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2004 | 17 | 49-66

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'Polyhymnia' by Hendrick III van Cleve and Classical Sources for the Modern Iconography of the Muses


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The collections of the Archdiocesan Museum in Katowice contain a painting by Hendrick III van Cleve, heretofore identified as 'Woman against the Backdrop of Roman Ruins' or an 'Allegorical Figure' , mistakenly identified with Thusnelda (oak board, 133 x 63 cm, oil-tempera). The painting, which comes from the inter-war collection of Rev. Emil Szramek, is signed with a combined monogram HVC and bears the date 1551. The original model of the female figure is Polyhymnia from a Roman sarcophagus with Apollo, Minerva and the Muses (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), which during the sixteenth century stood in front of the S. M. Maggiore church in Rome. Earlier, the classical model of Polyhymnia was emulated in depictions of the Muses (Filippino Lippi, Marcantonio Raimondi and Baldassare Peruzzi) and melancholic Figures (Lambert Sustris, Stephan von Calcar). 'Polyhymnia' by Hendrick van Cleve is a melancholic-saturnine figure depicted against the background of the interior of the Colosseum. A pedestal with satyrs is close to projects of herms by Cornelis Bos and Virgil Solis. Polyhymnia (Latin: rich in song) personifies the sacral choral song, while the satyrs - music with a Dionysian, ecstatic overtone. Polyhymnia and the satyrs symbolise two separate worlds of music conceived in accordance with Greek principles as an element moulding behaviour and character: the first is associated with the moral impact of the rhetoric word and poetry in the Apollonian spirit, while the second is the domain of instinct, awakened senses and ecstasy. The male half-bust featured in a rounded niche could be a self-portrait of the young artist - in that case, the van Cleve work would belong to a rare group of likenesses of artists shown against the backdrop of Roman ruins. The Colosseum is both one of the wonders of the classical world and a 'vanitas' image of the fleeting glory of antiquity. 'Polyhymnia' by Hendrick III van Cleve occupies a special place in his oeuvre - it was executed probably in Antwerp immediately after his return from Italy, during the year of his enrolment into the guild, and became a pretext for presenting the painter's Italian erudition. It is also the only figural composition in his exclusively landscape work, and discloses analogies to the Italian paintings by Lambert van Noort, although from the viewpoint of the workshop it discloses a glaringly unskilful rendition of the anatomy. Finally, 'Polyhymnia' remains one of the most interesting examples of antiquisation in works by members of the third generation of Italianite artists from the Low Countries.







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  • M. Kalecinski, Uniwersytet Gdanski, Zaklad Historii Sztuki, ul. Wita Stwosza 55, 80-952 Gdansk-Oliwa, Poland


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