Saturday, 27 June 2015


20 June – 18 October 2015
Scottish National Gallery (Lower Level)
The Mound, Edinburgh EH2 2EL
Admission free

The powerful fascination with ancient pagan myths that fired the imagination of artists in the Renaissance will be explored in a new exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery this summer. The Olympian Gods: European Prints of the Renaissance will bring together a vivid and vigorous collection of works – many of which have never been on public display before – which charts the depiction of Greek and Roman gods in the sixteenth century.

Drawn from the Gallery’s outstanding collection, the works on show will include Hendrick Goltzius’ striking woodcut Hercules and Cacus (1588) and a beautiful engraving on paper made after Michelangelo’s renowned, and sadly lost, painting of Leda and the Swan.

Divided into three sections, the exhibition will begin by exploring the various types of print – most commonly engravings, etching and woodcuts – employed by artists in the period. The second will detail the rich web of myths that were told about the pantheon of gods and demi-gods, and their exploits, while the third will explore the ways in which these were transformed into allegories of psychological and natural phenomena.

In the Renaissance educated individuals were steeped in the culture of the ancient Roman-Greco world. This ensured a large audience for representations of the pagan gods, and print provided the perfect vehicle for the diffusion of these striking images.

Free from the dogmas and traditions that constrained Christian religious imagery, artists began to develop entirely new compositions, with the subjects encouraging invention and experimentation.

From the late fifteenth century, the pagan deities began to appear in diverse contexts, such as book illustrations, ornament prints aimed at craftsmen and historical and mythological subject-prints.

Themes of humour and eroticism often found in the extremely entertaining stories of the gods regularly appeared in Renaissance prints. Stories such as Leda and the Swan in which Zeus, the king of the gods, appears in the guise of a swan in order to seduce Leda, the wife of the king of Sparta, allowed artists to explore their fascination with sexuality.

Violence also pervades such works. One highlight of the exhibition is Cornelis Cort’s highly violent depiction of the titan Prometheus, completed in 1566. The great Venetian painter Titian had imagined the tormented body of the giant Prometheus writhing in terrible pain on the summit of Mount Caucusus as his liver was being eaten by an eagle (a punishment for stealing fire from the gods). Titian collaborated with the Flemish engraver Cornelis Cort, who cut the copper plate to make the image into a print that was meant to provoke a frisson of terror in the viewer and could be widely sold.

In the exquisite Hercules and Cacus Goltzius – one of the outstanding figures in Dutch art in the late sixteenth century – used several contrasting woodblocks to create the first colour prints, which also made powerful use of light and dark. According to The Aeneid, an epic poem by the Roman author Virgil, Hercules strangled the fire-breathing monster Cacus, but Goltzius has invented his own climax, showing the muscle-bound hero about to club his opponent.

Renaissance printmakers also explored ideas about human behaviour, nature and the cosmos, with all three evident in the tumultuous print The Shipwreck of Aeneas, created about 1540, by an unknown artist. It’s a harrowing and dramatic depiction of warfare as man yields to the power of both deity and nature.

Running for four months until 18 October, the exhibition celebrates the Renaissance’s innovative and technically-dexterous depictions of the Pagan mythology. It has been curated by Michael Bury, Honorary Fellow at Edinburgh University, an expert on Italian prints and a long-standing volunteer in the National Galleries of Scotland’s Print Room.


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