A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph by Piero di Cosimo

A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph by Piero di Cosimo (c.1495)

Let me tell you a story.  It is about love and loss.  It is a tale by the Roman poet Ovid concerning two people, Cephalus, a beautiful youth and his beautiful young wife Procris.  The story goes…………………

Cephalus was a beautiful youth and fond of manly sports. He would rise before the dawn to pursue the chase. Aurora saw him when she first looked forth, fell in love with him, and stole him away. But Cephalus was just married to a charming wife whom he devotedly loved. Her name was Procris. She was a favourite of Diana, the goddess of hunting, who had given her a dog which could outrun every rival and a javelin which would never fail of its mark; and Procris gave these presents to her husband. Cephalus was so happy in his wife that he resisted all the entreaties of Aurora, and she finally dismissed him in displeasure, saying, “Go, ungrateful mortal, keep your wife, whom, if I am not much mistaken, you will one day be very sorry you ever saw again.”

Cephalus returned, and was as happy as ever in his wife and his woodland sports. Now it happened some angry deity had sent a ravenous fox to annoy the country; and the hunters turned out in great strength to capture it. Their efforts were all in vain; no dog could run it down; and at last they came to Cephalus to borrow his famous dog, whose name was Lelaps. No sooner was the dog let loose than he darted off, quicker than the eye could follow him. If they had not seen his footprints in the sand they would have thought he flew. Cephalus and others stood on a hill and saw the race. The fox tried every art; he ran in a circle and turned on his track, the dog close upon him, with open jaws, snapping at his heels, but biting only air. Cephalus was about to use his javelin when, suddenly he saw both dog and game stop instantly. The heavenly powers, who had given both, were not willing that either should conquer. In the very attitude of life and action they were turned to stone. So lifelike and natural did they look, you would have thought, as you looked at them, that one was going to bark, the other to leap forward.

Cephalus, though he had lost his dog, still continued to take delight in the chase. He would go out at early morning, ranging the woods and hills unaccompanied by any one, needing no help, for his javelin was a sure weapon in all cases. Fatigued with hunting, when the sun got high he would seek a shady nook where a cool stream flowed, and, stretched on the grass, with his garments thrown aside, would enjoy the breeze. Sometimes he would say aloud, “Come, sweet breeze, come and fan my breast, come and allay the heat that burns me.” Someone passing by one day heard him talking in this way to the air, and foolishly believing that he was talking to some maiden, went and told the secret to Procris, Cephalus’s wife. Love is credulous. Procris, at the sudden shock, fainted away. Presently recovering, she said, “It cannot be true; I will not believe it unless I myself am a witness to it.” So she waited, with anxious heart, till the next morning, when Cephalus went to hunt as usual. Then she stole out after him and concealed herself in the place where the informer directed her. Cephalus came, as he was wont when tired with sport, and stretched himself on the green bank, saying, “Come, sweet breeze, come and fan me; you know how I love you! You make the groves and my solitary rambles delightful.” He was running on in this way when he heard, or thought he heard, a sound as of a sob in the bushes. Supposing it some wild animal, he threw his javelin at the spot. A cry from his beloved Procris told him that the weapon had too surely met its mark. He rushed to the place and found her bleeding and, with sinking strength, endeavouring to draw forth from the wound the javelin, her own gift. Cephalus raised her from the earth, strove to staunch the blood, and called her to revive and not to leave him miserable, to reproach himself with her death. She opened her feeble eyes and forced herself to utter these few words: “I implore you, if you have ever loved me, if I have ever deserved kindness at your hands, my husband, grant me this last request; do not marry that odious Breeze!” This disclosed the whole mystery: but alas! what advantage to disclose it now? She died; but her face wore a calm expression, and she looked pityingly and forgivingly on her husband when he made her understand the truth.

Our featured artist today is the Italian Renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo and the work of art I am featuring is his panel painting based on the Ovid story of Procris and Cephalus and the subsequent 1486 play by Niccolò da Correggio.   The title of his unsigned painting which he completed around 1495 has often changed.  Since the nineteenth century it was known as Morte di Procri (The Death of Procris) but the National Gallery in London which is the home of the painting has rejected this title and since 1951 has catalogued it as either A Mythological Subject or A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph.

Notwithstanding the uncertainty of the title this painting, it was to become one of Cosimo’s most successful and popular works.  . It is a very long painting measuring 185cms in length and is only 65cms high which makes one believe that this could have been for the front of a cassone, a bridal chest, or as the subject of the painting is about love, maybe it was to hang in a bridal chamber.

Dogs and pelican

The painting shows a satyr mourning over the lifeless body of a young woman who has suffered wounds to her hand, wrist and throat.  At her feet sits a sad and mournful dog with its head slightly bowed.  Maybe Cosimo intended the dog to be an image of Laelaps but of course in Ovid’s tale, he had been turned into stone by Zeus before the death of Procris.  In the background one can see a river which could possibly represent one of the three rivers of the Underworld.   

At the water’s edge one can see other creatures – three more dogs and in the water a pelican can be seen with wings flapping.   Art historians point out the many irregularities with Cosimo’s painting, if it was supposed to be a retelling of the Ovid tale, as in that, there was no satyr , albeit he appears as the fateful annoyance in Correggio’s play.  It was the husband Cephalus that finds his dead wife and he is nowhere to be seen in the painting. Neither is the spear which killed Procris and the positioning of the wounds on her body do not coincide with what one would expect from a death by the spear’s penetration. 

Maybe this is just a lot of nit-picking and one should instead, concentrate on this amazing scene captured wonderfully by Cosimo.