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Hercules belegerd door de Pygmeeën, schilderijen van Jan van Scorel en Frans Floris naar een Icon van Philostratus

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image of Oud Holland - Quarterly for Dutch Art History

A lost painting by Jan van Scorel (1495-1562), Hercules besieged by the Pygmies, is reconstructed with the aid of epigrams by the brothers Nicolaus Grudius Nicolai ( 1504-70) and Hadrianus Marius Nicolai (1509-68) (see Note 1 and Appendix B) . The epigrams themselves are based on an Icon by the 2nd-century Greek writer Philostratus (see Appendix A). Van Scorel's painting gives a full representation of Philostratus' Icon, as does a painting by Frans Floris (1519/2O-70), now known from an engraving in reverse of 1563 by Cornelis Cort (Note 2). The famous member of the Nicolai family is a third brother, the Latin poet Janus Secundus (1511-36), but Grudius and Marius were good poets too. Van Scorel will have painted the Hercules picture for the collection of Grudius himself, who was a man of wealth and standing until 1554. After that he became involved in the financial scandal attendant on the reclamation of De Zijpe near Schoorl initiated by his friend, and was forced to flee in 1561, dying in penury in Venice in 1570 (Note 3). Van Scorel also painted two portraits of Secundus (Note 4), while Marius wrote epigrams on two pictures by Van Scorel. All these paintings are now lost (Note 5). Philostratus' descriptions convey much more than can ever been seen in a picture. Such descriptions were common in Antiquity (Note 7). In Grudius' epigram the actual description starts half way through the poem: Hercules was shown asleep on a green sward, while the dead Antaeus lay on yellow sand. Sleep is fanning the hero with his dark blue wings, his nebulous body veiled by a black robe. The Pygmies, of youthful appearance and in countless numbers, took advantage of Hercules' sleep to overcome him. Some tried to roll away his club, a scene shown in the foreground. Since Hercules will have had his club in his right hand, he must have lain with his head to the left and Antaeus with his to the right, i.e. the picture will have had the same composition as that by Floris (Fig. 5). It seems, then, that Grudius provided the scholarly initiative behind Van Scorel's painting, while Floris drew his inspiration either from the epigram or from the picture. Grudius knew Floris and wrote an epigram on a painting by him too (Note 8). Philostratus describes the Pygmies' attack as a well organized siege, but Van Scorel's painting showed, according to Grudius and Marius, an attack by unthinking, cowardly youth with no king to lead them; the Pygmies are as nervous as when the cranes, the 'birds of Palamedes', attack their country and destroy their harvest. The moral turns on Hercules' situation and is a warning never to rest on one's laurels. The combination of illustration with moralistic epigram derives from the emblem Hercules besieged by Pygmies by Alciati. His moral is directed to the Pygmies, 'who venture on something beyond their powers'. It could be more specifically related to the poor who rise against the powerful, or to fools who try to defame the reputation of the learned (Note 11). In the 1534 woodcut (Fig. 1), in which Hercules figures twice, he appears to let the Pygmies have their way. This momentarily good-natured aspect was imitated by Dosso and Battista Dossi in a painting made in about 1540 during the reign of Ercole 11 of Ferrara (Fig. 2, Note 12). Hercules exhibits the features of Ercole as the clement ruler, while the Pygmies, in contemporary costume, behave like harmless fools. Alciati taught in Ferrara from 1542 to 1546 and it will have been these Pygmies that inspired him to have depicted them as lansquenets in the new edition of his Emblemata published in Lyon in 1548 (Fig. 3, Note 13). In 1552 Lucas Cranach the Younger made two paintings on the subject on the basis of this woodcut (Note 14). Floris and Van Scorel were the only artists to follow Philostratus fully by including Antaeus and Sleep. Like Floris, Van Scorel will presumably have shown the Pygmies as small naked men rather than as misshapen dwarves. Some influence from Alciati's emblems can be detected: both painters show the rolling away of the club, an incident which can be detected in the 1534 woodcut, while Floris' painting has the tree in common with that of 1548. Grudius' poem shows the Pygmies in the usual unfavourable light, but his Hercules too falls prey to a moment of weakness. Grudius compares Hercules in this respect with Polyphemus. Such a comparison is also drawn in the emblem on Polyphemus in Sambucus' Emblemata, published in Antwerp in 1564 (Fig. 4, Note 15), where the text reveals that Hercules and Polyphemus stand for the good and the bad ruler. Grudius' comparison makes it clear how seriously Hercules' lapse must be taken. In Van Scorels case we have the meaning, but not the picture, in that of Floris, we know the painting, but not yet the detailed meaning. The engraving (Fig. 5) shows the beginning and end of the story as well as the main episode. Sleep here reveals himself by his bat wings and the strange snake growing out of one of them, cf. Floris' Battle against the Rebel Angels for a similar motif (Note 16). He is the Devil in disguise. Hercules lies in the seductive pose of Ariadne, or rather of Endymion visited by Sleep, as seen on a Roman sarcophagus (Fig. 6), which Floris could have studied while in Rome (Note 17). The tree under which Hercules lies has bare branches, while the part above his head looks like the head of an adder, symbols of his sinister situation. Antaeus lies with his arm on a root near a hollow tree from which a new shoot is sprouting, for Hercules has not conquered e v ilf or ever. Floris' Pygmies are naked, but they are not all youthful, like Van Scorel's. Nor are they all rash and unthinking. Admittedly one group swarming out of caves at bottom right and centre are foolishly trying to roll away the club with their bare hands and one is about to throw a stone, but the king leading out his orderly army appears to come from a well-run country, while gesticulating Pygmy philosophers have wisely decided that it is better not to fight the hero at all.


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