“Sine Cerere te Baccho friget Venus.”
(Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus freezes)– “Eunuchus”, Terence (c.195/185- c.159 B.C.)
This Latin proverb from a Roman comedy has been interpreted throughout the ages as the notion that without food and wine, love grows cold. It was also sometimes depicted in art, especially in Northern Mannerism, as in this painting, “Bacchus, Ceres and Cupid” by German painter Hans Von Aachen (1552-1615).
The seductive sway that the physical pleasures of eating and drinking have on increasing ones sexual appetite is familiar to us even in modern times. Romantic partners wine and dine as a preamble to more intimate moments. Certain foods are known to have aphrodisiac properties, such as oysters, strawberries and chilli peppers. Wine stimulates the senses and lowers ones inhibitions.
In fact, the link between wine and sex is not an arbitrary one. Studies have found that ethanol in wine and other alcoholic beverages stimulates the hypothalamus, which is the primitive part of the brain that regulates body temperature, hunger and sex drive.
Beyond the connection between food, wine and love, what more might this painting have to say about the appetites of its patron and viewers?
The painting depicts Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture and fertility, with Bacchus, the Roman god of viticulture and wine. The boy in the bottom left of the painting, although unclear, is believed to be Cupid or Amor. Ceres is nude, shown from behind yet with her gaze directed outwards toward the viewer of the painting. A young, half-clothed Bacchus encircles her with a rapturous gaze, his right hand caressing her skin, his left hand holding a bunch of grapes over her shoulder, and his left knee propped up by her side. Ceres is holding a glass of wine, presumably offered to her by Bacchus, and Cupid is offering her a basket filled with fruit, referencing the Roman proverb mentioned above. Given the posture of Bacchus and the nudeness of Ceres, the painting’s eroticism is all to evident, but there is more.
Ceres was believed to have given the gift of agriculture to mankind by making the land fertile. In fact, her name became synonymous with bread and grain, giving us the word “cereal”. As she had given man their first fields, she had also given them their first boundaries, which positioned her as patron and protector of settled, lawful, civilised life. As such, she also protected the transition of girls into womanhood and married life. On the contrary, Bacchus was the legendary liberator, freeing people from the constraints of social conventions through altered states of inebriation and ecstasy. This notion gives the painting not only an erotic tone but also a subversive one as Bacchus is seen seducing the lawful and civilised Ceres.
If so, how was such an erotic and subversive painting allowed in the upper circles of “High-art” in the renaissance? It was in good company. The Greek and Roman statues of antiquity were a major influence on 14th and 15th century art, spurred on by the humanist movement and its interest in the revival of classical themes. Artists such as Michelangelo, Di Vinci, Titan and Tintoretto were instrumental in raising the nude to the standard of the highest artistic expression. Furthermore, by painting classical figures in mythological scenes, painters could claim an intellectual interest in the revival of the maniera all’antica, disinterested rather than inspired by sexual desire. The mannerist style of painting, such as in this one, succeeded the high renaissance, keeping the classical themes but exaggerating the classic ideals of proportion, balance and harmony in search of a new art form. It is characterised by such qualities as elongated figures, distorted perspectives, a play of light and darkness, and asymmetric compositions with atmospheric effects.
“Painting was sexy in the Renaissance. It was lascivious, lurid, voyeuristic, and indulged in spectacular fantasies.”– Jonathan Jones, “What Lies Beneath”, The Guardian
“Abduction of Proserpine”, Hans Von Aachen (1552-1615); “Leda and the Swan”, Rubens (1577-1649); “Susanna and the Elders”, Tintoretto (1518-1584).
But there is another, perhaps more rudimentary, reason for a prevalence of erotic images in renaissance art that has to do with the advent of oil painting. John Berger in his revolutionary book “Ways of Seeing” points out the relation between possessing and property and the specific way of seeing embraced by the oil painting tradition from 1500 to 1900. He argues that, for the art collector, a painting can confirm one’s wealth and status by showing him images that either celebrate his own property or show him what else he might posses, be it in materials or lifestyle. It starts with still life, where actual merchandise becomes the subject matter of art, and extends to portraits with the sitter surrounded by objects demonstrating their wealth and class, to livestock, buildings and the property of landowners, even to the ascribed moral value and nobility of mythological scenes. He quotes Lévi-Strauss,
“For Renaissance artists, painting was perhaps an instrument of knowledge but it was also an instrument of possession, and we must not forget, when we are dealing with Renaissance painting, that it was only possible because of the immense fortunes which were being amassed in Florence and elsewhere, and that rich Italian merchants looked upon painters as agents, who allowed them to confirm their possession of all that was beautiful and desirable in the world.”– Lévi-Strauss, “Conversations with Charles Charbonnier, Cape Editions”
“Still Life with a Lobster”, De Heem (1606-1684); “Picture Gallery of Cardinal Valenti Gonzaga”, Panini (1692-1765/6); “The Ambassadors”, Holbein (1497/8-1543).
This obsession with possessing is expressed visibly in the oil painting through its tangibility and the great skill of the artist to create the illusion of looking at real objects. Silks, furs and tapestries- cushions, wood, and marble surfaces- luscious fruit, meats and even flesh are all painted in such vivid detail as to appeal to one’s sense of touch. They are delectable, sensuous and tantalising, seducing the viewer with what Berger refers to as “the language of tactile sensation”.
When it comes to erotic images, Jones acknowledges the power that this gave to the painter to arouse and feed sexual appetites,
“When oil paint started to be used in the 15th century, it was an unprecedented technology for portraying the flesh: it allowed bodies to be depicted as if they were present and graspable by the viewer.”– Jonathan Jones, “What Lies Beneath”, The Guardian
“The Venus of Urbino”, Titan (1487-1576); “Venus, Cupid, Time and Love”, Bronzino (1503-1572); “Nell Gwynne”, Lely (1618-1689)
But to arouse who and to feed whose sexual appetite can not be overlooked. In the case of the female nude within the context of European oil painting, the viewer is presumed to be a heterosexual male and therefore the painting appeals to heterosexual male sexuality. The classic supine posture and passive gaze of the women depicted in many of these paintings position the woman as agent-less, having no sexuality of her own but rather offering her body up for the viewing pleasure of the spectator. Even if the female nude is depicted with a lover, she is often still not the sexual protagonist, rather she ad hears to the convention by being sexualised for who the scene was painted for.
As in this painting, the nude female is not the subject of her own sexuality but the object of the viewer’s. She does not exist for herself, she exists to flatter, please, arouse and otherwise feed the male viewer’s sexual appetite- she has been painted in that way.
This painting was commissioned by Emperor Rudolf II of Prague, one of Hans Von Aachen’s most important patrons. Thanks to the emperor and his love of art, Prague became a major art centre in Europe and an instrumental influence on the development and spread of the Mannerism movement. Emperor Rudolf II personally chose the subject and style of the paintings he appointed, which were often mythological and erotic in tone and intended to glorify the emperor.
This makes it very clear that Cere’s gaze is directed at him, the emperor and owner of the painting. One could further conclude that the role of Bacchus in seducing Ceres, and the momentary glimpse the scene offers right before he seizes upon her, is intended to offer the viewer a fantasy directed at their own sexual desire.
That being said, this painting and others of similar nature are not merely pornographic. One must remember the great skill of the artist in rendering such a palpable image. This is also not to say that paintings of this kind should be disregarded because they could be seen as derogatory towards women, for all art, now and then, reflects the conventions and sentiments of its time. Painting, if nothing else, offers a visual timeline of human experience and the human condition, and examining the context of our lives is a worthwhile endeavour.
Sources and further reading:
Most of the paintings referenced in this post were seen and discussed in John Berger’s book “Ways of Seeing”, a book which has been an immense source of inspiration for me and one I would recommend to anyone who wants to train their critical eye when looking at art.
Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing”. Penguin Books, 1972
Jones, Jonathan. (2000). “Art and Design: What Lies Beneath”, The Guardian, 28 November. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com
Korey, Alexandra. (2015). “Love and Sex in Italian Renaissance Art”, Arttrav, 2 February. Available at: https://www.arttrav.com
Wolk-Simon, Linda. (2008). “Profane Love and Erotic Art in the Italian Renaissance.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, November. Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org
“Renaissance Porn: A Brief History of the European Erotic Nude”. (2019). Art Space, 23 July. Available at: https://www.artspace.com