- The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods
This book is most valuable for its overview of a vast field — the reception of classical mythology throughout European art and literature from the fourteenth [End Page 239] through the seventeenth centuries. It surveys the literary sources that spurred the revival of interest in the pagan gods and categorizes the types of artistic objects — domestic furnishings, painting, sculpture, prints, tapestries, manuscripts, and majolica — where their images appeared. Bull concludes that Hercules, Jupiter, Venus, Bacchus, Diana, and Apollo were the most frequently depicted, and accordingly devotes a chapter to each. The final chapter analyzes the selection pattern, attributing it to individual choices of patrons interested in astrology, and hence planetary deities, and in subject matter involving amorous encounters or exotic animals. The epilogue explains the thematic distribution in terms of mythology supplying what Christianity eschewed, an imagery of sexuality, fertility, and secular power. An appendix of the principal illustrated translations of Ovid's Metamorphoses follows. Medieval and Renaissance vernacular editions and paraphrases of the Metamorphoses, the major source for tales about the loves of the gods, had transformed Ovid's erotic text into allegorized versions of Christian moral exempla. These often-illustrated intermediary manuscripts and printed editions, rather than the ancient Greek and Latin texts that fascinated humanists, inspired the revival of imagery featuring the pagan gods.
His large scope allows Bull to make a number of interesting general observations. He frames his remarks about mythological art in the Renaissance and Baroque periods by contrast with its Greco-Roman origins to underscore the very different circumstances in the later epoch, where no one believed in the pagan gods and very little precise information survived about their imagery's ritual use and display. He corroborates the prevailing assumptions that mythological imagery emerged in the visual arts of fifteenth-century Italy and did not derive from recovered examples of ancient art, even though the vogue for collecting them that then emerged promoted the spread of mythological [End Page 240] imagery. He validates the corollary of this assumption: that instead the printing of illustrated vernacular, moralized versions of Ovid's Metamorphoses and other medieval mythographies inspired the revival instead.
Bull contends that mythological visual imagery appeared mostly in what he characterizes as secondary locations: domestic furnishings such as marriage chests, majolica, birth trays, and small boxes for jewelry and other precious objects, temporary decorations for festivals or triumphal entries, prints, and sculptures for fountains and gardens. He argues that primary sites like monumental narrative paintings were more usually illustrations of Apuleius's Golden Ass, the source for the first major mythological cycle at the Villa Farnesina in Rome, or of ekphrastic descriptions by Philostratus and Lucian of Greek paintings. As Bull notes, artists as well as patrons were intrigued by painted recreations of literary descriptions of ancient works of art because they established the credentials of both as admirers and rivals of their counterparts in antiquity. In his view, religious authorities, even during the Counter-Reformation, were mainly concerned with keeping mythological imagery in its place — that is, in the private sphere — rather than in suppressing it altogether.
He reinforces earlier research on the iconography of specific monarchs such as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, to generalize that the spread of mythological imagery in the sixteenth century occurred with the realization of temporal rulers that their power could be effectively promoted through association with pagan gods such as Jupiter. This political application of mythological themes led to their migration into prestigious contexts such as large-scale wall and ceiling paintings in the state apartments of princes throughout seventeenth-century Europe.
The wide lens through which Bull considers the Renaissance and Baroque revival of pagan mythology means that his conclusions are not necessarily pertinent or reliable in individual cases. In addition to enjoying the Olympian perspective Bull's range provides, readers will profit from the separate analyses of...