Thursday, 31 May 2012

Piero di Cosimo : Satyr mourning death of a nymph - Art through Words at the National Gallery

Art Through Words is the National Gallery discussion for visually impaired people and is held on the last Saturday of the month.  I had missed the April talk as I was still in hospital and this was my first visit without a crutch in sight. A friend took me on the bus and we arranged to meet up after the talk and take in the Turner Inspired exhibition which closes next week.

The time before the meeting allows some chat between other visitors about other events. One had been to an event at Tate Britain and another to an early access to the Royal Academy.  We were welcomed by Linda Bolton who was assisting and Caroline Smith who had prepared the discussion.  Linda has written a piece for the blog and this post gets regular hits when searches are made for art and visually impaired subjects.  ( ) We were about 16 people and though the majority come from Greater London a couple had made the journey from Kettering.

The subject for the day was a painting on poplar wood by Piero di Cosimo which was made in 1495.  Caroline had prepared a reproduction of the work and the dimensions seemed strange on first viewing; our print is sized 63 cm by 21 cm.    The painting can be found on

Caroline went through the layout and geometry of the painting with key landmarks. A recently killed nymph is lying along the bulk of the bottom half.  She is flanked by a satyr (top half man, lower half goat) on the left and a dog on the right. Both satyr and dog take up most of the height of the painting and in turn they are framed by foliage almost in the manner of a book end. In the remaining top space there is a landscape of a meadow reaching down to an estuary with some blue mountains in the distance.

We discussed the mythology of the painting and how some Roman and Classical myths had been reworked into plays and also into art work for the popular private market (i.e. non-religious or state).  This piece was privately commissioned and would likely have been found in a private room, probably a bedroom from the subject matter  My impression of the dog reminded me of Egyptian tomb paintings where the god Anubis ( a jackal) guards many of the funerary monuments. Virgil’s tale of the Aeneid was continually being reworked and even some families claimed to be descended to Aeneas in much the same way as Julius Caesar had done.  Kings of England and France had sought to proclaim their status and descent in works they commissioned and I was reminded of a Bettany Hughes radio programme about the Medicis and some Florentine art being used in quite a utilitarian way. 

In the gallery the piece is placed above a “Cassone” or marriage chest (The Scots word kist) and this painting could well have been placed in a panel of such an object.   I was telling a friend about such chests and he said it was common to have a painting on the inside of the lid.  Alternatively, the piece could have been  used in part of the bed furniture. (IKEA, flat packs come to mind)

Caroline then produced enlargements of the sections of the painting to allow some with vision to see a bit more and expand the discussion.

The first expanded section showed the upper part of the dead nymph and the satyr is holding her left shoulder with his left hand while his right hand is touching her head.  Her left arm makes a V shape as it is bent at the elbow. The wound on her neck could be made out and the flow of blood has been commented on by surgeons who suggest that, by the blood flow, the subject must have been standing. Some suggestion of a tracheotomy was made and one of us mentioned diphtheria and a cure. I mentioned that one of my uncles had contracted croup as a 2 year old and had silver tubes inserted into his throat to improve breathing.  Piero is said to have known Leonardo and an exhibition of some of the Leonardo drawings on medical subjects is now on show at Buckingham Palace.  Was the nymph really dead and who killed her?  It was established that her clothing was dry and quickly we resembled a Crime Scene Investigation.   The enlargement also allowed more viewing of the plants in the meadow.

The second enlargement featured the landscape from the top segment of the painting.  This section is a beautiful composition in its own right.   Having been interested in Dutch paintings from the 17th Century, I find this section from the 15th century to be fascinating.  This shows a beautiful sky and distant mountains behind an estuary with boats and cranes in flight and on ground. More dogs can be found and I thought they were horses at first. These add-on dogs are not as well painted as the main dog guarding the satyr. Caroline explained that the workings of the chief dog had been exposed and that Piero had changed the profile of the head.  The jaw bone structure and facial features had been altered. 

I learned a lot from this talk. Some of the other participants are well versed in Vasari and the popular dramas at the end of the 15th Century.  On inspection of the painting in the gallery we were able to view a Cassone placed in front and discuss the craftsmanship at the time. 

Again many thanks to Caroline and Linda for bringing some art to us. 

More information about Piero di Cosimo can be found on the National Gallery website on:

The June 2012 Art through Words painting is Turner's  Ulysses deriding Polyphemus -