No Strings Attached: Emotional Interaction with Animated Sculptures of Crucified Christ

by Jonah Coman, University of St Andrews

Coman1In a manuscript in the National Library in Madrid, MS 3995 (c.15 C),[i] one can find one of the most bizarre depictions of human interactions with the crucifix. The miniature shows a kneeling Benedictine nun, her black and white robes flowing in front of her, calmly looking at a crucifix with her hands folded in prayer. From the textured wooden crucifix, an emaciated but smiling Christ has descended and stands on her ample habit, maybe even pinning it down. Both of his feet, and one of the hands, are pierced through with three massive iron nails, and all of his limbs are marked with the bleeding sores of crucifixion. His right hand hovers in front of the nun’s face, as if to show her from up close the bleeding wound left by the fourth nail in his palm. But that fourth nail is not affixed to his body anymore; in fact, the big iron peg is now stuck in the nun’s face, both ends visible on the surface of her cheeks. Is this a ‘compassio Christi’ gone remarkably literal?

The story accompanying it locates the event under the influence of English kings, at the (unidentified) Benedictine convent of Fontanblay.[ii] The nun kneeling was said to be of an unsurpassed beauty, and an equal devotion to her convent’s sculptures of Mary and Christ. Every time she would pass by the figures, she would kneel and greet them with an Ave and a cross. This nun nevertheless has captured the attentions of a young knight in the town, and she returned his affections. So much so, that she has planned to one day sneak out of the convent and run away with him; but in order to do that, she would have to go by the two sculptures she usually venerated. The nun, either still out of devotion, or so that she wouldn’t tip her sisters off, or still out of a quasi-animistic concern that she would tip off the statues themselves, went by and kneeled in front of the figures on her way out. At that point, Mary, who understood her intent, started scolding her, and Christ himself descended from the cross, removed one of his nails, and struck the nun with it across the face, so that it went through her cheeks. ‘After dealing the blow, Christ crucified returned to the cross just as he had been before, except that his right arm forever after remained in the position in which it had wounded the nun’. The modified position of the sculpture itself worked another miracle in the conversion of the knight, through visual confirmation if the truth: ‘When the knight heard about it, he could not believe it. To be sure he went to the convent to see what had happened. Once he has learned the truth about what had happened he considered himself a great sinner and repented of all the sins…’[iii]

The story above, like others mentioned in this chapter, are tales of interaction of medieval audiences with what appears to be life-size, mobile Christs. Nevertheless, very few scholars explicitly associate them with a specific typology in the plastic arts, and especially sculpture, of the middle ages. Such life-size Christs were not just the stuff of dreams (or nightmares), but have existed in Europe throughout the middle ages – massive wooden bodies, from the size of a small adult up to three metres tall, were habitually hung on the crosses above the nave. A special subset of these is formed by sculptures capable of moving their hands, bowing down, or even rolling their eyes and wagging their tongue, what Kamil Kopania terms ‘animated sculptures’.[iv] These sculptures appear in scholarship on established communal theatrical rites, such as processions and Easter sepulchral dramas, which used articulated Christ from the local cross as a multi-purpose prop for enacting the descent, burial and resurrection. [v] Nevertheless, their presence in the community outside of these ritualized moments, and their significance as presences, rather than props, has not been yet enquired.

Kamil Kopania considers this work on sepulchral drama as preliminary studies that explain the function and liturgical use of such statues, but do not address provenance, survival, construction and over-all physical aspects of the sculptures.[vi] His comprehensive cataloguing study comes as new knowledge in an art historical field already disgruntled with traditional analysis of art based on materials. His Animated Sculptures of Christ is, nevertheless, a needed addition to the field – as three-dimensional and emotional objects, these sculptures cannot be studied in isolation of their materiality. Only by taking into consideration their size and physical presence can their emotional impact be assessed. Coman 2and3In this essay, I take the materiality of the sculptures as a starting point, and, through the exploration of what this materiality implies, I arrive at the same destination as the knight in our story: at a meditation on the questions of truth that this sort of life-size figures pose.

The medieval story I started with is one of many taken from exempla as well as vitae, where sculptures of the crucified Christ become animated. Lukardis of Oberweimar reacted out of compassion for the man when, dreaming of walking around in her convent ‘into a certain portal’ (per quoddam ostium), she saw ‘Jesus Christ as if recently crucified on a cross’ (in quo Iesum Christum recenter cruci quasi iam affixum). Seeing a dangling hand (implicitly jointed) that has come loose from its peg and therefore left all Christ’s weight resting in only two nails, she tried to allay the pain of the crucified by tying it back to the rood.[vii] Rupert of Deutz saw the big crucifix above the altar he was praying at not only bow down to embrace him, but also ‘sensed how joyfully [a sculpted crucifix] received this gesture of love, since as he was being kissed he opened his mouth, that I might kiss him more deeply.’[viii] In 1340s, Margaret Ebner’s similar desire to kiss the altar crucifix came true in a dream when ‘my Lord Jesus Christ bent down from the cross and let me kiss His open heart and gave me to drink of the blood flowing from His heart’.[ix] This kind of feeding at Christ’s side-wound is not unusual for mystics of the period, although this story, and the one of Luitgard of Luxemburg, emphasize the concrete sculptural form the crucified takes in these encounters:

Christ came to meet her at the very entrance of the church, all bloody and nailed to the Cross. Lowering his arm which was attached to the Cross, he embraced her who was standing opposite and pressed her mouth against the wound in his right side.[x]

In MS Ludwig IX.7, St Hedwig of Silesia prays ‘prostrated’ in front of a crucifix that comes to life to gesture and talk ‘with a loud voice’ to the woman.[xi] The illuminator directs the extra-textual spectator’s reading of the right-arm motion of the crucified towards Hedwig in a concrete way emphasizing its body: ‘Here, detaching his right hand and arm (manum et brachium dextrum) from the cross beam, the image of the crucified (ymago c[ru]cifixi) blesses St. Hedwig’.


In all these narratives, as well as in images accompanying or independent of this sort of texts, the dangling right arm (always dextra, as counterpart of sinistra, where the sinners would rest) of the explicitly sculptural crucifix is read in multiple ways. It slaps the English nun, embraces Rupert, droops painfully in front of Lukardis, presses Luitgard’s head to Christ’s side, or points towards his side-wound in a donor portrait in the prayerbook of Bonne of Luxembourg.


This gesture of the crucified interacting with believers are treated as visionary or miraculous events, but they benefit from concrete, material support onto which the medieval imagination was able to map familiar gestures. Christ’s arm movement, kisses and intense gaze can be explained as the effect of articulated Christ sculptures witnessed in motion. Even though not all, not even a majority, of crucifixes were articulated, the stark impression the few animated Christs make on anybody witnessing it can then be mapped on a regular, unmoving crucifix. Once the viewer acknowledges the reality of sculptures in motion, any crucifix has the potential to animate, especially the highly affective, highly dynamic ones characteristic of the high and late middle ages. This contamination of imagery and imagination can be observed by comparing the manuscript images of crucifixion encounters with 12th century Romanesque Christs. Sculpted in a dynamic pose as if frozen during the descent from the cross, originally part of a larger devotional group, these images of the crucified alone could have been, by the 14th century, viewed in isolation from their original ensemble. [xii]

Coman 6 through 9

With their dramatic bend of the torso and the drooping arm, not quite fully surrendered to gravity, they seem to extend their right hand to caress, slap or hug the viewer. Not a lot of imaginative effort is required to envision these sculptures as suddenly animated, especially if moving sculptures of Christ already exist in the experiential horizon of the viewer.

The capacity for mutation and contamination of medieval religious sculpture has been demonstrated by scholars specifically working on medieval crucifixions. Sara Lipton asserts that ‘we can trace in these [diachronically] different depictions of Christ’s body visual characteristics that seem to align with contemporary devotional trends’,[xiii] while Lutz notes that artists and viewers adapted to and influenced each other in the design and reception of crucifixes.[xiv] This way, the 12-13th  century meditations on the crucifix imagine Christ bloody on the cross, even though the long-established iconography of the time was still the unbroken, quietly dignified pose that Rachel Fulton called Redeemer Christ;[xv] and Francis of Assisi’s devotion to the crucifix reveals that the materiality of his stigmata are quite plastic, closely mimicking the sculptural conventions  – not cavernous wounds but protruding simulacra of nails grown from his own flesh, and a side-wound where ‘the flesh was contracted into a sort of circle, so that it looked like a beautiful rose.’[xvi]

Coman 10

The relation between text and imagery, as well as the extent to which the trope of the moving sculpture infused the psychology of the medieval believer, can be mapped by using Sara Lipton’s case study. In cataloging viewer interaction with crucifix statues, Lipton has identified and collected one specific trope of the crucified slumping body of Christ read as one of the gestures compiled above: the motion towards an embrace and a kiss.

Therefore S. Bernard said: Who is he that is not ravished to hope of affiance which taketh none heed to the disposition of his body? He hath his head inclined to be kissed, the arms stretched to embrace us, his hands pierced to give to us, the side open to love us, the feet fixed with nails for to abide with us, and the body stretched all for to give to us[xvii]

This specific image appears in fourteen variations across the medieval Latinate and vulgate Christianity, spanning four hundred years.[xviii] The trope of the embrace, associated by Jacobus of Voragine with Bernard, was already a commonplace imagery in English miscellanies before it was widely disseminated by the Passio Christi chapter in the Latin Legenda Aurea and its vernacular translations. Manuscript copies of this work abounded even before being given a boost by Caxton’s own translation and print of the Legenda. This is just one of many tropes; the diversity of meaning the gesture has (blessing, punishment etc), as well as the wide geographical area of its spread attests to a quasi-animistic lay thinking about local sculptures of Christ.


If the statue moves for Easter, and for other special sermons, why could he not move in personal encounters with true believers? If the statue is capable of animation, then what keeps it from springing into life at any point?

The likeness with live humans was not just a result of the lifelike size and the affected poses of the statues of the crucified. Exceptional survivals like the ‘Mirakelmann from Döbeln’, highly jointed, with real human hair, fingernails and flexible skin, and capable of bleeding, should not discourage the scholar to investigate farther this type of sculptures. Kamil Kopania catalogues more than 150 figures with different degrees of articulation (see map), and he does not take into consideration other non-jointed, but still quasi-skeuomorphic sculptures.


The credibility of these sculptures was preserved by concealing the joints articulating head, hands (shoulders, elbows and wrists, as well as fingers), knees and hips of sculptures – which allowed it to perform a far larger set of movements than those required during the Easter sepulchre dramas – with skin-coloured leather, parchment or bone glue paste.[xix] The Christ sculptures of Burgos, Valvasone and Orense are covered in calf leather over a soft wool padding, which makes their body give to pressure – these sculptures are especially designed to be touched, and not just witness from a distance. Several examples have human hair and horn nails;[xx] other narratives of sculptures covered in parchment or leather imitating skin can be found in literature.[xxi] The Burgos, Döbeln and Boxley Christs could bleed from the side wound thanks to a liquid tank in the chest cavity. Another three sculptures, including the Boxley rood, the best documented but by no means the first or the only English artefact, have movable tongues and eyes, allowing them to conceivably perform the kissing, whispering and gazing that contemporary descriptions of animated Christ mention: ‘the iȝen of the ymage be turned hidirward and thidirward, and that the ymage semyngli speke.’[xxii]

So how did these animated sculptures of the crucified Christ perform in a medieval, emotional version of the Turing test? As the stories collected at the beginning of this essay demonstrate, this sort of moving images suffused the collective imagination of the Christian believers and cropped up as miracle tropes as well as in mundane depictions of interactions with the crucified. If from afar, and in candlelight, these Christs flickered between animated and static, between object and subject ‘hover[ed] in the gap between the visible and the visionary’, closeness to the statue could bring even more awareness in the spectator of the status of the image as human. [xxiii] Their size and weight, experienced in the process of (re)moving, cleaning, or praying to, the way they filled the space with presence creating slight changes in the air pressure, the way the breath and whispers of the believer bounced off the material reality of the body, imbuing it with its own echoed breath and whispers, and especially the somewhat uncanny give of the skin and slight sway of the hair, are all tools for emotional recall. This is a process Sara Lipton calls

‘resemblance and relation. The [spectator] roams freely within his visual memory, personal history, and cultural world in his search for images and gestures similar to, and therefore of significance for, the images and gestures of the artwork before his eyes…’[xxiv]

Jacqueline Jung also considers these statues as interpretable multi-dimensional texts that draw their power from memory and imagination: ‘the figures are best thought of as embodied templates for imaginative projection.’[xxv] These assessments are as poetic as they are deeply attuned to the medieval mnemonic and meditative practices, but I would like to slightly challenge the direction of their argument.

Sara Lipton’s focus on the gesture of the embrace emphasizes the dialogical dimension of these encounters. On two different occasions, she prompts the modern reader to see devotional art ‘as initiating a dialogue or conversation’, whether in one specific moment or ‘across many centuries’.[xxvi] This narrative of the dialogical relationship emphasizes difference of bodies and creation of ‘other’ in relation to an abstracted self. I communicate with him therefore he exists outside my body; I touch him therefore he is a physical entity separate from my own. Instead of the ‘other’ that dialogue presupposes, I propose reading these encounters through the Lacanian ‘mirror’ perspective. Lacan’s mirror, that stands at the core of the formation of self, is not a literal, but a metaphorical one: it is the body of mother or lover mirrors the self and represents the ideal ego.[xxvii] Recognition of these Christ images as human – by their size, materiality, and ability to move, speak and bleed – (re)materializes the self as reflection of Imago Dei. This is a concern prevalent in mystical and theological discourse of the 13-15th centuries, but, as Alexa Sand demonstrates, it is also reflected in the lay concern with mirrors, death and the body mortal.[xxviii]

The humanness, three-dimensionality, credibility and especially – and this is crucial – the essentially Christian incarnational belief of the spectator faced with an image of God embodied all collaborated toward a moment of visceral recognition, of heightened sense of presence and of identity.[xxix] Through acutely human, self-actualizing experiences like pain, revulsion, arousal, and terror, the believer is reminded of self as Imago Dei and, faced with his image, of Christ as god incarnate.[xxx] I touch him and he touches me; he suffered pains that I could suffer and I bleed like he bled; I understand his pain because he is like me – human fully. The three-dimensional sculptures of the crucifixion especially, but also visual and narrative cues (the blood of the crucifixion, the pains and tortures described) more generally, drive home one of the most important truths of the Christian church: the incarnation. Sand’s intuition about statues of Mary – that it is not her lifelike appearance, but her humanity (which allow her to give birth to Christ but also to be vengeful) make her statues so effective[xxxi] -productively maps on the crucified Christ examples. The impact of the imago crucifixi is doubly effective since Christ’s humanity – that allow him to caress the viewer as well as to suffer on the cross – is the fundamental dogma of the medieval church, and one that was over and over rehearsed through theological works as well as popular sermons.

Modern as well as medieval scholars have been concerned with the authenticity these statues assert with their presence. Echoing Lollard and other medieval iconoclastic ideas, Elina Gertsman re-emphasizes the incongruity between the ontological status of the figures and the recognition they demand.

‘The statue makes a claim for reality, for truth, not least through the use of real epidermis to render skin, real keratin to render nails, real human hair to frame his face. But this reality produces a corpse, pale and leeched of life.’[xxxii]

Nevertheless, the truth that is constructed in the encounter between the statue and spectator is, as I theorize it, in the body of the believer and not in the manufactured simulacrum of a human. The pale corpse is alive through the inspiration of the believer, through the act of imagining or believing, which makes it move not by ropes and pedals, but by imagination – Margaret Ebner, Lukardis and Rupert of Deutz gave life to the statues because they believed they were indeed alive. The real epidermis shell is filled with animation/animus by the human who understands the skin as part of the stuff of incarnation; this (re)animation of statues is, in a way, building a real presence from material and inspiration just like the Creation (Genesis 2:7 Formavit igitur Dominus Deus hominem de limo terrae, et inspiravit in faciem ejus spiraculum vitae) and, by its Chalcedonian nature, the Incarnation does.

This theoretical approach might seem to be a far-fetched animistic approach spurred by modern familiarity with robotronic fantasies that glorify, nonetheless, the human intellect behind the machine. Yet the Welsh-born bishop of Chichester, Reginald Pecock (d.1461), made the same kind of comparison between the ontology of animated sculptures (idols) and that of Christ:

People thought that the spirits would join themselves with the images in a complicated process incomprehensible to human perception, and that the spirit and the image combined in some inexplicable way would be a perceptible god; somewhat like the way we Christians believe that God descended into humankind and united to himself a human individual.[xxxiii]

For Pecock, idolatry was akin to the incarnation; but in the case of the sculptures of Christ, where the believer would not (or at least, was supposed not to) believe that the actual Christ resided, the similar process taking place was in fact not idolatry. The arguments of Lollards, a group that so adamantly condemned multiple practices of the institutional church, against image-based devotion construed it as ‘ner of kyn to ydolatrie’, but not idolatry quite yet.[xxxiv] The idol-worshipper believed that his god resided in the image – the image would be animated with the spirit of the god; the orthodox Christian believed that her god did not reside in this one specific image, but that the image signified him – in a sophisticated Christian semiology seen best at work in the Eucharist[xxxv] – and that the sculpture was animated by her imagination and belief.

So why do all the images that I found in narrative and illumination resemble the semi-detached Christ of the deposition? What makes this motif so appealing and iconic that it appears over and over again across time, space and story matter? One can use stylistic shifts around the period in order to explain the different approach of the viewer to the new motif, and therefore a feeling of uncanny and uncertainty around the new, more expressive sculptures, like Sand did with sculptures of Mary.[xxxvi] Nevertheless, this essay offered an alternative possibility predicated on the Europe-wide examples of jointed sculptures of Christ. By their ability to prompt the thrill or fear of the crucified suddenly coming alive because of their inherent animation mechanisms, I have shown that artifice – that is, the fabricated and staged sculpture, that represents the incarnated Christ in his most human of moments – can substitute, or better still, re-actualize nature. Contact with a credible simulacrum of embodiment and pain can bring one to recognition of the self, and therefore of the human, in her god. This process rests on witnessing the physicality of the sculptures, and on coming into close proximity, or even contact, with the inviting body of these figures. Intimate touch, therefore, is the key to this incarnational epiphany, a direct body contact that crucial to the very scene of the deposition, and sought by the medieval believer.

Coman14 and 15

Direct body contact produces an extremely visceral sense of truth, and body contact with a material Christ produced the truth of his incarnation. That that body is art, or artifice, idol, or inspired representation of god, it does not matter in the end; what matters is the knowledge that this contact brings.

Visiting the Christ of Burgos in the middle of the 19th century, Theophile Gautier was seriously disturbed by its appearance and the myths surrounding it:

Nothing can be more lugubrious and disquieting than this attenuated, crucified phantom with its human appearance and deathlike stillness; the faded and brownish-yellow skin is streaked with long streams of blood, so well imitated that they seem to trickle. It requires no great effort of imagination to give credence to the legend that it bleeds every Friday.[xxxvii]

For him, this sculpture was the pinnacle of ‘the craving for the true, however revolting,’ a characteristic that he ascribed to Spanish art as a whole, but which could be said to be the impulse for a lot of high and late medieval art. For Gautier, as well as for the nun that I started with, the tangible, credible materiality of the crucified sculpture provides a visceral jolt of (self)-recognition and maybe, a return to belief in the fundamental Christian paradox, a dead god made human.


[i] One of the seven surviving medieval copies of the Castilian mirror for princes attributed to King Sancho IV (1258-1295) ‘Castigos del rey don Sancho IV’. Colbert I. Nepaulsingh, ‘Notes for a Study of Wisdom Literature and Literary Composition in Medieval Spain’, in Hispanic Studies, Madison, Hispanic Seminary of Medieval Studies 1986, ed. John S. Miletich, pp.217-222; Barry Taylor, ‘Old Spanish Wisdom Texts: Some Relationships’, La corónica 1985 (14), pp.71-85.

[ii] The story closely resembles one episode (vol. I, distinction VII, capitulum XLIV) from Cesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum (1220-1235), with the twist of the end action by the statue of Christ and not of Mary. See Alexa Sand’s summary in ‘Vindictive virgins: animate images and theories of art in some thirteenth-century miracle stories’, Word & Image 26 (2010), p.155. Cesarius’ story quickly found its way in the Cantigas de Santa Maria attributed to Sancho IV’s father, Alfonso X (1221-1284), but the mutation is peculiar to the Castigo.

[iii] ‘Castigo del Rey don Sancho’, chp.19, translated by Emily C. Francomano, Medieval Conduct Literature: An Anthology of Vernacular Guides to Behaviour for Youths, with English translations, ed. Mark David Johnston, Kathleen M Ashley, (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2009) pp.217-221.

[iv] Kamil Kopania, Animated Sculptures of the Crucified Christ in the Religious Culture of the Latin Middle Ages (Warszawa: Wydawn. “Neriton”, 2010).

[v] Easter sepulchre animations: Pamela Sheingorn, The Easter Sepulchre in England, Early drama, art, and music reference series 5 (Kalamazoo, MI : Medieval Institute Publications, 1987); Clifford Davidson, ‘The Bodley ‘Christ’s Burial’ and ‘Christ’s Resurrection’: Vernacular Dramas for Good Friday and Easter’, European Medieval Drama 7 (2003), pp. 51-67; Osborne Bennett Hardison, Christian Rite and Christian Drama in the Middle Ages, (Baltimore 1965), pp. 253-283; Peter Meredith, ‘The Bodley Burial and Resurrection’: Late English liturgical drama?’, in Alan J. Fletcher, Wim Hlisken (eds.), Between Folk and Liturgy, (Amsterdam, 1997), pp. 133-155.

[vi] Kopania, ‘”the Idolle That Stode There in Myne Opynyon a Very Monstrous Sight”: On a Number of Late-Medieval Animated Figures of Crucified Christ’, in Materiał Rzeźby, ed. Aleksandra Lipińska (2009), pp.132-3.

[vii] “Vita venerabilis Lukardis,” Analecta Bollandiana 18 (1899), pp.305‒67 (314) cited in Jacqueline Jung, ‘The Tactile and the Visionary: Notes on the Place of Sculpture in the Medieval Religious Imagination’ in Looking Beyond: Visions, Dreams, and Insights in Medieval Art and History, ed. Colum Hourihane (Princeton: Index of Christian Art, 2010), pp.217-18 and n.63.

[viii] Sara Lipton, ‘”The Sweet Lean of His Head”: Writing about Looking at the Crucifix in the High Middle Ages,’ Speculum 80 (2005), pp.1175-6.

[ix] Margaret Ebner, “Revelations,” in Margaret Ebner, Major Works, transl. Leonard P. Hindsley (New York: Paulist Press, 1993), p.96.

[x] Thomas of Cantimpré, The Collected Saints’ Lives: Abbot John of Cantimpré, Christina the Astonishing, Margaret of Ypres, and Lutgard of Aywières, transl. Barbara Newman, Margot H. King, (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2008), p.228.

[xi] ‘Ubi dum in oracione prostrata moram faceret, ut solebat, ymago iam dicta manum et brachium dextrum de ligno crucis absolvens extendensque ipsam benedixit dicens voce sonora: Exaudita est oracio tua et, que postulas, inpetrabis’ transcribed in Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.215 n.58

[xii] Carla Varela Fernandes, ‘Pathos – the bodies of Christ on the Cross. Rhetoric of suffering in wooden sculpture found in Portugal, twelfth-fourteenth centuries. A few examples.’ RIHA Journal 0078, 2013.

[xiii] Sara Lipton, ‘Images in the world: reading the crucifixion,’ in Medieval Christianity in Practice, ed. Miri Rubin (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2009), p.180.

[xiv] Gerhard Lutz, ‘The Drop of Blood: Image and Piety in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.37.

[xv] Lutz, ‘Drop of blood’, p.39; Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

[xvi] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, pp.223-4 n.85

[xvii] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints, ed.F.S. Ellis (Temple Classics, 1900), Chp 12 ‘The Passion of our Lord’.

[xviii] Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, indexes several primary texts, of which I give a selection: Verse appended to the English text of the Ancrene Riwle (London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.xiv, fol. 131v) England, c. 1225-50; Collection of biblical and patristic distinctions (Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, clm. 23447, fol. 23v), 13C; Devotional verse in Latin, French, and English (London, British Library, Add. MS 11579, fol. 36r-v), England, 13C; Middle English devotional verse or excerpt (Trinity College Cambridge, MS B.14.39, fol. 83v). England, c. 1250; Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, Italy, ca. 1260-63. Other famous medieval writers adopted the trope: Ramon Lull, Catherine of Siena, Thomas a Kempis, Richard Rolle of Hampole.

[xix] Kopania, Animated Sculptures, passim; Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.135.

[xx]Kopania, ‘Idolle’, p.139.

[xxi] An interesting example is 13th and 14th C mechanic monkeys ‘with real (regularly replaced) skins.’ Jessica Riskin, “Machines in the Garden,” Republics of Letters 1:2 (2010), p.31.

[xxii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, Churchill Babington cited in Sarah Salih, “Idol Theory”, Preternature 4 (2015), p.31; Leanne Groeneveld, ‘A Theatrical Miracle: The Boxley Rood of Grace as Puppet’, Early Theatre 10.2 (2007), p.18; Kopania, Animated Sculptures, pp.118, 156 n.117. Misericords with movable tongues in Winchester and Halifax, St John’s cathedral, are mentioned in Paul Hardwick, English Medieval Misericords: The Margins of Meaning, (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2011), p.167, and Kopania mentions a ‘bad thief’ with a similar construction.

[xxiii] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.155.

[xxiv] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.181

[xxv] Jung, ‘Tactile and Visionary’, p.219,220

[xxvi] Lipton, ‘Reading the crucifixion’, p.185 Lipton, ‘Sweet lean’, p.1201

[xxvii] Tamise Van Pelt, ‘Lacan in Context: An Introduction to Lacan for the English-Speaking Reader’, College Literature 24 (1997), p59.

[xxviii] Alexa Sand, ‘The fairest of them all: Reflections on some fourteenth-century mirrors’ in Push Me, Pull You: Imaginative, Emotional, Physical, and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art, ed by Sarah Blick and Laura Gelfand (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 535, 544-5.

[xxix] In a somewhat similar manner, Hans Belting sees the body as a big organ receptive to reality from within: “The human being is the natural locus of images, a living organ for images, as it were… it is within the human being, and only within the human being, that images are received and interpreted in a living sense.” An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, trans. Thomas Dunlap (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 37.

[xxx] Sand, ‘Reflections on mirrors’, pp.536, 558, touches on the latter two experiences, but does not give the rationale for their effectiveness.

[xxxi] Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.157.

[xxxii] Elina Gertsman, ‘’Bewilderment Overwhelms Me’’, Preternature 4 (2015), p.8.

[xxxiii] Reginald Pecock, The Repressor of Over Much Blaming of the Clergy, ed. Churchill Babington (London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1860), I.244–45 cited in Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.28

[xxxiv] Salih, “Idol Theory”, p.15

[xxxv] Michel Camille suggests to take the Eucharistic theology as framework for understanding late medieval ‘perception of images, for here a visible thing was itself capable of becoming and not just signifying its prototype.’ The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.217.

[xxxvi]  Sand, ‘Vindictive virgins’, p.150.

[xxxvii] Theophile Gautier, Voyage en Espagne, 1865.

To Each His (or Her) Own: Piero di Cosimo’s Bacchanals for the Palazzo Vespucci

by Bryn Schockmel, Boston University

Piero di Cosimo’s The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus are two of the only works by the artist with a firm provenance. Completed around 1500, the pair of spalliera paintings were commissioned by a member of the Vespucci family to celebrate a marriage. As the paintings’ original location is known, the Palazzo Vespucci, it is possible to develop theories regarding the significance these material objects would have held for the original intended audience, the bride and groom. It is my assertion that the paintings held one set of specific meanings for the husband and his male guests, while concurrently impacting the young wife in a very different manner.

Piero di Lorenzo di Piero d’Antonio was born January 2, 1462, most likely in Florence, to a blacksmith father.  Little is known about his life, and most of his artwork remains undocumented.  Giorgio Vasari paints a colorful picture of the artist, though many of his anecdotes are likely fantastical exaggerations.  It is known that Piero studied under Cosimo Rosselli, from whom he took his surname.  Vasari writes that Piero travelled with his master to Rome to assist with the frescoes on the walls of the Sistine Chapel, stating that Piero painted the landscape background in the Sermon on the Mount.[i]  It is unclear whether or not this particular story is true. Many modern scholars doubt its authenticity; if the account is factual it would be the only documented time that Piero left his native Florence.[ii]  Throughout his life, Piero di Cosimo appears to have been a prominent, and sought-after, artist in Florence, fulfilling contracts for the Strozzi, Pugliese, and Vespucci families. Piero was known for his professionalism, always completing his commissions.[iii]  Vasari, however, describes Piero as a somewhat crazy recluse.  Though Vasari’s stories about Piero do not seem to be based in fact, they persisted well into the twentieth century, with Erwin Panofsky similarly stating that Piero preferred to live by himself and was a bit mad.  Panofsky goes so far as to praise Vasari’s “convincing psychological portrait” of the artist.[iv]  Piero di Cosimo died in 1522, at the age of 60, seemingly of the plague.[v]

Piero di Cosimo, The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus, c.1499, oil on panel, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA


Piero di Cosimo appears to have had a preference for painting on panels rather than frescoes.  The majority of his works are either commissions of religious subjects for private devotion or secular paintings for domestic settings.[vi]  Of the 50 or so paintings attributable to Piero di Cosimo, 18 have secular subjects, with the majority of those drawing their material from Classical mythology.[vii]  Ovid was certainly a font of inspiration for a number of Piero’s paintings; Lucretius may also have served as source.[viii]  In these domestic paintings, with their relatively limited exposure compared to large-scale public monuments, Piero had the freedom to be more adventurous, in terms of both subject matter and style.[ix]  At times, his works are even quite playful and comedic, as is certainly the case in the Bacchanals, which shall be the main focus of this paper.[x]

Piero di Cosimo, The Misfortunes of Silenus, c.1500, oil on panel, Harvard Art Museum, Cambridge, MA.

The storie baccanarie paintings, as they are called by Vasari, are comprised of The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus, today in the Worcester Art Museum and Harvard Art Museums, respectively.[xi]  These two works are among the only paintings in Piero’s oeuvre that can be firmly linked to a specific patron:  the two spalliera paintings were almost certainly commissioned by a member of the Vespucci family, around the year 1500.  They would have been displayed in the Palazzo Vespucci in Florence, likely in the camera (bedroom).  The textual source behind the subject matter, as first noted by Panofsky, is Book III of Ovid’s Fasti.[xii]  The imagery closely follows the text, though Piero made some changes and added certain embellishments.

In the first of the pair, The Discovery of Honey, which dates from circa 1500, we find Bacchus and his entourage discovering (or perhaps more accurately, actively searching for) honey.[xiii]  As Ovid recounts the story, Bacchus and his satyr and nymph followers were walking along, clanging cymbals and other instruments, to rouse the bees and thus lead them to the honey.  Here the musical instruments are replaced with domestic household items, but with a similar effect:  the bees swarm out of their honeycomb attached to the tree in the center of the painting, revealing the honey to Bacchus and the others.[xiv] The main identifiable figures are Bacchus and Ariadne at the right, and Silenus, approaching the tree, riding a donkey.

In The Misfortunes of Silenus, Silenus takes center stage as he attempts to find honey on his own, but instead discovers a nest of wasps.  Here we have a true narrative, with the figure of Silenus repeated three times.  In the center, Silenus searches for honey in the old tree, only to be stung by a number of wasps, resulting in a fall from his donkey.  At the right satyrs attempt to help Silenus to his feet.  On the left the story continues, as they apply mud to help soothe his stings.  Here, too, the tale has been borrowed from Ovid’s Fasti.  This work is in a much worse state of repair than its pendant:  it was possibly left unfinished, and certainly heavily restored to remove the original rather explicit states of arousal of a number of the satyrs.[xv]  Like The Discovery of Honey, The Misfortunes of Silenus was painted around 1500 and is of a similar size.

Setting aside the dominant tree in the center of each work, the backgrounds are replete with landscape features.  Piero was known for his original and detailed landscapes, with the landscape itself frequently determining the layout of a painting.[xvi]  Many of these landscapes are quite different from those produced in Venice and other parts of Italy in the early sixteenth century, and seem to have more of a Flemish quality, like those of Hugo van der Goes.  Hugo’s famed Portinari Altarpiece arrived in Florence in May 1483 and had a profound affect on many Florentine artists—a function not only of his mastery of oil paint, but also his impressive and highly detailed landscapes.  Piero may very well have been influenced by the Portinari Altarpiece or other Northern works.[xvii]  The landscapes in his Bacchanals also have general connections to agriculture.  Bacchus, in addition to being the god of wine, was the god of grapes, and thus of vineyards and farming.  In Virgil’s Georgics, the author discusses the cultivation of bees, another type of agriculture.[xviii]

Tritons and Nereids
Piero di Cosmio, Tritons and Nereids, c.1505-1507, tempera on panel, Private Collection.

Two other works by Piero di Cosimo, each now in a private collection, are worth mentioning in relation to the Bacchanals.  Piero painted a pair of Tritons and Nereids, both long and thin, that may have been executed at the same time as the Bacchanals or, more likely, at a slightly later time, around 1505 or 1507.[xix]  The pair depict nereids (sea nymphs), satyrs, and tritons—classical creatures with the upper bodies of men, the tails of a fish or dolphin, and, occasionally, horse legs.  The two works are more of a frieze of characters than a true narrative.  They are relevant to a discussion of the Bacchanals as they, too, were displayed in the Vespucci Palace, likely alongside the Bacchanals.  They would have made for an intriguing grouping, with the terrestrial bacchanal thiasos contrasting with the marine thiasos found in the Tritons and Nereids. The inclusion of satyrs in the marine processional, an innovation on Piero’s part, would have further linked the two sets of paintings.[xx]


Tritons and Nereids4
Piero di Cosimo, Tritons and Nereids, c.1505-1507, tempera on panel, Private Collection.


Over the past century scholars have discerned a number of different meanings in Piero di Cosimo’s Bacchanals which are worth briefly examining here.  In a 1936/1937 article on The Discovery of Honey, Panofsky observed the distinct landscapes and features on either side of the large tree in the center of the composition.  He posited that to the right of the tree, with its dark and foreboding landscape, grey clouds, and twisting path up a treacherous hill, one finds man in his savage state, climbing trees, unrestrained.  On the left side of the tree one discerns a more civilized man:  an innocent pastoral scene, with a simple town in the background, the sun shining, and people processing in a neat, orderly fashion.  Panofsky coined the term “paysage moralisé” to refer to this kind of landscape.  He argued that, in this painting, honey is allegorical of a civilizing force, and that the scene reveals the advancement of mankind through small steps.[xxi]

More recent scholarship finds some trouble with Panofsky’s argument.  As a number of authors note, unlike the discovery of fire, for example, the discovery of honey is hardly a great civilizing achievement.[xxii]  Instead of interpreting the panels as moralizing works with great insight into humankind, some art historians simply view the paintings as playful, comedic entertainment.  There was certainly a taste for vulgar comedy among Renaissance Florentines, who would have enjoyed Silenus’ failed attempts to copy Bacchus and find honey on his own in The Misfortunes of Silenus.[xxiii]  That the paintings are humorous does not make them less intellectual or suitable for a humanist audience.  There are many examples of comedy and parody in Classical texts.[xxiv]  As entertaining works of art, the paintings still had the ability to provoke and challenge viewers.[xxv]  Piero has taken an ancient pastoral tale about the divine discovery of honey, and turned into something a bit more mischievous.[xxvi]

Though Panofsky’s reading has its merits, the more recent scholarship that focuses on the humor of the pieces, and what role they would have played for male viewers, in my opinion, perhaps comes closer to the artist’s original intent.  This is only part of the story, however.  To completely understand the function of the Bacchanals one must take into account where they were displayed, and the audience for whom they were intended, both male and female.  To do so, it is necessary to examine the patrons of the works—the Vespucci family.

The Vespucci were a prominent Florentine family in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and great patrons of the arts.  The family arrived in Florence from nearby Peretola.  The earliest Vespucci in Florence were wine sellers, not a particularly lofty profession.  By the late fourteenth century the Vespucci had risen to prominence:  Simone Vespucci, a silk manufacturer, was the first member of the family to gain wealth and status.  From 1434 onwards, the Vespucci regularly held office in Florence and had close ties with the Medici.[xxvii]  Amerigo Vespucci (1454 to 1512), an explorer for whom the Americas were named, is perhaps the most well-known member of the family.

In the second half of the fifteenth century, Guidantonio di Giovanni Vespucci (1436 to 1501) was a respected statesman, diplomat, and man of letters.  With his nephew, Amerigo, Guidantonio travelled to France as ambassador to King Louis XI.[xxviii]  After his return to Italy, Guidantonio served as the Florentine ambassador to the pope on multiple occasions in the 1480s and as ambassador to Charles VIII in Milan in the 1490s.[xxix]  On March 5, 1499, Guidantonio purchased the house on the Via de’ Servi where Piero di Cosimo’s Bacchanals were displayed.  The house had previously belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent, with Guidantonio acquiring the property from the Arte del Cambio (the Guild of Bankers).  In 1533, the house was sold to Piero Salviati.[xxx]

Less is known about Guidantonio’s son, Giovanni di Guidantonio Vespucci (1476 to 1549).  He is described as a “letterato e latinista,” so perhaps took after his father, who was known to be a very learned man.[xxxi]  In 1500, Giovanni married Namiciana di Benedetto Nerli, and most scholars agree that Piero’s Bacchanals were commissioned around the time of the marriage.[xxxii]  Vasari states that it was Giovanni who hired Piero to create the Bacchanals.[xxxiii]  More recent art historical scholarship suggests that it is likely that the father, Guidantonio, was the one who commissioned the works.[xxxiv]  Whether father or son ordered the paintings from Piero di Cosimo, The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus were almost certainly installed in the Palazzo Vespucci around the time of the Vespucci-Nerli marriage in 1500.  As a wedding gift for the bride and groom, the paintings would most likely have been displayed in the couple’s camera, or bedroom, within the Palazzo Vespucci.[xxxv]

Returning to the Bacchanals themselves, the panels are examples of spalliera painting, a type of material object that became part of the décor of a room.  The word spalliera can be quite difficult to define.  The root of spalliera comes from the Italian word for “shoulder,” conveying that spalliera were typically displayed at shoulder-level.  While the term spalliera could refer not just to paintings but also to decorative wooden wainscoting or even textiles, this paper shall concern itself solely with spalliera paintings.[xxxvi]  This type of art was used to decorate patrician homes during the Renaissance, most commonly from 1470 to 1515.[xxxvii]  Spalliera paintings were often purchased at the time of marriage.  Typically a period of three to six months passed from betrothal to marriage, and spalliera and other decorative objects were frequently commissioned during this time.[xxxviii]  Wedding spalliera paintings were usually ordered by the groom’s family, to decorate the new couple’s bedroom within the house of the groom’s father (in this instance, the Palazzo Vespucci).[xxxix]  Spalliera panels could also be displayed in the sala or anti-camera.[xl]

Spalliera paintings were intended to be viewed sequentially, and often contained a continuous landscape throughout.  The paintings were set within wooden wall paneling, between decorative pilasters or entablatures, or attached to or above various objects of furniture.[xli]  Frustratingly, inventories of the time usually describe only the subject matter of the works, making difficult reconstruction of the manner in which spalliera paintings were displayed.[xlii]  Piero di Cosimo executed a number of spalliera paintings, where, as works intended for private, domestic contexts, he had a greater degree of freedom to explore interesting subjects and experiment with new styles.[xliii]  The subject matter for these works could be sacred or secular, with Classical scenes and pastoral landscapes both common themes.[xliv]  The images were intended not only to be entertaining, but also instructive.[xlv]  For men, this could mean paintings of bravery, duty, and virtue, to encourage the groom to be a good husband.  For women, the panels might display the bride’s role as a loving wife, mother, and caretaker.[xlvi]

To understand the specific meanings of The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus we must consider the works as they would have been displayed as material objects in the Palazzo Vespucci, viewed by the new bride and groom.  The same pair of paintings, in my view, would have held vastly different meanings for the wife and the husband.  For Giovanni, the images emphasized his Vespucci lineage, his standing in society, and his general intellect and culture.  One of the main reasons the subject matter was chosen was the pun of the Vespucci family name. Vespa is the Italian word for wasp and the Vespucci coat of arms incorporated wasps.[xlvii]  In The Misfortunes of Silenus, Silenus attempts to find honey, but discovers a nest of wasps instead.[xlviii]  Clearly the wasp-related subject matter is meant to highlight Giovanni’s place in the Vespucci family and his pride in his lineage.  Bacchus may also be a reference to the first Vespucci in Florence, who were wine sellers.  Certain scholars have opined that The Discovery of Honey relates to the great discoveries made by Amerigo Vespucci.  As Amerigo’s accounts of his travels were not published until 1504 and 1505, this would suggest that the paintings were not commissioned at the time of Giovanni’s wedding—an unlikely scenario.[xlix]  However, the Tritons and Nereids paintings, with their nautical theme, may indirectly refer to Amerigo and his voyages.  These paintings, which appear to have been displayed with the Bacchanals, were commissioned at a slightly later date, around 1505 or 1507.  Regardless of whether the imagery makes reference to a specific Vespucci—Amerigo—it certainly, through the wasps, refers to the Vespucci family, and Giovanni’s lineage, in general.

Beyond highlighting his ancestry, the paintings would have served other functions for the groom as well.  That Giovanni (or perhaps his father, Guidantonio) could afford to commission such works of art comments on his status and wealth.[l]  It is important to remember that the camera, during the Renaissance, was not a private space as bedrooms are today.  The camera could have been a site of social functions and was a place where business was frequently conducted.[li]  Many visitors to the Palazzo Vespucci would have entered the camera and have seen Piero’s paintings.  The works were a symbol of luxury, and would have served to impress guests.

In addition to being a symbol of wealth and standing, the paintings would have displayed Giovanni’s intelligence and culture.  They were intended for sophisticated, curious, and wealthy guests—works that would entertain and perhaps enlighten.  The paintings highlight Giovanni’s humanist education, and would have afforded visitors an opportunity to expound on Ovid’s stories.  In The Misfortunes of Silenus in particular, only clever viewers would have understood that Ovid’s story had been told out of order (if one reads the work from left to right).  The paintings were conversation pieces, challenging the viewer, and reflecting positively on the intelligence of the host.[lii]  Notably, the room within the palace that contained Piero di Cosimo’s paintings was highly praised throughout the sixteenth century.[liii]

Turning to Namiciana, the bride, the same pair of paintings would have functioned in an entirely different manner.  On a basic level, the paintings would have been a form of escapism, a glimpse of an entertaining outside world for a woman who would have rarely been allowed to leave her husband’s home.[liv]  More significantly, the two paintings emphasized the roles that Namiciana was intended to fulfil:  that of loving wife and mother, and of caretaker and overseer of domestic affairs.  As Thomas Matthews first observed, much of the imagery in The Discovery of Honey relates to themes of love, marriage, and fertility.  At the right we have Bacchus and his wife, Ariadne, a figure who is not necessary for the story.  After wine, Bacchus’ secondary interest was love.  To the right sits Pan, holding an onion, an ancient aphrodisiac.  At the left are nymphs, creatures regarded as guardians of marriage, with other pairs of lovers nearby.[lv]  The entire scene could be read not simply as a quest for honey, but as a marriage processional, celebrating the love of Bacchus and Ariadne.

In addition to imagery of love and marriage, both paintings contain a number of scenes referencing the other new role Namiciana would be expected to embrace:  motherhood.  In The Discovery of Honey, at the left one finds a female satyr nursing a child.[lvi]  In The Misfortunes of Silenus, children are at play in the foreground.  In the first painting, the landscape in general is incredibly fertile, with lush vegetation and animals (bears, monkeys, a lion, a boar) in the background.  The dominant tree in the center of the composition, with its womb-shaped opening, seems to almost be birthing a young satyr.[lvii]  Piero utilizes the tree as the link between honey and love, two things that have been connected since antiquity and the writings of Sappho.  The artist may be wishing that the bride and groom have a married life that is fruitful and as sweet as honey.[lviii]  At the same time, however, when paired with The Misfortunes of Silenus, the artist conveys that love, though sweet as honey, is occasionally painful, like the sting of the wasp.[lix]

All of these details would remind Namiciana, in a playful but still instructive manner, of her role as wife and mother.  Another detail in The Discovery of Honey may emphasize an additional role she would have taken on as a married woman, that of overseer of domestic affairs in her husband’s home.  In Ovid’s telling of the story, Bacchus’ followers clang cymbals and other instruments to stir up the bees and alert them to the presence of honey.  Piero has deliberately deviated from the text, replacing musical instruments with pots and pans and other household items.[lx]  The fifth figure from the left holds a type of waffle iron that was used, among other purposes, to create wedding waffles.[lxi]  Piero has perhaps included these domestic items to instill in Namiciana her new role as caretaker and overseer in the Palazzo Vespucci.

In The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus, Piero di Cosimo succeeds in imbuing the paintings with two distinct sets of meanings.  In my conceptualization, for Giovanni, the paintings highlighted the groom’s Vespucci family lineage, emphasized his wealth and status, and provided a form of entertainment for Giovanni and his guests, allowing the men to assert their intelligence and humanist educations.  For the young bride, Namiciana, the spalliera paintings served a different function.  On the most basic level, the works would have offered a glimpse of an outside world that Namiciana would have had little opportunity to experience first-hand.  Perhaps more importantly, The Discovery of Honey and The Misfortunes of Silenus both provided, in a light-hearted yet still instructive manner, models of the new roles Namiciana would be taking on:  wife, mother, and manager of domestic affairs.  Piero di Cosimo succeeds brilliantly in creating a pair of paintings that at first glance appear to be playful and amusing, and yet on a deeper level, served very specific and distinct purposes for the bride and groom.


[i] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 651.

[ii] Dennis Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2006), 14.

[iii] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 26.  None of Piero’s extant works were left unfinished, with the possible exception of The Misfortunes of Silenus, one of the subjects of this paper.

[iv] Erwin Panofsky, “The Early History of Man in a Cycle of Paintings by Piero di Cosimo,” Journal of the Warburg Institute Vol. 1, No. 1 (July, 1937):  29.

[v] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 18.

[vi] Sharon Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, Invention and Fantasìa (London:  Reaktion Books, 1993), 16.

[vii] Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, 41.

[viii] Alison Brown, “Lucretius and the Epicureans in the Social and Political Context of Renaissance Florence.” I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance Vol. 9 (2001):  20.

[ix] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 78.

[x] Paul Barolsky, Infinite Jest: Wit and Humor in Italian Renaissance Art (Columbia:  University of Missouri Press, 1978), 46.

[xi] Vasari uses the word “some” to describe the paintings, implying that originally the series may have consisted of more than two works. See John Miller, “Piero Di Cosimo’s Ovidian Diptych,” Arion Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall, 2007):  7.

[xii] Patricia Emison, “The Paysage Moralisé,” Artibus et Historiae Vol. 16, No. 31 (1995):  131.

[xiii] The medium for the painting has alternatively been listed as oil on panel, tempera with oil glaze, and tempera and oil on panel. The most recent scholarship categorizes the painting as oil on panel.  See Gretchen Hirschauer and Dennis Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence (Washington, D.C.:  National Gallery of Art, 2015), 144.

[xiv] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 103.

[xv] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 101.  Some of this censoring seems to have been done by Piero himself, perhaps because the imagery was deemed inappropriate for the young bride (and groom) for whom the paintings were created. See Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 144.

[xvi] Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, 106 and 163.

[xvii] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 8 and Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, 175.

[xviii] Paul Barolsky, “As in Ovid, So in Renaissance Art,” Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 51, No. 2 (Summer, 1998):  465.  Another sign that the landscape is perhaps more tamed than originally appears is the large central tree in The Discovery of Honey.  This tree is not uncultivated but has, in fact, been pollarded, or trimmed, to allow for bushier growth.  See Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 21.

[xix] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 151.

[xx] Emison, “Paysage Moralisé,” 204.

[xxi] For Panofsky’s complete analysis, see Erwin Panofsky, “The “Discovery of Honey” by Piero di Cosimo,” Worcester Art Museum Annual Report II (1936-1937):  32-43.  See also R. Langton Douglas, Piero di Cosimo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 63.

[xxii] Thomas Matthews, “Piero di Cosimo’s Discovery of Honey,” The Art Bulletin Vol. 45, No. 4 (December, 1963):  358-359.

[xxiii] Barolsky, Infinite Jest, 48.

[xxiv] Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, 85.

[xxv] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 18.

[xxvi] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 102.

[xxvii] Gene Brucker, Renaissance Florence (Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 1969), 95.

[xxviii] Andreas Höfele and Werner von Koppenfels, eds., Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe (Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2005), 126.

[xxix] Frederick Pohl, Amerigo Vespucci: Pilot Major (London:  Frank Cass and Company, 1944), 26.

[xxx] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 100.

[xxxi] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 82.

[xxxii] Anne Barriault, Spalliera Paintings of Renaissance Tuscany: Fables of Poets for Patrician Homes (University Park:  Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 152 and Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 100.

[xxxiii] Vasari, Lives, 657.

[xxxiv] R. Langton Douglas, “The Fall of Man by Piero di Cosimo,” The Burlington Magazine Vol. 86, No. 507 (June, 1945):  134, note 2 and Louisa Dresser, ed., European Paintings in the Collection of the Worcester Art Museum (Worcester:  Worcester Art Museum, 1974), 437.

[xxxv] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 144.

[xxxvi] Barriault, Spalliera, 11-13.

[xxxvii] Peta Motture and Luke Syson, “Art in the casa,” in At Home in Renaissance Italy, eds. Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (London:  V&A Publications, 2006), 274.  Painted spalliera panels replaced in popularity painted cassoni (chests), which had been a dominant domestic decoration earlier in the fifteenth century.

[xxxviii] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 80.

[xxxix] Barriault, Spalliera, 5 and 108.

[xl] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 80.

[xli] Barriault, Spalliera, 2.

[xlii] Cosimo Rosselli’s painting of the Last Supper in the Sistine Chapel provides a suggestion of how these panels would have looked in situ.  See Barriault, Spalliera, 10 and 20.

[xliii] Fermor, Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, 41.

[xliv] Barriault, Spalliera, 5 and 61 and James Lindow, The Renaissance Palace in Florence: Magnificence and Splendour in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Burlington:  Ashgate, 2007), 166.

[xlv] Motture, “Art in the casa,” 276.

[xlvi] Barriault, Spalliera, 6.

[xlvii] Patrons were often directly involved in the selection of the subject, so it may very well have been Guidantonio or Giovanni who proposed the clever pun with the family name. See Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 78.

[xlviii] Similarly, Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, also commissioned by the Vespucci, has a wasp’s nest in the upper right hand corner.  See Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 100.

[xlix] Höfele, Renaissance Go-Betweens, 126.

[l] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 78. 

[li] Lindow, Renaissance Palace, 129 and 131.

[lii] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 81-82.

[liii] Everett Fahy, Jr., “Some later works of Piero di Cosimo,” Gazette des Beaux Arts Vol. 65 (April, 1965):  203.

[liv] Barriault, Spalliera, 5-6.

[lv] Matthews, “Discovery of Honey,” 359.

[lvi] Matthews, “Discovery of Honey,” 359.

[lvii] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 145.

[lviii] Matthews, “Discovery of Honey,” 360.

[lix] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 144.

[lx] Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo: Visions, 102-103.

[lxi] Hirschauer, Piero di Cosimo: Poetry, 148.



Barolsky, Paul. “As in Ovid, So in Renaissance Art.” Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 51, No. 2 (Summer, 1998):  451-474.

———. Infinite Jest: Wit and Humor in Italian Renaissance Art.  Columbia:  University of Missouri Press, 1978.

Barriault, Anne. Spalliera Paintings of Renaissance Tuscany: Fables of Poets for Patrician Homes.  University Park:  Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994.

Brown, Alison. “Lucretius and the Epicureans in the Social and Political Context of Renaissance Florence.” I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance Vol. 9 (2001):  11-62.

Brucker, Gene. Renaissance Florence.  Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 1969.

Douglas, R. Langton. “The Fall of Man by Piero di Cosimo.” The Burlington Magazine Vol. 86, No. 507 (June, 1945):  134-139.

———. Piero di Cosimo.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946.

Dresser, Louisa, editor. European Paintings in the Collection of the Worcester Art Museum.  Worcester:  Worcester Art Museum, 1974.

Emison, Patricia. “The Paysage Moralisé.” Artibus et Historiae Vol. 16, No. 31 (1995): 125-137.

Fahy, Everett, Jr. “Some later works of Piero di Cosimo.”  Gazette des Beaux Arts Vol. 65 (April, 1965): 201-212.

Fermor, Sharon. Piero di Cosimo: Fiction, Invention and Fantasìa.  London:  Reaktion Books, 1993.

Geronimus, Dennis. Piero di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2006.

Hirschauer, Gretchen and Dennis Geronimus. Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence.  Washington, D.C.:  National Gallery of Art, 2015.

Höfele, Andreas and Werner von Koppenfels, editors. Renaissance Go-Betweens: Cultural Exchange in Early Modern Europe.  Berlin:  Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2005.

Lindow, James. The Renaissance Palace in Florence: Magnificence and Splendour in Fifteenth-Century Italy.  Burlington:  Ashgate, 2007.

Matthews, Thomas. “Piero di Cosimo’s Discovery of Honey.” The Art Bulletin Vol. 45, No. 4 (December, 1963):  357-360.

Miller, John. “Piero Di Cosimo’s Ovidian Diptych.” Arion Vol. 15, No. 2 (Fall, 2007):  1-14.

Motture, Peta and Luke Syson. “Art in the casa.”  In At Home in Renaissance Italy, edited by Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis, 268-283.  London:  V&A Publications, 2006.

Panofsky, Erwin. “The “Discovery of Honey” by Piero di Cosimo.” Worcester Art Museum Annual Report II (1936-1937):  32-43.

———. “The Early History of Man in a Cycle of Paintings by Piero di Cosimo.” Journal of the Warburg Institute Vol. 1, No. 1 (July, 1937):  12-30.

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