Where? Room 2 of the National Gallery
Commissioned by? Alfonso d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, to decorate one of the rooms in his Ducal Palace.
What do you see? On the left is Ariadne in a blue dress. She is left behind by Theseus on an island. You can still see the ship of Theseus near the horizon in the middle left of the painting. An almost naked Bacchus is jumping out of his chariot, which is carried by two cheetahs. Bacchus is immediately in love with Ariadne, but Ariadne seems hesitant as she is still dealing with the fact that Theseus left. While her arms and body are still in the direction of the ship of Theseus, her head is turned to Bacchus. Bacchus convinces Ariadne to marry him. Bacchus promises Ariadne to turn the diadem that Ariadne was wearing during their wedding into a constellation of stars, which you can see in the top left of the painting. Bacchus has also brought his entourage of drunk and crazy people on the right. One of his followers is holding the leg with a hoof of a cow that he just ripped off. You can see the head of the cow in the foreground, which is dragged along by a young boy. Completely on the right is a man carrying a barrel of wine and in the foreground, a man is trying to break free from snakes.
Backstory: Alfonse d’Este originally commissioned Raphael and Fra Bartolommeu to make this painting but both died before they could start their work. He then decided to give the work to Titian. This painting is based on the mythological stories of the Latin poets Catullus and Ovid. The story is about Princess Ariadne from the Greek island of Crete. She fell in love with Theseus from Athens and helped him to kill the Minotaur. They left together from Crete, but Theseus abandoned her while she was asleep on the Greek island of Naxos. Ariadne was heartbroken when she discovered that and ran along the beach of Naxos to see if she could see any signs of Theseus. At that moment, Bacchus - the god the wine, fertility, madness, theatre, and religious ecstasy - arrived. Bacchus had fallen in love with Ariadne and asked her to marry him. The painting is famous because Titian is able to paint a moment that is frozen in time in a very energetic scene. Notice also the beautiful use of bright color, typical for the School of Venice, which makes this painting come alive.
Symbolism: Bacchus is wearing a crown of ivy leafs, which is the sacred plant to Bacchus to prevent intoxication (which is what people in the past believed that ivy could do). The constellation of stars (which we now refer to as Corona Borealis) on the top left is in the form of the diadem that Ariadne was wearing when she married to Bacchus. It is a symbol of their marriage. The wine barrel, tambourines, and snakes are all symbols of the lifestyle that Bacchus represents. The cheetahs refer to the collection of wild animals of the commissioner of this painting.
Who is Ariadne? According to Greek mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, who was the King of Crete. Minos had built a labyrinth, with in the center a Minotaur (a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a human). He put his daughter Ariadne in charge of the labyrinth. Following an earlier dispute with Athens, every seven to nine years, 14 noble citizens from Athens were sacrificed to the Minotaur. One year, Theseus, was among these 14 noble citizens. Theseus became a hero as he killed the Minotaur, but to do that, he received help from Ariadne who was in love with him. Ariadne married in the end to Bacchus and gave him about 12 children. After Ariadne died, Bacchus brought her back from the underworld Hades and she became a Greek goddess.
Why Bacchus? Bacchus was a chronic alcoholic, which made him a great subject for mythological stories and also for artworks. Bacchus was also the inspiration for popular festivals, called Bacchanalia, which were introduced to Rome in the second century before Christ. These festivals contained a lot of alcohol and nudity and were a popular theme in Renaissance art.
Who is Titian? Titian (1488/1490 – 1576) was a painter and greatest member of the Venetian school of painters. He was very talented in painting both portraits and landscapes, which is and was a rare combination. In his teenage years, the Bellini brothers (Gentile and Giovanni) taught him how to paint, but his work was quickly considered to be better than that of the Bellini brothers. Some well-known paintings by Titian are his Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi Museum and Diana and Actaeon which is also in the National Gallery in London.
Fun fact: In the original story on Ariadne and Bacchus, the chariot of Bacchus was drawn by tigers. Instead, Titian painted two cheetahs. This was most likely the case, because Duke Alfonso d’Este did not have tigers, but did have cheetahs, in his menagerie. Collecting wild and exotic animals, called a menagerie, was an impressive way to show off to your guests. Menageries of that time included animals like panthers, leopards, and elephants.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? Room 10-14 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1482 and 1485
Commissioned by? Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492), ruler of the Florentine Republic and one of the most important driving forces of the Renaissance.
What do you see? The goddess Venus is shown naked on top of a shell on the seashore. She is born from the sea as a mature and sexual woman. Her facial expression is very peaceful and innocent. She tries to conceal herself with her hair and arm. This pose of Venus is inspired by the Greek statues made of Venus. For example, you can see the similarity to the positioning of the arms in the statue of Venus de' Medici (which is also in the Uffizi). If you look carefully, it looks like Venus is floating on the shell as the positioning of her feet and body is physically unrealistic. On the left, Zephyr, the god of the west wind, blows Venus to the shore. Meanwhile, Zephyr is carrying the nymph, Chloris. They are surrounded by flowers which are falling from the sky. On the right, Ores, goddess of the seasons, hands a flowered cloak to Venus to cover herself.
Backstory: This is one of the most famous paintings in the world. Venus is born from the sea foam (her Greek name Aphrodite means ‘arisen from foam’). According to the myths, the Greek god Cronus castrated the god Uranus and threw his genitals into the sea. Aphrodite was later born from the foam of his genitals. The theme of the painting is inspired by the poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Amazon link to the book), which consists of 15 books and 240 myths starting from the creation of the world until the deification of Julius Caesar. Ovid (also known as Homer) writes in his work about an adult Venus who is rising from the sea to inspire love.
Symbolism: Violets, the flowers of love, are blowing in the wind on the left. The shell represents feminism. The dress of Ores and the robe she is holding for Venus are decorated with various spring flowers related to the birth theme, including red and white daisies, blue cornflowers, and yellow primroses.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. According to the myths, she was born from the foam of the sea. This happened when the Titan Cronus castrated Uranus, his father, whose genitals fertilized the sea and led to the birth of Venus. The goddess Venus is known in Greek mythology as Aphrodite. In Latin, Venus means ‘sexual desire’. She is the mother of Aeneas who survived the fall of Troy and fled to Italy. As such, Venus was considered the mother of the Romans and therefore a very popular goddess among the Romans. Perhaps because of this, Julius Caesar claimed to be an ancestor of Venus.
Why Venus? Whereas Mary was the ideal woman to paint from a Christian point of view, Venus represents the moral dangers and shame of the human body. Christianity taught the people to be ashamed of the nude human body. Botticelli was trying to blend the Christian worldview and the arising humanist worldview. From that background, you can understand why Venus is still partly covering her nakedness with her hair (the Venus of Urbino painted in 1538 by Titian will show you a much more explicit depiction of Venus). This is a transition from religious art to Renaissance art. In some sense, Venus represents the opposite of Mary.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a painter that belonged to the Florentine school of painters. He was a student of Filippo Lippi. Botticelli was in love with Simonetta Vespucci (a cousin-in-law of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci), who was already married to Marco Vespucci. Simonetta was known as the greatest beauty of her time and died in 1476. As a result of that Botticelli never married. Throughout his life, he has been inspired by Simonetta, who has served, according to popular belief, as the inspiration for many of his paintings (including this painting). According to his wish, Botticelli was buried at the feet of Simonetta Vespucci.
Fun fact: Many people have noted the ‘cadaverous’ color of Venus, which is not considered very attractive. This was not some macabre fantasy of Botticelli, but merely a consequence of the deterioration of the pigment over time. And if you look carefully, the neck of Venus and her left arm are longer than you would expect. Botticelli incorporated these elongations on purpose as they were considered a form of beauty.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster and canvas.
Where? Room 83 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Guidobaldo II Della Rovere (1514-1574), the Duke of Urbino (a sovereign of central-northern Italy), commissioned this oil painting for his wife, Giulia Varano (1523-1547).
What do you see? A representation of a beautiful and sensual Venus, the goddess of love, is looking you straight in the eye. She lies naked on top of a white sheet in a room of a big Renaissance palace. Notice the beautifully painted folds in the sheets and the pillows. Venus is only wearing a gold bracelet with black enamels on her right arm, a ring on the pinky of her left hand, and a pearl earring. She has roses in her right hand, and you can see that one of the roses has already fallen on the red bed which has a pattern of black flowers. Her hair, partly woven in braids, is falling over her shoulders. Her body is contrasted with the dark background on the left, emphasizing her nakedness. Notice how the straight lines of the architecture nicely contrast with the curviness of Venus. The two maids in the background are apparently searching for Venus’ clothes in one of the two bridal chests.
Backstory: Guidobaldo II Della Rovere gave this painting to his young wife (who was 15 at the time of the painting), and the painting provides the meaning of marriage. Some people consider this as one of the most erotic paintings in history. But others have a less flattering opinion. The American author Mark Twain described the work as follows in 1880: “The foulest, the vilest, the most obscene picture the world possesses.” The theme of this painting is referred to as a ‘reclining female nude’, a genre that became popular in the early Renaissance. For this painting, Titian was inspired by a painting of the Sleeping Venus (also known as the Dresden Venus) which was started by Giorgione and finished after his death by Titian. And this painting has inspired many future variations on the reclining nude, including Olympia by Édouard Manet.
Symbolism: The painting provides three lessons of marriage for Giulia Varano. She needs to be erotic, faithful, and become a mother. The clear eroticism in the painting should remind Giulia of her sexual obligations in the marriage. The dog laying on the bed is a symbol of marital faithfulness. The maid on the right side, who is overlooking a kid, is a symbol of motherhood. The chests on the right were a typical wedding present in Italy at that time. The white sheets on which Venus is laying represent purity. Venus holds some roses in her hand, which were a symbol of love. Similarly, the red bed on which she is laying also represents love.
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. One of the two children of Venus is Aenaes, who was one of the few people to escape from Troy according to Virgil’s poem Aeneid. Two of the descendants of Aeneas were Remus and Romulus, who founded Rome.
Why Venus? Venus was a symbol of love and sensuality. As this painting was for private use, Venus was a symbolic inspiration for this painting. In reality, a contemporaneous model has been used to depict Venus, most likely Angela del Moro, a friend of Titian.
Who is Titian? Titian (1488/1490 – 1576) was a painter and greatest member of the Venetian school of painters. He was very talented in painting both portraits and landscapes, which is and was a rare combination. In his teenage years, the Bellini brothers (Gentile and Giovanni) taught him how to paint, but his work was quickly considered to be better than that of the Bellini brothers. Many of the paintings of Titian throughout his long career contain nudity.
Fun fact: More than 300 works of Titian survived, partly because Titian became very old for his time. While there is quite some discussion about his actual year of birth, he claimed in a letter to the Spanish king, Philip II, to have been born in 1474. That would mean he died at the age of 102. The consensus nowadays is that Titian grossly exaggerated in that letter and that he was born around 1488-1490. Another characteristic of Titian was that, while he was considered to be the leading painter in Venice, he was notoriously greedy.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links)
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. Before that it hung in the San Bartolomeo at Monte Oliveta Church in the countryside of Tuscany. 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. Finally, the painting lacks some of the emotions in the faces of the angel and Mary. But Da Vinci would learn over time how to include these emotions, which is clearly visible in his Mona Lisa.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? Room 10-14 of the Uffizi Museum
When? Between 1477 and 1482
Commissioned by? Lorenzo de’ Medici as a wedding gift to his cousin Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici
What do you see? This painting is full of allegories (hidden meanings), which leads to much debate on how to interpret the painting. In the meadow, you can see hundreds of different flowers. The blue figure on the right is Zephyr, the god of the west wind. Zephyr is chasing the nymph Chloris, who is associated with flowers and spring. Zephyr’s breath turns Chloris into the woman with the dress decorated with flowers (who is thought to be the goddess of Spring, called Flora). The central figure in the middle is Venus. To the left of Venus, the three Graces (Charites in Greek) are dancing. The Graces are minor deities in Greek mythology. To the left of the Graces is Mercury (Hermes in Greek), the messenger of the Greek gods, who is scattering the clouds with his staff. Some people say that Mercury may be modeled after Lorenzo de’ Medici who commissioned this painting. On top on Venus is Cupid (her son) aiming his flaming arrow at one of the Graces.
Backstory: The painting only got his name, La Primavera in 1550 when Giorgio Vasari saw the painting. This painting is also known as the Allegory of Spring ('primavera' is Italian for 'spring'). While many interpretations have been given to the painting, a popular interpretation is that the painting is inspired by a story from the poet Ovid. In his book Fasti (Amazon link to the book), the nymph Chloris is naked and attracts the first wind of the spring, which is represented by Zephyr. When Zephyr captures her, flowers sprang from her mouth and she turns into the goddess Flora. After Botticelli completed the painting, it was placed in the summerhouse of the Medici family, where would hang next to The Birth of Venus which Botticelli completed a few years later.
Symbolism: Venus represents the goodwill (humanitas) and divides the spiritual values on the left from the material values on the right (the earthly desires shown by Zephyr). Notice that Cupid is blindfolded while aiming his arrow on one of the Graces. This is a reference to the saying that love is blind. In the background of the picture, you can see orange trees, which are a symbol of the Medici family. Venus stands in front of a myrtle bush (the dark leaves behind her), which is a sacred plant for her as it was the first plant she used to cover herself when she arose naked from the sea. The Graces on the left and the right are wearing expensive jewelry in the colors of the Medici family. Some people believe that each of the flowers symbolizes a unique message. At least for some of the flowers the message is clear. For example, the strawberries in the crown of Flora represent seduction and the roses in her hand symbolize love. Finally, the city of Florence is named after the goddess Flora (which is Latin for ‘flower’).
Who is Venus? Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity, and desire. Venus is also known in the Greek mythology as Aphrodite. Venus and Mars are the parents of Cupid. In art, Cupid is often depicted together with his mother, Venus.
Why Venus? Nudity was the natural state of Venus, which provided a good excuse to include nudity in an artwork. This was an important reason for her popularity in Renaissance art. Whereas in this painting Venus is still dressed, this will quickly change. A few years later Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in which she is already largely naked.
Who is Botticelli? Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) was a painter who belonged to the Florentine school of painters. The name Botticelli means “little barrel”. He got this name because people described his brother as “fat like a barrel”. Botticelli was initially trained by his brother to become a goldsmith, but at the age of 14, he became an apprentice to the successful painter Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), known from the painting Madonna and Child with Two Angels. Later in his life, Botticelli became a mentor to both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Fun fact: The painting contains over 500 individual flowers and between 170 and 200 different varieties. Most of these flowers were growing in the spring around Florence. Botanical experts are already inspired for centuries by these flowers. They have been able to identify about 130 flowers, including daisies, forget-me-nots, jasmine, lilies, and violets. For the remaining flowers, there is quite some debate on whether these are fantasy flowers created by Botticelli or real flowers that existed in 15th century Florence but are now extinct.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Written by Eelco Kappe
Where? On the North wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Pope Sixtus IV
What do you see? Five different scenes.
Surrounding frescos: The scenes on the North wall of the Sistine Chapel illustrate the life of Christ. These scenes are ordered chronologically. When you face the North wall, the first scene is depicted on the right (immediately next to The Last Judgment by Michelangelo). It illustrates the Baptism of Christ, as described in Matthew 3, and is painted by Perugino. This scene took place right before the temptations of Christ as painted by Botticelli. The third scene illustrates the Vocation of the Apostles by Ghirlandaio. This is what Jesus does right after he resisted the temptations by the Devil and this story is described in Matthew 4.
Symbolism: The scene on the top left takes place in front of a forest with oak trees, which were the symbol of the Della Rovere family to which Pope Sixtus IV belonged. The top window in the Temple refers to the Virgin Mary, who, according to contemporary beliefs, would save people from being seduced by the Devil. The table with wine and bread on the top right refers to the Last Supper of Jesus.
Who is Botticelli? Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi (1445-1510), better known as Sandro Botticelli, was born in Florence. He painted mainly religious subjects, but also some portraits and mythological subjects. Some of his best-known works include The Birth of Venus and La Primavera, which are both in the Uffizi Museum. In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV asked Botticelli to come to Rome to create some frescos for the Sistine Chapel. Over the next two years, Botticelli painted three frescos in the Sistine Chapel among which the current one, Punishments of the Sons of Corah, and Youth of Moses.
Fun fact: This fresco by Botticelli closely follows the Biblical story as described in the Gospel of Matthew. However, Botticelli made some changes to the story to please the commissioner. For example, the scene on the top left takes place in the desert according to the Bible. Botticelli, however, depicted the first temptation of Christ in front of a forest with oak trees, as the oak tree was the symbol of the Della Rovere family to which Pope Sixtus IV belonged. Another clear deviation from the Biblical story is the depiction of the Temple. The large building in the middle of this painting is probably a copy of the old St Peter’s Basilica. It serves both as the backdrop to the scene in the middle foreground, where it is supposed to represent the Church, and the scene on the top middle, where it should represent the Temple.
Other fun facts: Don’t forget to notice the young boy in the right foreground. He has a bunch of grapes in his hand and tries to keep it away from the small snake that is behind him. Also, to the left of the altar is a woman with a basket with two cocks or hens on top of her head, which are to be sacrificed.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
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? Room 642 of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Niclaes Jongelinck, a Belgian art collector and banker.
What do you see? This painting depicts the late summer harvest in Belgium. Imagine yourself standing on top of the hill in the foreground observing and listening to this 16th-century agricultural scene. Against a background of low hills and a valley, you can see more than 40 people in this painting engaged in various activities (the longer you look at this painting, the more people you discover). In the right foreground, next to the large pear tree (you can see the pears hanging in the tree), a group of hungry people is eating and drinking. They are consuming bowls with milk and cereals, pears from the tree, bread, and cheese. The person on the left of this group already fell asleep with his pants half open. You can see a church tower hidden behind the trees, just to the right of the large tree in the foreground. To the left of this group, a young man with a jar of water walks up the hill through the path that cuts through the beautiful golden wheat field. Several people are mowing the grain strains with scythes, others are binding the strains together into sheaves, and others carry the sheaves down the hill. You can also see a cart full of wheat driving down the hill. There are many more details that you can discover. For example, on top of the wheat field on the left are two birds searching for food. On the complete right, you can see a person in a tree shaking out the apples that the kids on the ground are picking up. In the middle background, you can see the sea with several boats on it.
Backstory: This painting on the harvest by the peasants in Belgium is part of a series of paintings by Bruegel that shows the agricultural activities that are usual for the different months of the year. The series probably consists of six paintings and The Harvesters represents the months July and August. Four other paintings of this series have survived: The Gloomy Day, The Hunters in the Snow, The Return of the Herd, and The Hay Harvest. Three of these paintings are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the other one is in Prague. The sixth painting in this series has probably not survived (though some people think that the full series even consisted of 12 paintings). Typical for Bruegel, he did not romanticize this agricultural scene but painted a realistic picture of the peasants in late summer.
Modifications to this painting: The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired this painting in 1919. When they cleaned the painting and analyzed it, they noticed that Bruegel modified this painting on the canvas itself. Under the painting, an initial drawing of Bruegel was discovered, before he started painting it. Bruegel made several changes to this painting while painting it. For example, the right hand of the sleeping man next to the tree was in an awkward position, and Bruegel decided later to add a cap to this man that was slipping from his head to cover up this hand. If you look carefully, you can still see the bottom of his right arm through the cap. Another example is that he first painted the church and later decided to add a branch to the pear tree to cover part of the church tower. You can see the rest of the church tower under the branch. The reason that you can see these modifications is that Bruegel used only a thin layer of paint that became somewhat transparent over time.
What is humanism? Pieter Bruegel the Elder was one of the early painters that abandoned the religious or classical themes in his paintings and focused instead on the people. This focus on people was in line with the humanist movement in society. Bruegel seemed to have been well-educated and had many humanist friends. Humanism puts the human being central and focuses on the values and behaviors of people. The impact of humanism on art was a focus on realistic depictions of people and their environments. This realism can clearly be observed in the works of Bruegel.
Who is Bruegel the Elder? Pieter Bruegel the Elder was born between 1525 and 1530 in Breda in The Netherlands and died in 1569 in Brussels (his name is sometimes spelled as Brueghel). Opposite to the popular High Renaissance style developed in Italy during that time, Bruegel used a more realistic painting style which we now classify as the Northern Renaissance style. Bruegel was a specialist in genre art (scenes from everyday life) and specifically in painting landscapes and depicting peasants. The artistic talent ran in the Bruegel family, and several people in his family tree were accomplished painters as well, including the two sons of Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger.
Fun fact: A group of about ten people in the middle of the paintings is playing a game. This game is identified as cock throwing, which was especially popular in England. On the left, you can see a rooster tied to a branch hanging in the air. The goal of the game was that people would throw sticks at the rooster until it died. The person who killed the rooster could keep it. Cock throwing is a so-called blood sport, a category of games that involved the killing or injuring of animals. These blood sports were quite popular in the 16th century. An even more popular blood sport around that time was cockfighting, a sport that is still practiced in some countries nowadays.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Second floor, room 818 of the Richelieu wing in the Louvre
When? Between 1435 and 1440
Commissioned by? Nicolas Rolin, the Chancellor of Burgundy under Duke Philip the Good.
What do you see? Nicolas Rolin kneels down in front of the Virgin Mary who is holding Baby Jesus. Rolin 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.