A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph, by Piero di Cosimo, 1495
This is a modern looking painting from over five hundred years ago. It is more surrealist than Renaissance in style, by an artist that had the dubious misfortune of having Vasari, the Florentine art biographer and gossip columnist, record his lurid life story from anecdotes. It’s a painting that has attracted all sorts of interpretations, from medical practioners to historians of alchemy, and art historians.
At a literal level it is about love and loss.
A woman lies amongst the flowers, possibly dead, displaying wounds to her hand, wrist and throat. A man, half human half animal (faun) kneels over her, apparently mourning; while a dog sits at her feet, also in mourning. In the background are other creatures, including more dogs with birds on the water and shore.
The subject matter is probably drawn from ancient legends about the death of Procris: in Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', Procris is described as being killed in error by her husband, Cephalus, to whom she had given a magical dog and a spear.
At its core is a sad story of how mistrust and jealousy destroyed the happiness of the newly married couple. The story goes that Procris followed her husband out hunting and secretly spied on him from behind a bush – and was fatally wounded by the spear thrown by Cephalus at what he thought was an animal.
The first thing that strikes us about this painting is its size - measuring 185cms in length and only 65cms high. This means it 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. In the gallery the piece is placed above a cassone. Alternatively, the piece could have been used in part of the bed furniture. (IKEA, flat packs come to mind)
The painting is dominated by the couple, both painted in careful detail. The male figure is half man, half wild creature but shown with a great deal of sensitivity. The details of his hair and beard are carefully painted while he has an intense expression of tender concern. The woman lies in a position that suggests she is dead or close to death.
The painting is big on nature. It shows a beautiful sky and distant mountains behind an estuary, with boats and cranes in flight and on the ground. 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. The flowers are so detailed they look as if they could have come out of a botanist’s guide.
It is worth stressing that art historians have pointed out the many irregularities with Cosimo’s painting; if it was supposed to be a retelling of the Ovid tale, there was no satyr. 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.
Turning to the dogs there are some interesting features. The brown dog standing guard over the woman is shown twice: it sits next to the nymph and it is also seen standing on its four legs at the back in a group of three dogs. The legs of these dogs (shown to us) number two (the white dog), three (the tired black dog) and four (the energetic brown dog). This might allude to the puzzle of the Sphinx from "Oedipus Rex:” Which animal has four legs in the morning, two at midday, and three in the evening? The answer, of course, is a man. Thereby the three dogs allude to a human life that unfolded in the background and presently came to an end. The fourth dog is the dog of death and rebirth which closes the cycle.
The pelican which is a symbol of the atonement and the Redeemer tells the same story. It was supposed to wound itself in order to feed its young with its blood and to bring to life those who were dead.
The flying birds (the departing soul?), the sea, the merchant ships mooring in the bay, the winding road - are all allusions to the perilous journey through life and its inevitable end. The doleful dog is a symbol of vigilance, companionship, faithfulness; of eternal loyalty to the departed.
Interpreting this painting has become something of an industry.
Considering the alchemist background of Cosimo Rosselli (the painter's teacher and father-in-law), it has been suggested that the painting can be explained in terms of the pictorial language of alchemy.
When we think of alchemy today, we usually associate the word with an esoteric, quasi-mystical but deluded search for deep secrets; or, alternatively, with fraudulent get-rich-quick schemes. Of course, both were part of the world of Renaissance alchemy. But alchemy was just as likely to have had a strictly practical, utilitarian orientation. We shouldn’t forget that this was a world where the next devastating plague was just a flea bite away; when patients were bled; when charlatans sold their wares in the streets; and when one could buy a ticket to view a public dissection of a human body.
Seen through the eyes of an alchemist, this painting signifies victory over death – under the watchful eyes of the God Hermes Trismegistos and with the force of the wild man. It could have hung in an alchemist's study. In order to communicate their secret knowledge they used symbolic images borrowed from classical mythology.
According to this theory, the dog (whose form is visually echoed by three other dogs in the background) represents none other than Hermes Trismegistos who was the God of maths, writing and alchemy. Some believed he was a real person, others a God. In the Renaissance period it was believed that he was a contemporary of Moses. His writings known as Hermetics were well known in Florence in the period Cosimo painted, and particularly popular among those following alchemy.
This link between the painting and alchemy is further suggested by the tree shown growing over Procris's breast symbolising the arbor philosophica or the philosophers tree. The red-and-gold veil of the victim is seen as symbolic of the "red-hot" philosopher's stone, and the entire composition allegedly represents the alchemist's longed-for victory over death. Also Procris’s position in the painting bears similarities with illustrations found in the 15th century on the last page of alchemical treatises.
What is without doubt is that Cosimo was concerned with the environment. In his day most urban people had a functional relationship with the countryside; either as a source of food or a place to look at from afar. In many ways his painting of animals and plants were given more attention than the people. His attention to detail is amazing and gives the entire painting a somewhat surrealist feel. Cosimo was fascinated by an animal level of existence as reflected in his own life style. This is linked to the alchemists, who it is believed should live a covert life, obsessed with fire and looking for the magical elixir to turn base metals into gold. All died in poverty as indeed did Cosimo.
Who paid for picture?
This piece was probably privately commissioned by a well- off Florentine patron and would likely have been hung in a private room, probably a bedroom from the subject matter.
The patron may have wanted to feature the dog as this was similar to Egyptian tomb paintings where the god Anubis (a jackal) guards many of the funerary monuments.
Fascinating Facts About Cosimo
Drawing of Cosimo from Vasari's The Lives of the Most Celebrated Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1550
Born in Florence in 1461.
He was known as an idiosyncratic and imaginative painter. Vasari says he was drawn towards animals and plants. He loved to paint sea monsters, dragons, and the macabre is evident in many of his paintings and drawings.
He was an eccentric with a bohemian lifestyle. According to Vasari, he refused to have his house cleaned and subsisted on eggs, which he cooked fifty at a time when he boiled glue. He could not stand babies crying, men coughing, bells ringing, or friars chanting. But he doted on animals, accurately rendering many of them in his work, including a giraffe. (A gift from the Sultan of Egypt to Florence’s ruler, Lorenzo de’ Medici, the stately creature perished after banging its head on a low doorway.)
The son of a toolmaker and the student of the painter, Cosimo Rosselli whose name he adopted, Piero seemed to have strayed from Florence only once, to assist his teacher on frescoes in Rome.
He was something of a pioneer in the development of evocative Italian landscapes. Vasari says Piero travelled to Rome in 1481-2 with Rosselli to work on three frescoes commissioned for the Sistine Chapel. Piero probably painted the landscape for the 'Sermon on the Mount'. (Piero did no further fresco work, favouring oils on wood, sometimes manipulating them with his fingers.)
In about 1487 Cosimo received a commission from Francesco del Pugliese for decorations in his new palace. The pictures were probably friezes above wainscoting, and the National Gallery's 'Lapiths and Centaurs' may have been part of this cycle.
Cosmio wasn’t just a painter; he was a brilliant carnival designer who would have been a top candidate for an Olympics opening ceremony. His displays made him a mega star in Florence and a firm favourite of the Medici family. For the carnival of 1511 a contemporary witness claims the whole city was filled with terror and wonder. Over a chariot was a huge figure of Death, scythe in hand, and around the chariot were covered tombs. When the procession stopped the tombs opened, skeletons leapt out and sang.
Piero regarded public execution as an enviable way to die—under an open sky, with a big audience.
In later life he became increasingly reclusive, and dismissed despite the quality of his work.
He died in 1522.
Martyrdom of St. Claire (1524), fresco in Oratory Suardi in Trescore
Venetian art dealer, 1527