August 2010: Hendrik Goltzius „Danae Awaiting Zeus”

Published on: 28 / 07 / 2010

Authors of this entry:
  • Magdalena Palica

The large-size canvas painting, executed by Hendrik Goltzius in 1603, is defined as one of the most exquisite nude paintings of the 17th century.

The painting was already being admired by the artist’s contemporaries. The Flemish art theoretician Karel van Mander, author of the biographical cycle of Dutch painters, included in his work an enthusiastic opinion about the painting executed under his eyes, having emphasized the exquisite depiction of a nude. Precedent for Danae were the nudes by Titian and Michelangelo which had been admired by the artists during a study tour through Italy, that he had made in 1590-1591. Contemporarily Golztius had created a sketch, depicting the sleeping Ariadna, presently housed in the Vatican Collections. The sculpture of the same theme might have had inspired the painter to depict Danae asleep.

The Goltzius’ canvas depicts a scene from the history of Danae that was often undertaken by artists, related to the Ovidius’ Metamorphoses. Danae was imprisoned by her father Acrisios, the king of Argos, in a palace tower. Having imprisoned his daughter the ruler would have been protected from fulfilling an oracle prophecy, according to which the king was supposed to be killed by his grandson. The coincidence however didn’t prevent the omnipotent Zeus, charmed by beauty of the young woman, from breaking guilefully into her ward, having turned into the rain of gold. Fruit of this appointment was Perseus. The desperate Acrisios tried to put Danae and her son to death, having by throwing them into the sea in a box; they were yet rescued by intervention of Zeus. Many years later the oracle’s prophecy came true, as Perseus killed Acrisios with a discus.

The painter chose a moment, as the princess is reclining in isolation. In the foreground luxurious objects forming a still life can be seen: an ornamented casket full of golden coins and pieces of embellishment, a pair of silk shoes decorated with pearls, a precious cup surmounted with a Bacchus figure and glass vase. In the upper left corner of the painting appears an eagle – Zeus emissary, holding a thunder in his claws with power of turning things into gold. Mercury, the patron of merchants who appears by the main figure of the painting, generated, beginning with Karel van Mander, the painting’s interpretation as allegory of wealth. However some researchers have recently rejected such interpretation, suggesting the painting wouldn’t include moralizing tone, whereas Mercury would rather serve as personification of eloquence and biting jest.

This eminent painting by Goltzius, since its execution at the beginning of the 17th century, had been housed by the Amsterdam art collectors, including the art cabinet of Geerit Braamcamp (till 1771). Prior to 1778 the painting landed in the collection of Prince Peter Biron, one decade afterwards, it was transferred, together with the whole collection to Żagań in Silesia, where it could be admired through the following two centuries.

Project co-financed by Ministry of Labour and Social Policy under Government Project – Civic Benefit Fund.
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