Dosso Dossi. Part 1 – The Constabili Polyptych

In my last blog I looked at the lives of two American landscape artists, Marion and Elmer Wachtel and for many people outside of America these painters may have been completely unknown.  Today in my blog I want to introduce you to a great painter who may also be unfamiliar to many.  Today let me introduce you to the Italian High Renaissance painter Giovanni di Niccolò de Luteri who became known as Dosso Dossi.

The Constabili Polyptych
The Constabili Polyptych

Dossi was born in St Giovanni del Dosso, which is a small village thirty kilometres south west of Mantua.  His actual birth date is something of a mystery with various historical documents and biographers disagreeing, albeit a consensus of opinions puts it at around 1487.  His early upbringing is also somewhat shrouded in mystery.  However we do know Dossi had a younger brother, Battista, who was also a painter but said to be not as talented as his older brother.  We also know that his father, Niccolò de Luteri, was a native of Trentino, an autonomous northern province of Italy, close to the Austro-Italian border.  His father was a member of the Ferrara court of Duke Ercole I d’Este the Duke of Ferrara and later, after his death in 1505, his son Duke Alfonso I d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara.  His role was that of a spenditore, a bursar or land agent for the court and it was the name of the Duke’s property, Villa Dossi, which lent its name to his two sons.

Portrait of Alfonso I by Dosso Dossi (c.1530)
Portrait of Alfonso I by Dosso Dossi (c.1530)

There is much conjecture about Dossi’s early training.  Giorgio Vasari believed Dossi studied under Lorenzo Costa in Ferrara whilst others say he studied in Venice.  Dossi’s seventeenth century biographer, the priest, poet and writer, Girolamo Bruffaldi, wrote in his 1704 book Vite de’ pittori e scultori ferraresi (Biogrpahy of Ferrara artists) that Dossi studied in Rome and Venice.   Records show that Dossi was working for the House of Gonzaga in Mantua in 1512 and two years later was working as a court painter in Ferrara at the court of Alfonso I d’Este, and later his son Ercole II d’Este.  As a court painter Dossi’s time would have been spent decorating the private residences of the Court with large frescoes and paintings, often detailing historical or mythological themes.  Court painters of the Renaissance, like Dossi, would have been asked to provide designs for elaborate tapestries and conjure up theatrical sets and backdrops.  There would have been many portraiture commissions to carry out featuring the Duke and his family as well as portraits of the family members of the wealthy courtiers.

In his early days at court Dossi was sent by the Duke to Venice, Florence and Mantua.  The Duke also sanctioned Dossi and his brother Battista to produce altarpieces and secular works for the local nobility and princely patrons, such as the Duke of Urbino and Cardinal Bernado Bles the prince-bishop of Trent.

Portrait of a Man in a Fur Collar (Antonio Constabili) by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)
Portrait of a Man in a Fur Collar (Antonio Constabili) by Dosso Dossi (c.1520)

One of Dossi’s first tasks as a court painter was a collaboration with the painter, Benvenuto Tisi, known as il Garofalo.  Garofalo, who had been living in Rome, where he had once studied under Raphael, received an invitation to come to Ferrara and complete a commission from the Duke of Ferrara to decorate a small chapel.  On completion of the commission he was approached by Antonio Costabili to decorate an altarpiece.  Antonio Costabili was a Ferrarese soldier, nobleman and diplomat and prominent figure at the court of Alphonso I and was a leading patron of the arts.  The commission taken on by Garofalo and Dossi was the polyptych, which became known as the Costabili Polyptych.  It was for the high altar, which stood at the rear of the chancel, raised above the choir stalls of the Augustinian church of Sant’ Andrea in Ferrara, which was home to the Ordo Eremitarum Sancti Augustini, the order of the Augustinian Hermit monks.   This was an order of monks accepted into the Roman Catholic family by Pope Alexander IV in 1256.

The completion date of this magnificent work is contested by art historians but one clue as to the date is that Vasari wrote that the polyptych was completed prior to the death of Raphael and he died in 1520.  It should be remembered that Vasari, on two occasions, met with Garofalo in the 1540’s and therefore should have had accurate knowledge with regards the completion date of the altarpiece.  Others narrow down the completion date to around 1514.

Constabili Polyptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara
Constabili Polyptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara

The altarpiece is now housed in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Ferrara.  The paintings are still in the original altarpiece’s wooden frame but there has been much work on reconstructing it as it was badly damaged during World War II.  The altarpiece measures 31ft 6 inches high and 19 feet wide (9.6 x 5.8m).

Central Panel of the polyptych
Central Panel of the polyptych

The main central panel measures 174 inches x 96 inches (474 x 262cms) and features the Virgin Mary enthroned with the Christ Child.  Alongside her throne, on the right, is the infant Saint John the Baptist.

Angels and spiritelli
Angels and spiritelli

Above the throne, on either side there are angels and spiritelli.

John the Evangelist
John the Evangelist

On the steps below the throne sits John the Evangelist, cross-legged, pausing from his writing to look upwards towards the Virgin. On the floor besides him is a chalice.  The chalice is often associated with and symbolises John the Evangelist.  It alludes to John being put to the test by the high priest of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. The high priest said to him:

“…If you want me to believe in your god, I will give you some poison to drink and, if it does not harm you, it means that your god is the true God…”

Saint John blessed the cup of poison, neutralizing it and was then able to drink the liquid.

Saint Jerome
Saint Jerome

In the right foreground of the central panel we have Saint Jerome holding an open book whilst his foot rests upon a skull.  In the left foreground of the central panel we have Saint Andrew, the titular head of the church, who holds a cross and points towards the Virgin.

The two side panels of the polyptych depict two further saints.  Saint George, the patron saint of Ferrara, is featured in the lower right side panel whilst Saint Sebastian, the popular saint who was looked upon as a protector of the people against the plague appears in the lower left side panel.

The Spandrels
The Spandrels

Above these side panels there are two spandrels.  A spandrel is the almost triangular space between the left or right exterior curve of an arch and the rectangular framework surrounding it.

Saint Augustine (right spandrel)
Saint Augustine (right spandrel)

Saint Augustine, the patron of the Augustinian order can be seen in the right spandrel dressed as a hermit in the robes of an Eremitani friar with his bishop’s mitre on the floor by his feet and Saint Ambrose appears in the left spandrel with a manuscript resting on his lap.  His demeanour is one of contemplation as one hand rests on his breast as he studies the text.  Both spandrels have in the background an oculus window through which comes the light which illuminates the two saints.

The pediment
The pediment

The resurrected Christ is displayed within the pediment at the top of the polyptych.

This is a truly remarkable work of art.  At first sight it would appear that the Saints that have been depicted were just a random selection but having read Dosso Dossi, Garofalo, and the Costabili Polyptych: Imaging Spiritual Authority by Giancarlo Fiorenza he believes they were chosen very carefully and he goes into great detail in his article about the reasoning.  The article appeared in The Art Bulletin Volume 82, No.2 (June 2000).  It was from this complex article that I got most of my facts about this work but I decided to steer clear of the theories about the inclusion of the saints and other symbolic aspects of the polytypch and will leave you to seek out the article if you want to delve further.

In my next blog I will look at more of Dossi’s paintings and look at one of a young man which is now believed to be a portrait of a famous young woman !

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca

The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca (c.1468)

For today’s blog I am staying with Italian Renaissance art and looking at a work by, some say, the greatest Early Renaissance painter, Piero della Francesca.  This is the second time I have featured this artist in one of my blogs.  The first being The Flagellation of Christ (My Daily Art Display, September 29th 2011).   Today I want to look at his beautiful fresco entitled The Resurrection which he completed around 1468.

Piero della Francesca or as he was known in his day, Piero di Benedetto de’ Franceschi, was born around 1415 in the Tuscan market town of Borgo San Sepolcro, which is now known as Sansepolcro,  a small town located on the plains of the Upper Tiber Valley in the southeast of Tuscany, bordering Umbria and The Marches.  His family were merchants dealing in leather and wool and his father, Benedetto di Franceschi, hoped that his son would follow in his footsteps.  With that in mind, Piero was sent to school to learn arithmetic and the ability to calculate weights and measures, assess the volumes of barrels and bales, and most importantly, learn how to keep accounts.  Piero was academically gifted and became well known as a mathematician and in fact after his death he was revered not so much as a painter but for his mathematical knowledge.

Piero’s initial artistic training came as an apprentice to Antonio di Giovanni, a local painter, who was based in Anghiari, a town across the Tiber Valley from Borgo San Sepolcro.  From being Antonio di Giovanni’s apprentice, he soon became his assistant and during the 1430’s the two of them worked jointly on commissions around Borgo San Sepolcro.  Piero went to Florence for the chance to gain more work and he worked on commissions as an assistant alongside another young artist, Domenico Veneziano.  It was during this time spent in Florence that Piero would have probably come into contact with the great Florentine artists of the time such as Fra Angelico, Mantegna and the architect, Brunelleschi.

In 1442, Piero returned to Sansepolcro and three years later, in 1445, Piero received a large commission from the Compagnia della Misericordia, a confraternity of Borgo San Sepolcro, for a polyptych, Polyptych of the Misericordia: Madonna of Mercy, as an altarpiece for the local church, Church of the Misericordia.  The confraternity had asked Piero to complete the work in three years, setting the anticipated completion date as 1445.   Piero however did not feel constrained by this suggested timeline and any way he had many other projects on the go at the time and in the end did not complete the altarpiece until 1462, some seventeen years late!

Piero moved around the country a good deal during his life, living in Ferrara and Rimini before arriving in Rome in 1455.  Here he painted frescoes in the Vatican for Nicholas V and continued to work in the Vatican Palace for Pius II. Sadly his works were destroyed to make room for paintings by Raphael.

Piero’s birthplace, the town of Borgo San Sepolcro which literally means “Town of the Holy Sepulchre” derives its name from the story of its founding back in the tenth century.   The story of its coming into being would have us believe that two saints, Saint Arcano and Saint Egidio were returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land bearing some wood shavings from the sepulchre in which Christ had been buried, when they were miraculously instructed to create a new settlement – Borgo San Sepolcro.   These sacred relics have been preserved in the local Benedictine abbey and so when the town hall of Borgo San Sepolcro was renovated and extended in the late 1450s, Piero was commissioned to paint the fresco on the appropriate subject of The Resurrection for the building’s state chamber. This room was set aside for the use of the Conservatori, the chief magistrates and governors.  Before holding their councils, these four appointed guardians of the town would solemnly kneel before Piero’s image, to pray for the grace of God to descend upon them during their deliberations. The room is now the civic museum.

My featured painting today is a fresco which exudes an air of peace and tranquillity.   In the painting, the risen Christ can be seen in the centre of the composition.  He is portrayed at the moment of his resurrection, as we see him with his left foot on the parapet as he climbs purposefully out of his marble tomb clutching the banner in his right hand, as if he is declaring his victory over death.   He looks formidable as he stands tall.   We don’t see the lid of the tomb but look to the bottom right of the painting and we can see Piero has depicted a large rock which probably harks back to the biblical tale which told of a rock being rolled away from the entrance of Christ’s tomb.   In most resurrection paintings we are used to seeing Christ dressed in white burial clothes and yet Piero has depicted him in red robes, which was probably done to infer royalty and signify that this resurrected person is Christ the King.  Piero has portrayed the pale body of the risen Christ as almost blemish-free with the exception of the wound to his side and the wound in the back of both his hands made by the crucifixion nails.   In his depiction of Christ he has not let us forget that this central figure is both man and God, for if you look closely at the stomach of Christ we notice that the artist has given it an almost human appearance.  It has a slightly wrinkled appearance caused by the folds of the skin happening as he raises his leg to exit the tomb.

The sleeping guards

The alertness of the risen Christ in the painting contrasts starkly with the four soldiers who instead of keeping guard on the tomb, lie asleep.  The Renaissance painter and biographer of artists, Vasari, would have us believe that Piero included his own self-portrait in this fresco.

Piero della Francesca

It is the face of the second soldier from the left, and Vasari postulates that Piero did this as a sign of his own hopes of awaking one day to redemption. It is also interesting to note the contrast in the way Piero has depicted the risen Christ and the four soldiers.  Christ is shown in a solid vertical stance looking straight out at us, whereas the sleeping soldiers are depicted in diagonal poses and viewed at various oblique angles.  The way the artist has portrayed Christ almost gives one the feeling that he is about to step out of the painting to join us, the viewer.  In some ways the expression on the face of Christ is disturbing.  It is a penetrating glance and one art critic commented that it was if he was looking into the soul of the viewer.

The landscape is bathed in the new cold and clear light of a Tuscan dawn.  Look carefully at the trees on the right of the painting and those on the left side.  Do you spot the difference?   The ones on the right are depicted as flourishing specimens adorned with leaves and healthy green shoots whereas the trees on the left of the painting are grey in colour and bare as if on the point of dying.   This contrast almost certainly alludes to the renewal of mankind through the Resurrection of Christ

It is likely that Piero painted his striking image of the risen Christ stepping resolutely, banner in hand, from the tomb, to represent not only the resurrection of Jesus but also the resurgence of the town of Sansepolcro.  After a few years under the rule of Florence from 1441, Sansepolcro regained its identity and dignity in 1456 when the Florentines returned the use of the Palazzo to the Conservatori. The church Council which the young Piero had witnessed in Florence had thus had unforeseen consequences for Sansepolcro. The Pope, his treasury depleted by his lavish Council, defrayed some of the costs by ceding Sansepolcro to Florence which was later returned by Florentine authorities to the citizens of Sansepolcro on February 1st 1459, as a sign of the restoration of some measure of autonomy to the Borgo.

One interesting end note to the tale of this painting comes from a BBC article which tells the story of how a British artillery officer, Tony Clarke, during World War II, defied orders and held back from using his troop’s guns to shell the town of Sansepolcro and his decision is believed to have saved this beautiful fresco.   To read the full story click on:

Venus and Mars by Sandro Botticelli

Venus and Mars by Botticelli by Sandro Botticelli (c.1485)

Many have written about today’s painting and the symbolism of what is depicted and the interpretations of the work abound.  In my blog today I have tried to steer a middle course between completely ignoring the interpretation of the work and delving too deeply into the scholarly minutiae of what we see before us.  Today I simply want to look at the characters behind the title of the painting and the actual people who we see before us.

The painting entitled Venus and Marswas completed by the Florentine artist, Sandro Botticelli around 1485 and the nineteenth-century title of the painting alludes to two mythological people who had an adulterous affair.  They are Venus, the Goddess of Love, who had an illicit liaison with Mars, the God of War, whilst she was still married to the lame blacksmith Vulcan, who forged Cupid’s arrows and the intricate armour of the Gods and heroes.   The tempera and oil on poplar work, which now hangs in the National Gallery in London, measures 69cms tall and 174cms in width.  Little is known as to who commissioned the painting or for where it was intended.

A cassone

However the dimensions of it would probably mean that it was made for either a cassone or a spalliera.   A cassone is the Italian word for chest or box. They were used for storage and often associated with the giving of a dowry.  A spalliera is the Italian word for the back of a bench or settle, or the headboard or footboard of a bed, or any similar vertical attachment of a piece of furniture.  They were commonly painted in Italy, especially in Tuscany.  Often these items of furniture were richly decorated with carving, gilding and painted panels illustrating acts of heroism or as is the case with this work, acts of love.  The fact that it is an act of love we are looking at probably means that this was meant for a bridal chamber and maybe it was to be incorporated into the headboard of a bed (spalliera di letto).  If we look at the painting we can see that the two figures almost rest on the base of the painting and so if it was meant to be part of the headboard of a bed, the lovers would almost be seen as lying on the bed itself.

Before I look at the two main characters in this painting by Botticelli, let us look at some of the other details we see before us.  The setting for the painting is contemporary.  It is a forest and yet strangely the artist has not incorporated any flowers into the scene which may be simply an indication of the time of the year. However the couple is framed by two evergreen plants, the laurel and the myrtle.  The former was associated with the family of Lorenzo de’ Medici and the myrtle was associated with Venus.   In the distance, on the other side of the fields we can just make out the city of Florence, behind which rise the mountains which lie to the north of the River Arno.

If you look closely at the top right corner of the painting, just above the head of Mars you will see a swarm of hovering wasps.  So why include them?  One thought is that as the Italian word for wasps is vespe and they form part of the Vespucci’s coat of arms.  We will see later that the model used for Venus was Simonetta Cattaneo, whose husband Marco was a member of the Vespucci family.  Others interpret the presence of wasps as being the symbolic of the painful stings of illicit love.

In the painting we also have four small satyrs.  Normally in paintings featuring Venus one would have expected to see erotes, which were the tiny group of gods and demi-gods associated with love and sex and part of Venus’ retinue.  The satyrs were more like little devils and maybe their inclusion once again to the fact that we are observing an act of forbidden love.  Two of the satyrs can be seen wielding a lance which no doubt has a phallic connotation.

The narcotic fruit ?

Another satyr can be seen blowing a conch shell in an attempt to wake the sleeping figure of Mars and one, with a lascivious expression on its face, lies beneath the arm of the exhausted Mars, clutching a green fruit.  This fruit has brought about much discussion as to what it is and why it is incorporated in the painting.   Some would have us believe it is the fruit of one of the highly narcotic datura genus of plants, datura stramonium and that Mars is in a drug-induced sleep.  Other art historians disagree with this assertion pointing out that the plant was not found in Italy at the time Botticelli painted his masterpiece.  Others have suggested the fruit depicted was ecballium elaterium which is also known as the ‘exploding cucumber’ or ‘squirting cucumber.’  This too is a poisonous plant.

Simonetta Vespucci née Simonetta Cattaneo de Candia

In today’s painting in My Daily Art Display the woman who was believed to have been used as a model for Venus was looked upon as the most beautiful woman of her time.  Botticelli had incorporated this woman in to two of his other masterpieces, namely, Primavera which he completed in 1482 and the Birth of Venus which he completed around 1485.  The interesting thing is that she had died some nine years before Botticelli painted the last of these works.   Some historians would have us believe that Botticelli had, like so many, fallen in love with her beauty.  How true that is we will probably never know but we do know that Botticelli asked to be buried at her feet in the Franciscan Church of Ognissanti, which was the parish church of the Vespucci family in Florence. His wish was in fact carried out when he died some 34 years later, in 1510 and a small round stone in a chapel of the right transept marks his resting-place.

The woman in question is Simonetta Cattaneo de Candia.  She was thought to have been born in either Genoa or Portovenere around 1453.  She was part of a very wealthy and influential family.  Her father, Gaspare Cattaneo della Volta, was a Genoese nobleman from the House of Volta and her mother, Cattocchia Spinola de Candia came from an equally wealthy background, the European dynastic House of Candia.  Simonetta was married at the age of sixteen to the son of a wealthy Florentine banker, Marco Vespucci, who was a distant cousin of the famous Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci.  Although this was not an arranged marriage, Simonetta’s parents were pleased with the arrangement as the groom’s family were well connected with the powerful Medici family.

Simonetta moved to Florence and after the marriage in 1469 she and her husband became regulars at the Medici court in Florence and she struck up a close friendship with the co-rulers of Florence, the two de’ Medici brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano.  It was whilst attending court functions that Simonetta first met a number of court painters including the young Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli.  Men were astounded by her natural beauty and she soon became a court favourite.  One of the most prominent men to fall under her spell was none other than Giuliano de’ Medici himself.  In 1475, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Giuliano’s elder brother, organised a jousting tournament to celebrate a treaty with Venice. It was reported that at this tournament Giuliano had entered it carrying a banner, which had been painted by Botticelli, and on which was a picture of Simonetta depicted as wearing the helmet of the Greek goddess of war,  Pallas Athene and beneath the portrait were the French words La Sans Pareille (The unparalleled one).  Giuliano won the tournament and at the same time, Simonetta was nominated the “The Queen of Beauty”.  It was following this that she was looked upon as the most beautiful woman of the Renaissance.

So what was Giuliano’s relationship with the married Simonetta?  Were they lovers or was it a platonic relationship?  The question has divided historians over the years and probably we will never know the truth.  Whatever the answer is the relationship was short lived as Simonetta died of tuberculosis on April 26th 1476, a year after the jousting tournament.  She was only twenty-two years of age.  On the day of her funeral, the city of Florence came to a stand-still as thousands of mourners attended the funeral.  Ironically, Giuliano de Medici was assassinated exactly two years to the day on 26 April 1478 in the Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, by Francesco de’ Pazzi and Bernardo Bandini. He was killed by a sword wound to the head and was stabbed 19 times.

The figure of Mars in the painting is depicted in a traditional classical God-like way, unlike the way in which Botticelli has portrayed Venus as a contemporary woman with a contemporary hair-style dressed in her contemporary clothes.  His body is one of a well-toned athlete and was similar to those classical paintings and sculptures of the young Gods.  The whiteness of his skin reminds us of the white marble sculptures of ancient times.  But who is this Mars?  If we believe that Venus is Simonetta Vespucci, then should we believe that this reclining man is her husband or should we believe that in fact it is her “close friend”,  possibly her lover, Giuliano de’ Medici?  The figure in the painting has a long nose and deep-set eyes and they resemble the ones in his portrait which Botticelli completed of Giuliano around 1477.  As we know from mythological tales Mars was the lover of the already married Venus so are we to deduce that Botticelli had wanted to similarly portray Giuliano de’ Medici and the already married Simonetta as a comparison?

Look at the way Botticelli has portrayed the two characters.  The man lies back exhausted but the woman sits upright and looks quite composed.  Who has initiated the bout of love-making?  Who is the giver and who is the receiver?  I believe in this painting, Botticelli has given the power to the female.  She looks at the man with little emotion.  Maybe she is reflecting on the power she has over him.  The woman seems totally in command of the situation whereas the man appears worn out after what could have been a bout of love-making.  Is this a scene of male-female role-reversal in which the female has seduced the male, drained him of his vitality and in some ways neutralised him and now studies her conquest?

I am a great fan of Botticelli especially in his portrayal of women.  They must be some of the most beautiful ever painted.

I started this blog saying I would keep it concise and not too technical but the more I investigated the painting and its symbolism the more I got carried away with the subject.  More has been written about the painting by more knowledgeable people than me and if this blog has stimulated your mind and your thirst for knowledge about this work I suggest you visit some of the websites which discuss the work of art.  They are:

The autor of this site is by David Bellingham, of the Sotheby’s Institute of Art


The Three Pipe Problem, which is a truly amazing art blog and one i love to visit.  If you go to the “search facility” and insert “Venus and Mars” you will find some interesting articles about today’s painting.

The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello

Hunt in the forest by Paolo Uuccello (c.1470)

When I visited the Claude Lorrain exhibition at the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford last month,  I had time to look around their permanent collection of painting.  To my mind they have one of the best collections on offer with works from artists of different nationalities and from different eras.  I strongly recommend you visit this gallery for I know you will not be disappointed.

The painting I am featuring in today’s My Daily Art Display is one by Paolo Uccello entitled The Hunt in the Forest which he completed around 1470.  Hunting was a very popular pastime for the aristocracy in those days.  The depiction of hunting in art goes back to the Ancient Greeks when it can be seen on their tableware.  During the time of the Romans, many hunting scenes can be found on their sarcophagi and in Medieval times hunting scenes could be found in their manuscripts, wall paintings and tapestries.  There were many forms of hunting in the Medieval times, such as hunting with hawks, which took place mainly in the spring and summer and the boar and bear hunting which took place during winter.

Cassone (chest) with spalliera (backboard)
Cassone (chest) with spalliera (backboard)

It is believed that this work of art you see before you was a one-off painting and not part of a series.  It is of an unusual size, measuring 63cms tall x 165cms wide.  With those dimensions it could well have been intended for the front panel of a cassone, a Renaissance marriage chest or a spalliera, the back of a Tuscan bench or settle, or the headboard or footboard of a bed.  The spalliera paintings were very popular at the time this painting was completed.  Therefore we are probably safe to assume that this work was painted for a wealthy family to be seen by guests as they entered the house and went into the camera, the reception room which was also often the bedroom, where the spalliera or cassone would be in pride of place.

 So what do we see before us?  Is it a painting of a real hunt or is it an imaginary scene?  Art historians tend to believe the latter is correct as hunts such as these would have had a number of different species of dogs each trained to carry out a specific task in the hunt.  There would be dogs which were good at following scents.  There would be another species of dog which were fast running and capable of catching and bringing their quarry to ground.   In this painting we only have the one type of dog.   In the painting we also only see one type of deer, the roebuck, and that would be unlikely to be the case in a real hunt.  The setting for the hunt is also very questionable.  The scene is dark and it appears that the hunt is taking place at twilight or during the night and this is not the normal time of day set aside for hunting.  Hunting, especially in forests, would normally take place during the day when the maximum amount of sunlight can filter through the trees.

The view we have before us is also one of organised chaos !  The hunters seem to be converging upon each other from two sides while the dogs and the hunted animals seem to be disappearing into the central distance.  There seems to be no attempt by the hunters to enact a carefully co-ordinated plan to capture their prey.

I love the vibrant colours in this painting.  Look how Uccello has given the leaves on the trees golden highlights.  I love the bright livery of the horses and the colourful clothing of the aristocratic hunters atop their horses, ably being assisted by the beaters.  On the livery of the horses we see many examples of a golden crescent moon emblem which could be a sort of homage to Diana the Roman goddess of hunting (Artemis the Greek goddess of hunting) who was often seen wearing a crown shaped as a crescent moon.

The aristocracy liked to have hunting scenes adorning the walls of their mansions.  Hunting, in some way, like chivalric jousting tournaments, was akin to battle and those taking part in such events were looked upon as being fearless and athletic.  Men who organised such hunts (maybe not in this case!) were looked upon as being tactically astute and great leaders and just the qualities which were needed for those who were to lead armies into battle.  In those days hunting was a very prestigious pastime and strangely, sometimes looked upon as an allegory of love.

The one question, which has yet to be answered and one can only guess at it, is who commissioned Uccello to carry out this work.  We know that this was Uccello’s last major painting before he died in Florence in 1475 and historians think the painting was completed around about 1470.  Art historians have come up with a couple of ideas but none our conclusive.  I have already mentioned the crescent moon emblems on the horses livery and as well as being associated with Diana they were also the emblem of the Strozzi family.  The Strozzi clan were an ancient and noble Florentine family who played an important part in the public life of Florence and this painting may have been commissioned by one of them.  The other possibility was that Uccello painted this picture whilst he was still living in Urbino and before he returned to Florence.  We know that he was in Urbino from 1465 to 1469 and if that was the case he could well have been commissioned by his patron, the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro whose palace was full of works of art.

This is undoubtedly a masterpiece and as we look at the painting we can almost hear the noise made by the hunters crashing through the undergrowth and the baying of their animals as they chase after their unfortunate quarry.  It is an exciting painting full of vitality and colour.  The artist encourages us to stare into the depth of the forest and our eyes alight on Uccello’s distant vanishing point in the central background but no sooner do we stare into the distance than our eyes dart back to the foreground, seduced by the colours and the rhythm of the hunt. 

I just love this work and it is even better to stand in front of the original.

Lot and his Daughters by Lucas Cranach the Elder

Lot and his Daughters by Lucas Cranach the Elder (C.1530)

My Daily Art Display today starts with a passage from the Bible.  It is from the book of Genesis (19: 30-38) and tells the story of Lot and his two daughters who we see in the painting above, entitled Lot and his Daughters which was painted by the great German Renaissance painter,  Lucas Cranach the Elder around 1530.  The Bible passage sets the scene:

30 Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. 31 One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to give us children—as is the custom all over the earth. 32 Let’s get our father to drink wine and then sleep with him and preserve our family line through our father.”

33 That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and slept with him. He was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

34 The next day the older daughter said to the younger, “Last night I slept with my father. Let’s get him to drink wine again tonight, and you go in and sleep with him so we can preserve our family line through our father.” 35 So they got their father to drink wine that night also, and the younger daughter went in and slept with him. Again he was not aware of it when she lay down or when she got up.

36 So both of Lot’s daughters became pregnant by their father. 37 The older daughter had a son, and she named him Moab; he is the father of the Moabites of today. 38 The younger daughter also had a son, and she named him Ben-Ammi ; he is the father of the Ammonites of today.

Not being a reader of the Bible, nor being particularly religious, I was surprised to read the passage from Genesis, as on first seeing the painting, which is housed at Compton Verney in Warwickshire, I believed it to be simply a picture of two girls, one comforting a tired-looking old man whilst the other was bringing him something to drink.

It is known that Lucas Cranach the Elder painted this Old Testament subject on  at least four occasions and many other artists have depicted this same story in their paintings.  The early part of Chapter 19 of Genesis relates the story of how God destroyed the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which are shown in flames in the background of the painting.  To save the righteous people of the two cities, God sent down two angels to lead Lot, his wife Edith, his nephew Abraham and his family away from the doomed cities.  The two angels warned Lot that they should quickly escape but nobody should look back on the burning cities but as we know Lot’s wife did and was turned into a pillar of salt and we see the grey pillar of salt in the right middle-ground of the painting.

In the foreground we have Lot on one knee his arms resting on the knees of one of his daughters, who rests her hand on his head, trying to console him after the loss of his wife.  As the biblical tale tells us the daughters, Pheiné and Thamma, fearing that with the destruction of all the people of the city they will not have the chance to bear children and their father will thus never have a male heir.  With that in mind they decide that their father should make them pregnant and so on two consecutive nights they got Lot drunk and had him make love to them.  The daughters became pregnant and each had a son, Moab and Benammi.

This is really a story of two females taking decisions about their own destiny rather than leaving it to a male to decide what should happen to them and their lives.  Stories of female domination over men were very popular in the late Middle Ages and could not only be seen in paintings, but could be read about in literature, and words of songs and plays of the time.

I am a great fan of both Cranach the Elder and his son Lucas Cranach the Younger and find their paintings

Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Netherlandish Proverbs by Peter Bruegel the Elder

I have a large framed print of this painting on my dining room wall and it is often the subject of many conversations of the diners sat around the table. I saw the original painting when I visited the Staatliche Museen in Berlin many years ago and was fascinated by the amount of activity going on within the painting.   Along with the print of the painting which I bought there was a small black and white copy of the picture on which the various parts of the scene were numbered so that one could look along the corresponding number on a list of proverbs the painting was depicting. This has been a God-send when viewers of my print have tried to work out the possible meanings of the various scenes.
The painting depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish proverbs some of which are not in use any more or have somewhat lost their meaning when translated into English.  More than a hundred proverbs and idiomatic expressions have been identified describing “topsy-turvy” ways of behaviour.   This explains the other name occasionally given the painting, that of The Topsy-Turvy World.