Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 26 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 the 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.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? Room 15 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? Gallery 5 of the Legion of Honor Museum
When? Around 1600
Commissioned by? The Convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Malagón, Spain.
What do you see? The elongated figure of Saint John the Baptist. He looks unusually tall and thin, typical of the style of El Greco. Saint John the Baptist wears a robe of camel skin, and a long cross stands to his side. On the right, a lamb lies down on a rock. Next to the rock is a stick with a banner reading “AGNUS DEI” (Lamb of God), which is how Saint John the Baptist refers to Jesus in John 1. The Lamb of God refers to Jesus’ role in taking away the sins of the world through his crucifixion (to which the cross explicitly refers). El Greco uses a low horizon and dedicates more than half of the painting to a luminous sky. The bright light from the sky reflects on the hills in the background. El Greco places Saint John the Baptist in the middle of a landscape. The building next to his left knee is the Monasterio del Escorial, a historical residence of the King of Spain located 30 miles outside of Madrid.
Backstory: El Greco painted this work while living in Toledo, Spain. The Legion of Honor Museum acquired this painting in 1946. It is displayed next to two other paintings by El Greco in the museum.
Other versions: El Greco painted some variations on this painting. A very similar version of Saint John the Baptist is in the Museu de Belles Arts de València. The main difference between both versions is that El Greco worked out some more details in the background of the Legion of Honor version, and he changed the placement of the lamb next to Saint John the Baptist. Another similar version of Saint John the Baptist is owned by the Prado Museum and on display in Toledo. This version shows Saint John the Baptist together with Saint John the Evangelist. For this painting, El Greco used the help of his workshop.
Who is Saint John the Baptist? A preacher who foretold the coming of Jesus. During his life, he baptized many people to wash away their sins. His most important deed was the baptism of Jesus. He is the patron saint of Jordan and Puerto Rico, as well as cities like Florence and Porto.
Who is El Greco? Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born in 1541 in Heraklion, Greece, and died in 1614 in Toledo, Spain. He is better known as El Greco (the Greek). During his twenties and thirties, he spent several years in Italian cities like Venice and Rome. He got inspiration from Italian artists like Michelangelo, Tintoretto, and Titian. He eventually moved to Toledo, near Madrid. El Greco developed a unique style that is difficult to classify as it was so different from all other painters. He was a Mannerist, he was very expressive, and he created some fantasy-like works. His work has inspired many artists over time, including Delacroix, Manet, and Picasso. He painted both religious and mythological works. An example of the latter is his Laocoön in the National Gallery of Art.
Fun fact: The extremely elongated figures are a recurring theme in the works of El Greco. It is not certain why El Greco used this style, but there are two main explanations. First, he got his education in Byzantine Art and decided to combine some elements of this Byzantine Art with the Mannerist style he encountered in Italy. Second, he suffered from a medical issue that did not allow him to observe the world as normal people do. Doctors have suggested that he may have suffered severe astigmatism, which is an eye disease causing people to see the world in a distorted way. This would explain why his elongated figured became more prominent later in his career.
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.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Gallery 28 of the National Gallery of Art
When? Between 1610 and 1614
Commissioned by? Unknown
What do you see? Laocoön is the bearded man lying down on the dark rocks in the center foreground. He is attacked by a sea serpent (a type of dragon in mythology). He grabs the serpent with both hands, but, nevertheless, the serpent bites him in the head. This serpent has already killed Laocoön’s son who lies to the right of him. On the left side stands the other son of Laocoön. He also struggles to fend off a serpent while the serpent is about to bite him in his abdomen. The three people on the right are unidentified witnesses to the killing of Laocoön and his two sons, though one of them looks away from the scene. They may represent Greek gods who were behind the punishment of Laocoön and his sons, but this is uncertain. The horse behind Laocoön represents the Trojan horse. The horse is on the way to Toledo, the fortified city in the background depicted under a gloomy sky. The entrance gate to the city is directly behind the horse. It is called the Puerta de Bisagra Nueva and still exists. This gate is decorated with a double-headed eagle.
Backstory: El Greco finished this painting in the year of his death. An inventory of the paintings in his house when he died contained more than 250 paintings, mostly with religious themes, portraits, and city views of Toledo. There were only three works with a mythological theme and all three of those dealt with the killing of Laocoön and his sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus. Laocoön is the only known mythological theme that El Greco has ever painted. The three people on the right side of the painting in the National Gallery of Art seem unfinished. It seems likely that El Greco did not have the time to finish their faces before his death.
Mannerism: El Greco was a Mannerist painter, which means that he did not paint the figures in his paintings in a realistic way. He often exaggerated or elongated certain body parts and did not care about the symmetry of his figures. This is nicely illustrated in the current painting. The first signs of mannerism appeared around 1520 and the style was applied until the beginning of the 17th century. Artists like Bronzino, Michelangelo, and Tintoretto used the Mannerist style. One of the most famous Mannerist painting is Madonna with the Long Neck by Parmigianino in the Uffizi Museum.
Symbolism: This painting probably contains a deeper meaning. El Greco painted the scene of Laocoön and his sons in front of Toledo, the city where he lived and the former capital of Spain. He painted Toledo instead of Troy, which is the city where the horse is sent according to Greek mythology. The killing of Laocoön and his sons takes place on a hill just outside Toledo. This would be the same place where prisoners and people who did not agree with the Catholic Church were executed during that time. The painting of El Greco may have been a protest against these actions. However, there is no substantive evidence to back up this interpretation, so the real meaning of this painting remains speculative.
Laocoön and His Sons? According to Greek mythology, Laocoön was a Trojan priest. There are various accounts of his story. Virgil describes the most popular version in the second book of the Aeneid. According to him, when the Greeks left Troy, they left as a gift a very large wooden horse in front of the gates of Troy. Laocoön suspected that this horse was a trick of the Greeks and tried to convince the people of Troy not to accept the gift. To prove that the horse was a trick, he struck the horse with his spear to show that it was hollow. Poseidon and Athena then punished him for his interference and Laocoön and his two sons were attacked and killed by two sea serpents named Porces and Chariboea. The Trojans interpreted this event as a sign that the horse was not a trick and they took the horse into their city walls after which the Greek came out of the horse during the night and defeated the Trojans. A famous statue from antiquity of Laocoön and His Sons is in the Vatican Museums, and a 16th-century copy by Bandinelli is in the Uffizi Museum.
Who is El Greco? Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born in 1541 in Heraklion, Greece, and died in 1614 in Toledo, Spain. He is better known as El Greco, which means ‘the Greek.’ During his twenties and thirties, he spent several years in Italian cities like Venice and Rome. He got inspiration from Italian artists like Michelangelo and Tintoretto. He eventually moved to Toledo, which is near Madrid. El Greco developed a unique style that is difficult to classify as it was so different from all other painters. He was a Mannerist, he was very expressive, and he created some fantasy-like works. His work has inspired many artists over time, including Delacroix, Manet, and Picasso.
Fun fact: El Greco often included nude figures in his paintings. While in the current painting, nudity is somewhat functional as it is based on a mythological story in which people were often depicted nude, he also often included nude figures in his religious paintings. A good example is The Vision of Saint John in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Interestingly, El Greco grew up in Greece where he was exposed to Byzantine art which contained very little nudity. However, he got inspired by the nude figures painted by Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists during his travels through Italy in the 1560s and 1570s.
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 35 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.
Where? On the west wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums
Commissioned by? Originally Pope Clement VII commissioned Michelangelo to paint a fresco about the resurrection, but after the death of Clement VII, Pope Paul III changed the topic of the fresco into the Last Judgment.
What do you see? The painting can be divided into two scenes which are interconnected. On the top half is a scene with Jesus in the middle and on the bottom half is a scene where it is decided whether people go to Heaven or Hell.
The scene surrounding Jesus: Jesus is the central figure in the top middle of the fresco. He stands on a cloud against the background of a golden aureole. He raises his right arm to condemn the people on the right of painting to Hell, and he puts his left hand forward to draw the blessed people on the right of the painting towards him. His figure has been modeled after the Apollo Belvedere which is also in the Vatican Museums. He is surrounded in the top half of the painting by all sorts of saints and Biblical figures. While many of these figures cannot be precisely identified, some important ones stand out. To Jesus’ immediate left (from our perspective) is Mary with a red dress and a bright blue cloak. She looks to the blessed people on the left of the painting. She has a passive attitude as her role to intervene between the people who pray to her and God is no longer relevant. John the Baptist is the large person to the left of Jesus. He is wearing a camel-skin robe and looks at Jesus. In between Mary and Saint John is Saint Andrew holding a diagonal cross. Saint Peter is the large person to the right of Jesus. He has a white beard and holds the keys of Heaven (one silver and a gold one). Saint Bartholomew is the large figure right below Jesus. He sits on a cloud, has a long grey beard, and holds his own skin in his right hand (in which Michelangelo painted his self-portrait) and a knife in his left hand. To his left is Saint Lawrence sitting on a cloud holding a ladder.
The scene at the bottom: In the bottom left, people arise from their graves. In the scene above this one, some of these people are rising through the help of angels or clouds. These are the people that are saved. In the bottom middle, above the cross of Jesus, there is a group of wingless angels who are blowing trumpets to awake the dead. They carry two books that contain the names of the people who are going to Heaven and Hell. The bigger book on the right contains the people that go to Hell. On the bottom right, there is a boat full of people who are going to Hell. Charon is standing on the left side of the boat and aggressively forces the people out of the boat. Minos is standing in the right bottom corner of the painting with a snake wrapped around him (and the snake bites his genitals). He is standing in front of the entrance to Hell. Charon and Minos are two figures described in Dante’s poem Inferno, and they are depicted exactly as Dante describes them. Interestingly, there is no clear figure of a devil present in this painting, though several devil-like figures can be seen on the right side of the painting. They can be recognized by the horns on their head, and they are pulling people down to go to Hell. On the left of this group is a person who is referred to as the damned man as his expression convincingly includes both the disbelief and the realization that he will go to Hell forever. Michelangelo decided not to depict Hell itself and leaves it to our imagination.
Backstory: Michelangelo initially discussed the content of a large fresco in the Sistine Chapel with Pope Clemente VII in 1533. However, he only started to work on the actual fresco in 1536 under Pope Paul III. Before Michelangelo started his work on The Last Judgment (sometimes spelled The Last Judgement), the wall was covered by three frescos from Perugino. Michelangelo decided that the wall should be rebuilt using high-quality brick stones and slope slightly inwards such that the wall could not collect dust. The goal of his fresco is to remember viewers of the upcoming day of the Last Judgment, where everyone, including the viewers, will be judged by God on whether they will go to Heaven or Hell. The painting caused quite some controversy when it was revealed. Controversial elements were the inclusion of mythological figures and the wingless angels in the fresco. Another important debate was about all the nudity in the fresco on the wall of a chapel. Originally the genitalia of many people in this fresco were visible. Around 1564, probably right after the death of Michelangelo, Danielle Da Volterra was ordered to cover some of these obscenities in this fresco.
Symbolism: This fresco contains lots of symbolism, and almost every attribute in the painting has a symbolic meaning. Below are a few examples. On the top left of the painting, a large cross can be seen, as well as the Crown of Thorns, and the nails used for the cross. On the top right is the Column of Flagellation, as well as the ladder, the spear, and the sponge dipped in vinegar. All of these symbols refer to the Passion of Christ. You can also still see the wounds of the crucifixion in the hands and feet of Jesus. The keys of Saint Peter are the keys to Heaven. The skin that Saint Bartholomew is holding is a symbol of martyrdom. The ladder of Saint Lawrence symbolizes his martyrdom. In the scene on the bottom right, where people are dragged down by devils and pushed down by angels, different people represent different sins. For example, the man with the bag of money and keys represents the sin of greediness.
The Last Judgment according to the Bible: The Last Judgment of all people who lived on Earth is an important aspect of the Christian religion. It is described as a moment in which all people will come to life again, and the good people will be rewarded by going to Heaven, and the evil people will go to Hell. There is a large number of references in the Bible to the Last Judgment (see here for a complete list). The most important and direct reference is in Revelations 20:11-15 in which the judgment day is described in a vision to John the Apostle. Another good source is Matthew 25: 31-46 in which Jesus explains the Last Judgment as the day when he will return to Earth with all his angels. Several main elements in this fresco can be linked to the Biblical stories. For example, the scene at the bottom left on the opening of the graves is based on Ezekiel 37:1-14. However, many aspects of this painting also differ from the Biblical description. Moreover, some elements are also inspired by non-Biblical sources, such as Dante’s Inferno.
Who is Michelangelo? Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564) was born in Caprese in the Republic of Florence. He lived most of his adult life in either Florence or Rome. From 1534 till his death he lived in Rome where he not only worked on this fresco in the Sistine Chapel, but he was also appointed lead architect of St. Peter’s Basilica. Michelangelo was an architect, painter, poet, and sculptor and he is remembered most for his paintings and sculptures. Only a few paintings of him have survived, including the Doni Tondo in the Uffizi Museum. However, he is better known for his amazing frescos such as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel which includes the famous scene of The Creation of Adam. His sculptures are also considered to be among the best in the world. A couple of examples are his statue of David in the Galleria dell’Accademia and his Genius of Victory in the Palazzo Vecchio.
Fun fact: Michelangelo included about 400 figures in this fresco and has included these people in a large number of different positions. This required very extensive knowledge of the human body which is something that Michelangelo possessed. From a young age, he participated in the dissection of the bodies of convicted criminals, something that the Pope allowed. The only condition was that the bodies of the criminals would be properly buried afterward. These dissections provided Michelangelo with very valuable knowledge of the human body, which was important for the realism of his sculptures and paintings. Michelangelo was not the only artists that dissected dead bodies. Multiple artists did this during that period, including Leonardo da Vinci, as the art moved away from unrealistic religious painting during the Middle Ages to more realistic and idealized human bodies during the Renaissance.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster.
Where? Room 25 of the Prado Museum
Commissioned by? The Church of San Marcuola in Venice
What do you see? On the right, Jesus sits on his knees and washes the feet of his disciple, Peter, who is reluctantly accepting that his master washes his feet. The young disciple, John, helps them by holding a watering can to fill the tub. In line with the Biblical story, Jesus has a towel wrapped around his waist. He has taken off his blue robe, which lies behind him. Scattered around the area are the other disciples. Four of them sit on the table. To the left of the table, one disciple comically helps another one to take of his pants. The disciple in the left foreground and the one to the right of table take off their sandals to have their feet washed. The disciple standing in the background against a pillar is Judas, who is about to betray Jesus after the Last Supper. Behind the head of Jesus, we can see another room with the follow-up scene. In that room are Jesus and his disciples celebrating the Last Supper. In the background, we can see some made-up architecture, based on 16th-century Venice. There is a canal with at the end a triumphal arch.
Perspective: To fully appreciate this painting, one should look at it from the right side. So, stand to the right of the painting and you will see that the perspective suddenly is correct and that this is a beautiful piece of work. The composition starts with Jesus and Saint Peter, continues through the middle of the table, and ends at the arch at the end of the water. Notice how the tiles on the floor suddenly have a straight pattern. The reason that one should look at it from the right is that Tintoretto created this painting originally to hang on the right side of the apse (the area where the altar stand) in a Venetian church. Therefore, the churchgoers would automatically look at this painting from the right side.
Backstory: This painting is also known as Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet. It is based on the Biblical story in John 13: 1-20, in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples before they eat the Last Supper. Washing the feet was a common thing before having dinner as the people at that time wore sandals and walked on dusty roads. Typically, a servant washed the feet of the guests before dinner. Tintoretto created this painting for the Church of San Marcuola in Venice. On the left side of the apse hangs the Last Supper by Tintoretto and on the right side hung this painting on Christ washing the feet of the disciples. Today, it is replaced by a copy by Carlo Ridolfi (who also wrote a biography on Tintoretto). The original by Tintoretto entered the collection of the Prado Museum in 1936.
Other versions: Tintoretto loved the theme of Christ washing the feet of his disciples, and he created at least five different versions of it. Just like he did in the San Marcuola Church in Venice, Tintoretto often combined this painting with a painting on the Last Supper. One version of Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples hangs now in the National Gallery in London but was originally in the San Trovaso Church in Venice. Another version is in the San Moisé Church in Venice. Yet another version, very similar to the one in the Prado Museum, hangs in the Shipley Gallery of Art in Gateshead, England. It is not completely clear whether the original version in the Church of San Marcuola is the version in the Prado Museum or the Shipley Gallery of Art. A copy by Tintoretto of the Prado version hangs in the Ontario Gallery of Art in Toronto.
Moral: Jesus shows his humility by washing the feet of his disciples. As the leader of the disciples and the Son of God, he wanted to set an example that people are equal and that you are never better than another person.
Who is Tintoretto? Jacopo Comin, better known as Tintoretto, was born in 1518 in Venice and died there in 1594. He was a very talented painter. His aim was to combine the (mannerist) drawing style of Michelangelo with the use of colors by Titian. This style is exactly what characterizes his work. Tintoretto was the oldest child and had twenty siblings. Tintoretto means ‘little dyer,’ and he was known by that name as his father was a dyer of clothes. Tintoretto was a very energetic and productive painter, and he created a large number of paintings often containing many figures. His masterpiece, Paradise, hangs in the Doge’s Palace in Venice. He started this painting when he was 70 years old, it includes over 500 figures, and measures about 25 x 9 meters (possibly the largest canvas in the world).
Fun fact: The paintings contains a few interesting details. First, Judas is shown in the background. He has a halo around his head. This is strange as Judas is about to betray Jesus and halos are used to identify holy or sacred people. While Tintoretto is not the only artist to put a halo around the head of Judas, he is more commonly depicted without a halo, and sometimes with a black or darker-colored halo to separate him from the other disciples. Another interesting detail is the dog in the foreground. It is not entirely clear why the dog is there. In any case, the presence of the dog caused Tintoretto some trouble. The inquisition thought that this was an unnecessary detail in this painting and this kind of detail was strongly discouraged for religious use by the Council of Trent earlier in the 16th century.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 8 of the Uffizi Museum
Commissioned by? Uncertain. Originally, Giovanni de’ Medici ordered this painting to give it to the King of Naples, but this deal was abandoned due to a lack of funding for Filippo Lippi.
What do you see? A praying Virgin Mary. Two angels are holding the child Jesus in front of Mary. Mary and Jesus both seem to be lost in their thoughts. Mary is depicted in a very elegant way compared to earlier paintings. For example, look at her sweet facial expression and the graceful veils and pearls in her hair. Notice also the halo above the heads of Mary and Jesus. These halos are just a simple circle and mark the transition between the solid gold disks used in earlier work and the disappearance of the halo in later Renaissance paintings. The angel on the right seems to giggle and watch the viewer directly in the eyes. Mary, Jesus, and the angels are depicted in front of a window, which can easily be mistaken for the frame of this painting. In the background, you can see a landscape inspired by Flemish paintings.
Backstory: This painting was one of the first in which Mary and Jesus are depicted in a very human way. Mary is shown as an elegant young woman. This painting has served as an inspiration for many future paintings of Mary, but also for paintings of Venus. For example, the Birth of Venus by Botticelli (a pupil of Filippo Lippi) has been heavily inspired by this painting.
Symbolism: The pearls and veils that are carefully inserted in Mary’s hair and are gracefully draped around her neck are a new element that Lippi introduced to represent the elegance of Mary. The forehead is bigger than usual as the forehead was an object of beauty during that time (see the pearl on Mary’s forehead to emphasize this). You can see the shadow of Mary in the window frame on the left. This is another example of a physical detail, whereas earlier paintings of Mary focused mainly of the spiritual symbols. However, you can also see a seashore in the landscape, which refers to one of Mary’s titles ‘port of salvation’. The rocks in the landscape refer to the biblical tale of Daniel. Finally, Mary is wearing a blue dress, representing her purity, virginity, and royalty.
Who is Madonna? A Madonna is a representation of Mary with or without her child Jesus. Madonna comes from ‘ma donna’, which is Italian for ‘my lady’. In English, this is often referred to as ‘our lady’ and in French as ‘notre dame’. There are different types of Madonna painting. The ‘Madonna and child’ like in this painting was a very popular subject during the Renaissance. Other types of Madonnas that have frequently been used in the art are, for example, the ‘Madonna enthroned’, ‘Madonna of humility’, ‘adoring Madonna’, and ‘nursing Madonna’.
Why Madonna? The Madonna and child is the most popular theme in Christian art. Often Mary and Jesus are surrounded by angels or saints that pay their respects to them. Jesus and Mary are the most central figures in Catholicism, and their depiction should remind people of their religion.
Who is Filippo Lippi? Filippo Lippi (1406-1469), also called Lippo Lippi, was born in Florence. He was the son of a butcher, but his parents died when he was still young. After his aunt took care of him for a few years, at age eight, he joined the convent of the Carmine where the friars took care of him. The friars discovered his love for art and gave him some great opportunities to pursue a career in art. His son, Filippino Lippi also became a famous painter (and is thought by some to be the model for the giggling angel in this painting). Sandro Botticelli is the most well-known pupil of Filippo Lippi. Another well-known work of Filippo Lippi in collaboration with Fra Angelico is the Adoration of the Magi in the National Gallery of Art.
Fun fact: Filippo Lippi was a Carmelite monk and was supposed to live a celibate life. However, he did not take the rules too strict as he was an extremely lustful man. When he was in his 50s, he became the chaplain of a convent of nuns, and he fell in love with one of the nuns named Lucrezia Buti. He asked whether Lucrezia could serve as his model for Mary in this painting. This request was granted on the condition that there was always another nun present during these painting sessions. One day Lippi escaped together with Lucrezia from the convent (some stories tell that he abducted her) to live together with her. Together they got two sons.
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.