Renaissance exhibition at Musée du Luxembourg in Paris the stuff of dreams

Renaissance artists found dreams a rich source of inspiration and self-expression

Italian painterBattista Dossi’s Allegory of Night, one of the paintings in the exhibition The Renaissance and Dreams; Bosch, Véronèse, El Greco, at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris until January 26th.

Italian painterBattista Dossi’s Allegory of Night, one of the paintings in the exhibition The Renaissance and Dreams; Bosch, Véronèse, El Greco, at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris until January 26th.


Dreaming is an experience known to every human. But our concept of what it’s about has changed dramatically over the centuries, as shown by the exhibition The Renaissance and Dreams; Bosch, Véronèse, El Greco at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris until January 26th.

Medieval man believed dreams put him in contact with the supernatural. That belief persisted into the Renaissance, when the dream occupied a central place in visual arts.

“The Renaissance attributed great power to the imagination,” explains Yves Hersant, professor of Renaissance history at Paris’s École des hautes études, and one of three curators for the exhibition. “That is what gave the Renaissance its vigour. Until then, people were suspicious of imagination; they thought it was misleading, that it came from the devil.”

Sleeping woman
In Battista Dossi’s Allegory of Night (1543-1544), the classical figure of a sleeping woman dreams bathed in moonlight, watched over by a rooster, symbol of dawn, and a night owl.

The background of Dossi’s oniric canvas is lit by a burning city, populated with monsters.

Paintings travelled around Europe, even in the 16th century, and Dossi was influenced by the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch, whose canvases he’s believed to have seen in Venice.

Psychoanalysis and neuro-science have taught us that dreams stem from our own experience, often from childhood.

“During the Renaissance, dreams were believed to predict the future,” says art historian Chiara Rabbi-Bernard, a curator of the exhibition.

Giorgio Vasari recounted how the painter Spinello Aretino was killed by a dream, around 1410. In his Fall of the Rebel Angels, Aretino depicted a black and furry Lucifer with bestial features. “This character he’d painted appeared in his dream, and asked why (Aretino) had shamelessly ridiculed him with his paintbrushes,” Vasari wrote. The painter died soon after, driven half mad.

Inexhaustible source
The exhibition reminds us that religion has vanished from modern Western art, for the Bible was an inexhaustible source for Renaissance painters. Angels ascend and descend Jacob’s dream ladder. Joseph explains to Pharoah that seven fat cows presage seven years of Celtic Tiger; seven lean cows, seven years of recession.

Michele de Matteo Lambertini’s Dream of the Virgin (1440) tells the story of Christianity in one simple canvas. While the Virgin sleeps, Adam and Eve hold apples and converse with the human-faced snake wound around the trunk of an apple tree. In its branches hangs the crucified Christ.

Post-Bible, Véronèse’s Saint Helena (1570-1575) dreams at the window of a Venetian palace while two winged cherubs fly by, helicopter-like, carrying the True Cross. The mother of the Christian emperor Constantine allegedly located the relic from a vision while visiting Jerusalem in 326.

But this Saint Helena, on exceptional loan from the National Gallery in London, is 16th century royalty.

“The colours of Véronèse!” exclaims Alessandro Cecchi, director of the Palatina Gallery at the Pitti Palace in Florence, and the exhibition’s third curator. “His way of rendering silk; the fabric. It’s incredible!”

Pagan mythology
Renaissance art also contains a good dose of pagan mythology. In Lorenzo Lotto’s Maiden’s Dream or Allegory of Chastity (1506), tiny white flowers are sprinkled on to the lap of a young woman by an airborne cherub. A drunken satyr lolls in the foreground, while a female satyr, presumably his mate, spies like a voyeur from behind a tree. There’s a sense of purity co-existing with debauchery, but one isn’t quite sure what it means.

A section of the exhibition is devoted to nightmares, the speciality of Flemish painters. Bosch’s horrific visions of humans tortured by rodents, reptiles and devils were so popular that they were widely imitated, and sold like hotcakes in Antwerp.

Tondal, a clever but unscrupulous knight and usurer – in Medieval fiction, the equivalent of a Wall Street trader – dreams in the right foreground of The Vision of Tondal (1520-1530), by the school of Hieronymus Bosch. Rats scamper into the empty eye sockets of a large head at the centre of the canvas. Trees grow from its ears. The head breathes money into a black pool where naked humans flail about.

Naked humans
A devil skewers a woman sitting on dice. Other naked humans are forced to ingurgitate wine, stabbed and beheaded. By witnessing the punishments that were meant for him, Tondal finds salvation. But the theme of greed is ever with us. The painting is said to illustrate Jeremiah’s still pertinent admonition to “foolish people” who have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear.

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