Allegorical Alignments and Affinities-
Updated: Jan 5
An essay on the ancient painter Apelles and his followers- Brian Keeler
The stuff of legend, high drama with the men and women of destiny- it is all part of the mix with this story where art history and world history intersect. The painter of the mistress of Alexander the Great, the conqueror of the ancient world is the inspiration for this essay. He was also the painter of the first vision of Venus on a half shell and other works that have fascinated artists and writers for centuries. I am referring to the almost mythic, if not heroic status of Apelles of Kos. Yes, not exactly a a well-known figure.
He became of interest to me via the work of Botticelli, namely through the Florentine’s painting titled, The Calumny of Apelles, which I saw first at a special exhibit at the Strozzi Palace in Florence about 15 years ago. This rather small tempera painting was the last of Botticelli’s mythological works and its allegorical nature reflects the social, political and religious milieu of his own time. The painting is particularly reflective of the fraught era in Florence at the end of the 15th century when the penitential Dominican friar, Savonarola was at his most strident and visible. There is personal relevance to Botticelli’s life as well.
The painting of Botticelli’s was based very closely to the written description by the ancient Roman author, Pliny the Younger, who apparently had seen the original, which is now lost. This in turn was popularized in a book published in the mid-quatrocento by Leon Battista Alberti in his work titled, Della Pictura or On Painting. This prescriptive book was compiled in part as a how-to-manual for artists of the day and Botticelli drew inspiration from it for many of his works.
Writers often write with other authors in mind and painters and sculptors often do the same to honor and pay homage to their ancestors in art. So this is the case here and by turns I have taken inspiration to create a new canvas of this lineage. This process can be an experience which is a mix of humbling, reverential reveling, inspiring and intellectually stimulating.
The intrigue of the original is a good starting point. Apelles was apparently accused of aiding the King of Egypt in some way by a rival painter, Antipholos. Eventually cleared of the charge, it was no doubt a harrowing experience as his life was on the line. Similarly, Botticelli was accused of sodomy in Florence prior to painting this work of 1496. Leonardo was also similarly accused in the system of anonymous tips several years before and spent weeks in the jail called the Bargello.
There's a wonderful new book out on Botticelli by Ana Debenedetti titled simply, " Botticelli, Artist and Designer." It is a fascinating account by a scholar who is really a fan of his work. She brings out aspects of the Calumny that are worth considering. Debenedetti believes the work was inspired in part by street theatre in Florence, hence the frieze like composition as if on a stage. Here's a passage in regards to this painting;
"The main scene was probably fresh in everybody's mind at the time, since a "triumph" trinofo- that is, a pageantry procession of floats elaborately decorated with figures- based on Lucian's story was performed in the streets of Florence in 1491. The triumph was accompanied by a canto carnascialesco, a descriptive poem titled the Triumph of Calumny, (Triofo del Calumny), written by Bernardo Rucellai, Lorenzo's brother-in-law."
Further adding to the complexity of the narrative of the painting and of the fraught times in Florence were the divisive and dangerous attitudes that prevailed. For starters, Savonarola created several bonfires of the vanities where artists and collectors were coerced by the rhetoric in fiery pulpit sermons to throw all their paintings of nudes, along with books of suspect themes and images of pagan antiquity into the conflagration in Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Reportedly Botticelli was caught up in the conflict and began to doubt his previous artistic efforts.
So with this version of this theme that I’ve just painted, I have presented the drama as a diptych or two-paneled version. Why? I just like the format of several panels and it relates to the altar paintings of the Renaissance, which were also done as triptychs, diptychs or polyptychs. There was also the practical reason of ease of moving two smaller works. But also, the division shows the two aspects of the narrative more deliberately. In Renaissance times the left panel was referred to as the sinistra or sinister and the right, the derecha or virtuous. Those bifurcations don’t apply here, but it is interesting to consider. But the actors in this work are split into the accused on the left and judge on the right. The manner in which the models were staged influenced the diptych format as well- they were photographed in two separate groups, which naturally suggested the two-panel approach.
Here is the description of the various personages represented: King Midas sits on the throne in yellow with his hand outstretched pointing toward “Innocence” the accused youth being drug by the hair. Midas has the long ears of an ass as he is being whispered to by ignorance and envy. They are whispering the calumnies and apparently bending his ear to the libelous accusations. What the accusations are exactly is open-ended or not defined.
The youth is being drug by the hair by a woman who is a personification of Slander or Calumny, depicted here in my version by a woman in blue with a rose. In Botticelli’s version she is holding a torch to suggest how fast lies can travel, like a raging brush fire or at the speed of light. The woman behind her is a personification of fraud who arranges her co-conspirators hair with a rose. “The Ruse of the Roses” is one working title for this work. The roses are usually thought to represent love, but in this case they are a deception or a ruse. Slander, the woman in Apelles painting was described by Pliny a beautiful beyond all measure.
The bearded male figure on the left (of the right panel) represents Envy. I consider him the executioner who will do the ghastly deed of killing the innocent, if so directed by Midas. On the far left, is a personification of the “Naked Truth” the woman raising her hand in a gesture of proclamation. This figure is reminiscent of the pose used for a male figure in Botticelli’s other famous work, The Primavera. In that painting the God Mercury is raising a caduceus to clear the clouds and the intellect.
So, as you can see, the narrative is complex and pertinent to various times. Is it relevant to today’s political or spiritual climate? We don’t have to look too far back to see how deception, denial, calumny, and obfuscation on a grand scale were all hallmarks of the previous administration. The dovetailing of culture wars, evangelical support and investment in an obviously feckless and scabrous president serves to remind us of the recurrence and relevance of these issues. There have been no book burnings in recent years here in America yet, at least.
There is a convex mirror on the wall of this painting of mine that has a correspondence to the renaissance and later to the Pre Raphaelites of the 19thcentury. The device or inclusion of the mirror was used by Van Eyck in his famous painting known as the Arnolfini Bride. The knowledge of Van Eyck’s work was known to some Italian artists of the era. And it is mentioned that a similar work, now lost, was viewed by Piero della Francesca, a Tuscan painter of the mid-quatrocento. So I like the suggestions and overtones of this inclusion.
Also, this work is conceived as a possible inclusion for a novel that I have in mind of a painter from Italy of the Renaissance era. So that aspect of the mirror and the influence between artists of the Low Countries and their counterparts in Italy is a fascinating one.
The models were dressed in what we considered garments somewhat resembling Renaissance fare, or that were at least non-specific to our era. The modeling session for this work and several other paintings was done here at our 19th century house in Ithaca. The models were wonderful and assumed the spirit of the painting nicely. It was truly a collaborative effort, with Linda, my partner supplying the garments and the models bringing some of their own clothes.
Then there is the connection of Rembrandt’s late works that adds even more fascination to the Apelles connections. Scholars have compared Rembrandt’s late brushy and soft focus works with a limited palette to that of the ancient Greeks. Specifically The Night Watch, The Kitchen Maid and especially his Self portrait as Zeuxis Laughing, but also the Frick Self Portrait. All of these are tour-de-force displays of bravado brush wielding while portraying the depths of human character. So Rembrandt comparing himself to Apelles and Zeuxis is telling in a number of ways.
Zeuxis was another ancient Greek painter who excelled in some of the things that Rembrandt became known for, namely portrayal of light and for his portrayal of the nude. The ideal form of the nude was the aspect of Zeuxis work that differed from Rembrandt’s reveling in the common and uniquely human. Zeuxis was concerned with the ideal of beauty and reportedly painted a depiction of Helen of Troy by combining the physical attributes of several models.
The following is a quote from a poet of Rembrandt’s time, Jeremias de Decker from 1666.
So great was the pride of the great Alexander in times past that no one was allowed to paint his portrait save Apelles; Apelles and no one else he asked to perform this task. His vanity would not permit a lesser brush to be involved. I feel no such proud spirit running through me, nor is my breast so swollen and yet it pleases me (I don’t seek to deny it) and arouses my wonder, to see my being drawn across a flat panel, by the Apelles of our time: and this not to derive an income, but simply as a favor.
— Jeremias de Decker (Excerpt from the poem An Expression of gratitude to the Excellent and Widely Renowned Rembrandt van Rijn)
The truly remarkable aspect of this Rembrandt connection is that the stylistic or even the mediums of these disparate ages seem so unlike one another; fresco wall paintings of the ancients are a world apart in appearance from the oil paintings of later eras.. All the more reason to speculate on what the paintings of Apelles and Zeuxis actually looked like. Many of us are familiar with the frescoes of Pompeii or even of Knossos on Crete, which might be the closest in time to Apelles’ work. And the fresco technique of those artists just does not lend itself to bravura and spontaneity of expression.
So these lines of influence and affinity from Zeuxis to Apelles to Botticelli and on to Rembrandt and even to artists of our period are fascinating. The Rembrandt aspect with limited palette and dynamic application of paint is the clincher for me as it suggests an appreciation and a painterly practice that bridges the millennia. `