels, Wedding of the Virgin and Death of the Virgin, which are now both located in the Museum of San Marco in Florence. This painting contains both elements that are Gothic and elements that are typical for the Renaissance. For example, the golden background is gilded and is an element that was common in Gothic painting. The use of halos is also typical Gothic. The realistic way in which the people are depicted and the three-dimensionality are examples of the Renaissance style.
Symbolism: The gold crown signifies both power (by being an advocate of the king) and wealth (regarding God’s promises). Jesus and Mary are surrounded by bright rays of light, symbolizing their divinity.
What is the Coronation of the Virgin? Mary is crowned by her son Jesus as the Queen of Heaven. This occurs after Mary has been assumed into heaven. In ancient times it was common for the king’s mother to be crowned queen. This subject was quite popular in art since the 13th century.
Why is Mary the Queen of Heaven? One of the many titles that Catholics have given to Mary is Queen of Heaven (Regina Caeli in Latin). Historically, in the Bible, the mother of the king had important powers in counseling the king and she was referred to as the Queen Mother. The reason that Mary is sometimes called the Queen of Heaven is that, according to the Catholic Church, Mary was assumed into heaven at the end of her earthly life. In Heaven, she is crowned as the queen (which is the coronation of the Virgin) as she is the mother of Jesus, who is the heavenly king of the universe. On October 11, 1954, Pope Pius XII decided that Catholics should celebrate the Queenship of Mary. Since 1969, the Queenship of Mary is a public holiday on August 22 in several countries, such as France and Spain.
Another work of Fra Angelico on the Coronation of the Virgin? The current version originally belonged to the Church of Sant'Egidio in Florence and is shown in the Uffizi since 1825. However, Fra Angelico has painted another well-known version of the Coronation of the Virgin. This version is currently in the Louvre in Paris. In that painting, you can see that blue skies replace the more old-fashioned Gothic golden background.
Who is Fra Angelico? Fra Angelico was born around 1387 as Guido di Pietro and died in 1455. He was a Dominican friar and was widely respected because of his gentle personality. While he started in the monastery as an illustrator of manuscripts, he became known as a masterful painter of altarpieces. Only after his death the name Fra Angelico was given to him. In his work he freely interpreted biblical stories, rather than accurately depicting the stories, to trigger spiritual responses of the people seeing those paintings and to stimulate prayer.
Fun fact: Fra Angelico was known during his life as Il Beato Angelico or simply Il Beato (which means ‘the blessed’). He was a devout friar during his life and only painted religious works. He prayed before every painting, and once the painting was done he did not alter them anymore as he believed that God inspired his work. While he was already called ‘the blessed’ during his life, Pope John Paul II officially beatified him in 1982, praising his immaculate lifestyle and divine paintings.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? On the south wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Pope Sixtus IV
What do you see? The punishment of Corah (also spelled Korah), Dathan, and Abiram, because they opposed the leadership of Moses. There are three different scenes:
Backstory: This painting is part of a series of frescos on the stories of Moses on the south wall of the Sistine Chapel. This series includes another fresco of Botticelli, which is Youth of Moses. The fresco on the Punishments of the Sons of Corah is based on three different stories from the Bible. The first one is the attempt to Stone Moses, described in Numbers 14:10. The Israelites were unhappy that they would have to fight against an enemy to conquer their promised land and were afraid to die in that fight. The second scene is a combination of two stories. The first story is in Leviticus 10 and describes the killing of the sons of Aaron after they do not use sacred fire to burn their incense. The second story is based on Numbers 16:7, in which Moses asks Corah, Dathan, and Abiram to burn their incense in a special pan for God. The third scene is based on Numbers 16. Corah, Dathan, and Abiram sinned against God, and God decided that they would have to die differently than normal people. The earth opened and swallowed these three men, their families, and everything they owned.
What is the Arch of Constantine? It is the largest triumphal arch in Rome. It was built to commemorate the victory in 312 AD of Roman Emperor Constantine I over another Roman Emperor, Maxentius, during a time in which there were multiple emperors in the Roman Empire. The arch is located next to the Colosseum. The arch is 21 meters (23 yards) high and has three entrances as you can see in this painting. Roman Emperors walked under this arch when they entered the city after a victory. The Arch of Constantine is also depicted twice in the Delivery of the Keys by Perugino which is on the north wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums.
Symbolism: This fresco illustrates the claim of power of the Catholic Church and the papacy. It shows that only priests can perform holy duties and that God will punish people if they do not obey him. It also shows that God saves the people who obey Him. The Arch of Constantine is included to symbolize the victory of Christianity over paganism. The inscription from Hebrews 5:4 shows the holiness of the Pope as he was chosen by God.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli was born in Florence in 1445 under the name Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi. His father apprenticed Sandro to a goldsmith such that he could soon start making money for the family. As there was a close connection between goldsmiths and painters, Botticelli was able to become familiar with painting and discovered that this was his passion. He became an apprentice of Fra Filippo Lippi, one of the greatest painters of that time. Botticelli is best known for his famous paintings of The Birth of Venus and La Primavera, which are both in the Uffizi Museum.
Fun fact: Note that in all three scenes, Moses has light rays coming out of his head, which he got after meeting God on Mount Sinai. The rays signify the grace of God. There are ten rays of light in each beam, which is equal to the Ten Commandments that Moses received from God. In many other depictions of Moses, he has horns on top of his head, but this seems to be a mistake due to an incorrect transcription of Exodus 34:29-30. The reason is that the Hebrew word for ‘qaran’ or ‘keren’ can be translated both by ‘horn’ or ‘ray of light’ and in some of the 15th-century translations the word horn was used. For example, look at the horns on the statue of Moses by Michelangelo in the San Pietro in Vincoli church in Rome.
Where? The Private Chamber of Eleanor in the Palazzo Vecchio
Commissioned by? Cosimo I de’ Medici and/or his wife Eleanor of Toledo.
What do you see? This fresco shows three different scenes related to the biblical story of the Jews that escaped from Egypt where they were repressed. First, the three young people in the center foreground and the three people in the left foreground represent the Jews that were preparing to escape from Egypt (note that the bottom left of the painting is missing due to damage from moisture). For example, the man on the left has some unleavened bread on his head which the Jews took with them when escaping Egypt. You can also see a silver jug and a gold basin from the Egyptians in the foreground. Second, the fresco shows the escape from the Jews from Egypt by crossing the Red Sea. In the top right you can see the Jews who safely crossed the Red Sea after God opened it up for them. If you look carefully, you can see that one of the Jews on top who still has the unleavened bread on his head. The man among the Jews in the blue robe is Moses. In the sea on the left, you can see the Egyptians and their horses getting drowned while they were chasing the Jews. Third, the scene in the right foreground shows Moses (the man with a brown robe, grey beard, and two rays of light radiating from his head) sitting on a rock. Moses is pointing at Joshua to designate him as his successor. The hand of Moses is most likely inspired by the hand of God reaching out to Adam in Michelangelo’s fresco of the Creation of Adam of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
Backstory: In 1539, Cosimo I, Duke of Florence, married to Eleanor of Toledo and in 1540 they moved into the Palazzo Vecchio. At that moment the Palazzo Vecchio was not decorated like a palace that could impress its guests, so Cosimo I commissioned several artists to decorate the palace. This fresco was painted for the private room (also referred to as the chapel) of Eleanor of Toledo, which was one of the first rooms in the Palazzo Vecchio to be decorated. The story in the painting contains both the beginning and the end of the story of Moses in the Bible. In the beginning, he leads the Jews through the Red Sea to get out of Egypt where they were repressed (see Exodus 14). After that, the Jews wandered for 40 years through the desert before they could see their promised land. Before entering the Promised Land, Moses passed on his leadership to Joshua (see Numbers 27), and Moses died with the Promised Land in sight.
Symbolism: This painting contains various allusions to Cosimo I and his wife, Eleanor. Moses alludes to Cosimo I, who wants to be perceived as a new Moses; someone who leads his people to new heights. The crossing of the Red Sea by the Jews alludes to the 1537 battle of Cosimo I at Montemurlo, in which he ended all opposition to the Medici family as rulers of Florence. The appointment of Joshua by Moses refers to the birth in 1541 of Francesco, the son of Cosimo I and Eleanor, who had to succeed Cosimo I.
Who is Eleanor of Toledo? She was the Duchess of Florence from 1539 till 1562. Eleanor of Toledo (1522-1562) was born in Alba de Tormes in Spain and was the first wife of Cosimo I, who was the second Duke of Florence and became the first Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1569. The marriage between the two was a political marriage as it strengthened the position of the Medici family. She got 11 children with Cosimo I and they had a faithful and good marriage. Bronzino painted a well-known portrait of Eleanor and one of her sons which is on display in the Uffizi Museum in Florence.
The Private Chamber of Eleanor: This room was used by Eleanor to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and to pray to God. It contains several frescos. On the ceiling, four saints are depicted: Michael, Francis, John the Evangelist, and Jerome. When you stand in front of the Crossing of the Red Sea, you can see an altarpiece by Bronzino depicting the Deposition of Christ. To the right, you can see the Miracle of the Brazen Serpent. This fresco depicts the story of the snake plague that hit the Jews in the desert. They could be cured by looking at the image of the snake on the top. Behind you, you can see two other scenes from Moses painted by Bronzino. To the left of the door, you can see the Miracle of Spring, and to the right of the door, you can see the Gathering of the Manna. These two frescos depict how the Jews got water and food while they were in the desert.
Who is Bronzino? Agnolo di Cosimo (1503-1572) was born near Florence and is better known as Bronzino. He is one of the most important painters in the Mannerist movement in the 16th century. He was a big fan of the works of Raphael and Michelangelo. He was an excellent portrait painter, but also painted many biblical scenes. He was the court painter of the Medici Family when Cosimo I was in charge of Florence. Despite his superb talents, he is somewhat less popular than some of the other famous painters of his time as the paintings of Bronzino lack drama and dynamics. The figures that he paints often lack emotions and are depicted in a calm state. For example, look at the lack of drama in the very calm sea in which the Egyptians are drowning in this painting.
Fun fact: Bronzino included several (almost) naked people among the Jews, including the figure in the right foreground. The ancient Greek statues inspired the shapes of these nudes. The person in blue to the left of Moses in the foreground is a self-portrait of Bronzino. The lady on the right with her hand on her belly is probably Eleanor who was pregnant. She was pregnant with Francesco, who would succeed Cosimo I and ensure the continuation of the Medici family as rulers of Florence. Francesco was born on March 25, 1541, which was the day on which the founding of Florence was celebrated. The timing of his birth was not considered a coincidence and exploited by the Medicis as a sign that Francesco was destined to be the new leader of Florence.