The Striding Nymph in Mannerism III


Altti Kuusamo


The Striding Nymph in Mannerism III


”Accessories in Motion” and Their Symbols:  Dionysian Themes and Sacrifices


When we expect the great unveiling (–), we just find more symbols.

                                                                                    Darian Leader 2002, 80.


Salviati and Dionysian sarcophaguses

Francesco Salviati who was Florentine by his birth has always seemed to be enigmatic for his self-erudition and his taste for antiquities: until recently we have been uncertain of his ways to adapt antique relieves.  References in his many paintings do not open easily. Many models or shall we say, many schemes of the poses of his paintings has to be approached  as carefully, as poignantly as when playing puzzle: some pieces derive from antiquity, some from two earlier centuries. Iris Cheney marked that the female figure in Salviatin fresco The Birth of St. John  the Baptist (1551, Oratorio di San Giovanni Decollato, Rooma; Image 1) who offers the doves to St. Elizabeth luing in the bed, may wtih a good reason be derived to the figure in the antique sarcophagus of County Museum (Los Angeles) (Cheney 1963, 241, note 250).[1] This discovery does not seem to be without relevance although the pose is quite ordinary in Salviati’s oeuvre. Salviati quotes everybody and everything, even his former pictures. Especially his relationship to antiquity is a challenging chapter in the rhetoric of the indirect way of making quotations and thematic in the mid-cinquecento (eg. Rubin 1987, 90-91; Nova 1992, 95-99).[2] However it is not coincidence that also in this case the figural pose has been taken from the Dionysian sarcophaguses.

We can form a hypothesis: Quotations from Dionysian sarcophaguses were in favour in the paintings dating from early 16th century and thereafter, especially those which depicted the birth of Mary and John the Baptist – especially those dealing with the early childhood of Dionysius. We have to ask: is it possible that ancient pagan images of early childhood could resonate in the pictures of the Christian birth chamber, especially those dealing with the birth of Dionysus? We don’t know many Roman sarcophagi from the mid-sixteenth century which refer to the birth of Dionysus. Yet we know that even at that time the vocabulary of the birth of Dionysius was very accurate. And really, this vocabulary became even more refined in the later times.  This also means that according to later excavations and findings this vocabulary refer to a certain structure which in the course of time, long after the Renaissance, in accordance with later findings of some sargohagi, has become more evident.

Perhaps the most important antique relief depicting the birth of Dionysus which was known at the time of Renaissance, was the end side of the called Princeton-Arezzo-Woburn –sarcophagus (Woburn Abbey).The exact theme was the Bath of Dionysus. The relief shows two nymphs who are bending down to take care of the bathing Dionysus. This relief was well known in Florence in teh 15th century – already at the time when Donatello and his contemporaries were interested in the antique themes. The relief played a role of the model for Donatello when he made a bronze relief for the San Lorenzo in (Matz III, 1969, 354-356). For some reason Friedrich Matz does not mention the year of the find of the relief (ibid). Bober and Rubinstein who have listed the influence of the antiquity to the imagery of the Renaissance don’t pay any attention to the sarcophagus (1986). Instead Bober and Rubinstein notice the sarcophagus of The Childhood of Bacchus (Museo delle Terme, Rome) which was really known in the age of the Renaissance and which appears in some quattrocento paintings – as in the paintings of the follower of Jacopo Bellini and in Fra Carnevale pictures. Bober ja Rubinstein present the list of the pictorial sitations of this relief (1986, 106-107). However, in those antique sarcophagi which depict the birth of  Dionysus and which were known during the Renaissance canephors didn’t appear, only some assistant nymphs. Of course, there were dancing maenads in other Dionysian sarcophagi (look the I part of this series of articles).


Besides the Woburn Abbey relief only a few reliefs depicting the birth of Dionysus were known during the Renaissance. One of the main sources is the Roman sarcophagus at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art which represents the so-called ”Marriage” or ”Private Life” type. Also Cheney refers to this relief (1963, ibid.). The sarcophagus has been found as unbroken. It was recorded for the first time in the Wolfegg sketchbook, an early sixteenth century collection of drawings. We know it also because Giovanni Pannini has drawn a picture of it (Loeffler 1957, 1-5; see also Codex Folfegg, fol. 25v-26). Now we know drawings in the codex were by Amico Aspertini (Schweikhart 1986, 65-66). The right side of the sarcophagus is occupied by the scene of the bathing of the newborn child before his mother and two Fates (ibid. 1). The pictorial afterlife of the sarcophacus has been greatly studied, but not so much the scene of the bath of the baby (see Bober-Rubinstein 1986). Schweikhart does not problematize the scene (ibid.).


In Salviati’s fresco depicting Saint John the Baptist there are also other quotations dating back to antiquity – besides quotations from the contemporary time. Especially the woman who stakes part in the washing group of St. John arouses interest, in many ways. Her fingers measure the warmness of water and at the same time try to look at the baby in a twisted pose – the name of which was figura serpentinata at that time. Is has been often referred that the model for this difficult pose comes from the Letto di Policleto -relief – even if  her pose is the mirror image of the antique model (Keller 1976, 44; Hall 1999, 160,195; Bober-Rubinstein 1986, 127-128 [who do not mention  Salviati]; E.H. Gombrich traces the model back to paintings of Giulio Romano).[3]   The whole scene is loaded with pastiches. Salviati even quotes himself while he was just finishing the washing group in the illusory foreground of the painting The Birth of the Virgin by Sebastiano del Piombo (1547-1550, Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome) The connection between this painting and the Birth of the Baptist has often stated as obvious (see Keller 1976, 44). The figures of Michelangelo gave motivation for Salviati  to quote: the small John the Baptist has been depicted in the strong foreshortened pose, the same way as Michelangelo’s Jonas in the fresco ceiling of the Sistine chapel. However, as we all know, Salviati has depicted him as a mirror image of Jonas This was recognized already by Cheney (1963, 241, note 250; Weisz 1984, 31-32).


Salviati invested a lot of referential or topical meanings in his paintings. We can say that those references were as “twisted” or undirect as his figures. That is why the stand of the head of the lady sitting and looking up is also a visual quote. Her profile has a surprising similarity with the profile of the head of the maenad second to the right in the relief called Thiasos dionisiaco. This similarity has not been noticed before. The sarcophagus is in the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston (see Matz I, 1968, 106; also Gasparri 1984, 228; FIGURE 2). The sarcophagus has been mentioned already in the list of  Ulisse Aldrovandi which listed antique sculptures in Rome. The list is from the  1556 is included in the book of Aldrovandi ja Luco Mauro, called  Le Antichita de la città di Roma. They mention that the sarcophagus was in the gardens of  Farnese until the end the 1550s and that it was found from Tivoli (Aldrovandi 1556, 165-166).  When we take into account that Salviati was in close relation to the representatives of the Farnese-family exactly at that time: he was painting the frescoes in Cappella Pallio at the Cancelleria palace (the end of 1540s). Thiasos dionisiaco depicts the feast of the wine harvest.? Figures of women and puttoes alternate in the maenadic procession. Matz describes the female figure in the right angle as follows: ”The woman raises the bunch of grapes with her both arms (–) She wears a long chiton” (Matz I, 1968, 108). Also Salviati’s female figure has a chiton around her. The similarity of the facial profiles is easy to note: both have raised their heads and look upwards. Salviati is quite weird here, because also his Deposition from the Cross (Santa Croce, Florence, 1547-48; the date: Mortari 1992, 115) there seems to be a female figure with the same profile. Also Weisz has noticed this self-quotation (1984, 156, note 25). This would imply that Salviati’s profile motive is a bit earlier one. It has to be mentioned that Salviati has painted almost the same female profile also in the foreground group of the  he had to finish in Sebastiano del Piombo’s Birth of the Virgin  (circa 1550). Anyway, the affinity of the figure with the Thiasos-sarcophagus is not a casual one: Salviati’s figure who is sitting in the figura serpentinata pose has a same kind of hair and the straight nose and especially the similar forehead as the figure in the relief. Also the open mouth has depicted the same way as in the relief model.


It is hard to say when Salviati could have seen the relief in the Farnese garden. We only know that his interest was keen in the antique sculpture – which is easy to notice when looking at his oeuvre and interests. For the painter in his position it was easy to have an access to the Farnese Garden.  Although Aldrovandi refers that Thiasos-relief was found in Tivoli, he does not mention when, exactly (1556, 165-166). However is quite clear that the date of Aldrovandi´s book is not the same as the date of the found – perhaps much more earlier. Besides the Thiasos-quotation there are also some other discernible pastiches in The Birth of the Baptist, the table: its form and its lion’s legs and the place in the pictorial scene besides – the bed – refer accurately to the scene of the so-called Triclinium-sarcophague, especially to the token which is in British Museum, London; Bober-Rubinstein do not mention Salviati’s picture when discussing the Triclinium-sarcophague (1986, 122-124). In addition to these details there are also other nicely cultivated quotations in Salviati’s fresco, also, but they are not so important for our subject.


In several paintings of Salviati there is an ancella who has been depicted sitting in a twisted pose. The figure is an often met intertextual figure in the art Post-Raphael art. Salviati has added only the ancient profile of this motive-type. According to Marcia Hall in Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta’s fresco The Birth of the Virgin (Santa Maria dell’Anima, Rooma, early 1560s) “the woman in the right foreground recalls Salviati’s woman pouring water in his Nativity of the Baptist and like her prototype, she evokes a memory of the ‘Letto di Policleto’” (1999, 195).[4]  In fact Hall’s observation is not accurate: she mixes the hands of two figures: a hand of the woman who is pouring water with the hand of the figure who is trying to catch the towel. Be that as it may, “Letto di Policleto” is a common denominator of the sitting women. We have to mention also the sitting figure  in Giovanni Porta’s  drawing The Birth of the John the Baptist (Dyce Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum; circa 1537). The drawing is an obvious sketch for Salviati’s painting (probably one of them). We can ask: are there any mediating figures between Letto di Policleto and Porta’s drawing?  One mediating figure might be a sitting woman in an engraving by Battista del Moro depicting The Birth of Mary. This engraving has been executed according to drawing of  Giulio Romano form the early 1530s (see Massari 1993, 189, image 177). In fact the figure is the of the same type has the figure of sitting Mary Magdalena in Salviati’s painting Deception from the Cross (1547-48). So, we have a circle of migrations. But there is even more in it. The figure also migrates from the engravings of del Moro to Francesco Torbido’s fresco The Birth of Mary, which is in the choir vault of the Duomo of Verona (circa 1535). And finally we have to look at the lady who is pouring water in a semi-twisted pose in Sebastianon del Piombo’s Birth of Mary – of course, in that part of the scene which Salviati finished. The motive must have come from Romano (via Torbido). The common denominator is The Birth (of Mary or John the Baptist). Salviati could have seen Torbido’s fresco in Verona’s cathedral when he was travelling from Venice to Florence 1539-40. In this sense it yet is interesting to refer to Salviati’s woodcut in the title page of  Pietro Aretino’s book La Vita di Maria Vergine (1539). The picture is Salviati’s first in the series of sacred births. The distribution of the scene is stretto: it is cramped and abstract eikä siihen ole mahtunut yhtään caneforaa – kirjan aiheen decorum on nähtävästi estänyt sen.


In fact the pose of the sitting figure with her curious profile has an intratextual power in Salviati’s own oeuvre: she will migrate from the pictures of the birth-pictures to the other even quicker than the picture of striding nymph or canephor. The motive has a distinct intermodal potential. It is a small detail but still we can think that it is a kind of an ”energetic inversion” in warburgian sense: the profile travels from the images depicting the antique harvest triumph (Thiasos) to the images which describe both the birth (The Birth of John the Baptist, 1551, San Giovanni Decollato) and the death (The Deposition from the Cross, 1547-48; Santa Croce, Florence) and takes in those pictures a curious accessory role.


All in all in Salviati’s Birth of the Baptist there is a bunch of pictorial quotations which refer back to the sarcophagi of Dionysus. They continue in the frame of the picture in the Oratory. Jean Weisz perustellusti toteaa: ”oikeastaan roomalaiset dionyysiset sarkofagit tuntuvat tarjoavan päälähteen dekoratiivisten kehysten motiiveille” (1984, 15). Here Weisz refers to small simulated relief-images which have been situated in the framing zone of the picture, as a kind of footnotes for storie. In this images the theme of purification are seemingly ruling. The centrality of the fertility symbols of Antiquity in the Oratory is, according to Weisz self-evident (ibid. 15, 33). However Weisz refers only hazily to Friedrich Matz’s book on Dionysian sarcophagi which cotains four parts (Weisz 1984, 151, note 10). He does not want to take into account Cheney’s ideas of some accurate influences from Antiquity which Salviati has in his fresco. Especially the references to the Los Angeles sarcophagus (see: Cheney 1963, 241-242).


Dionysian sarcophagi gave a many challenging models to depict even very difficult poses of the body, bodies which are moving and dancing in a twisted position. Although in many of the sarcophagi the cloth and the movement of muscles were illustrated in a rough way, they gave an excuse to Mannerist artists to depict strong movement of the body – and at the same time they challenge to surpass their models in the depiction of the complex and manifold draperies. In this way accessory devices, such as hear and drapery, came to be the most important details to depict strong movements and striving bodies (ks. Rushton 1976, 182; vrt. Warburg 1969, 21-22).



The mediating role of the gift giver


When asking what kind of operative or symbolic role the striding nymph (ancella) and canephor have in the paintings of the birth of Mary and St. John the Baptist and how these figures articulate space or were articulated by space, we have to answer by pondering what kind of meanings the spectacle of giving of presents to the new mother carry before the end of 15th century and – how did the mise an scene of the birth room change in the middle of the 16th century. In this way we can specify the iconographical meaning of the striding nymph of the time. We can suppose that iconography follows forms – e.g. changing ways to divide and crowd the space carry or imply new iconography.


When comparing different birth scenes since the beginning of the 14th century it seems obvious that  the main task of the present giver is to determine the marginal zone of the scene. The role of the canephor or the present giver is in that sense liminal (cf. Gandelman 1991, 37-52). In the elder imagery the figure who carries gifts and food to the birth chamber to a mother, marked the marked the borderline between birth chamber and outer space. In that sense they were on the edge. This role belonged to handmaidens (see: Kemp 1996, 44). Gift giver was depicted to enter the birth camber so that the point of view was outside a room (which was in fact a house). This angle gave a scene an ambiguous flavor. Janson-La Palme speaks of the ambiguity of the relationship endo- and exotgenic   1975, 230). Question is of the ritualistic space in-between, of liminality, the person who acts as a mediator between inner and outer world (Turner 1969   )


To hand out of a gift belonged to some outstanding guest. Although they exceeded spatial boundary lines, the birth chamber was a private space, and was depicted as. However the situation changed during the Renaissance: The tendency to make a birth chamber a place of a ritual was in air at that. The good example is Massaccio’s birth disc (desco da parto) in Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. The disc was made for the birth and its subject-matter referred to the situation after the birth. It depicts the first ceremonial the first visit to meet the new mother. Also during this ceremony desco da parto itself was also given to mother.


Already in maniera greca the gift giver had a special place in the paintings describing the Birth of Mary. However there were small differences regarding the special iconography of the event. In the paintings of the 11th century they gave some eggs to St. Anne. Their symbolic meaning is the fertility (Lafontaine-Dosogne I, 1964, 92). The bringing of a gift or sacrifice itself to the inner space emphasized the transference of Mary from one state to the other in a symbolic level (Kemp 1996, 23-24).[5] Don Denny who has analyzed Giotto’s famous fresco the Birth of Mary is convinced of the symbolic meaning of, not only the bringing of food, but also the open doorway: the food is transported inside the sacred space. Without doubt the interpretation of Denny is a brave one: ”through the doorway into the thalamus of Anna” (1973, 205-7). In this sense the whole house (meaning room) has to be understood as the sacred interior of St. Anne. This belief was said to be common during the Middle Ages (ibid). Finally, the Renaissance brought a change to this visual topos. From the mid-15th-century they start to depict the handmaiden entering inside the birth room, in most of the cases. In the next century Mannerism even strengthened this mode of narrative by reproducing the gift givers and handmaidens: finally the room was full of female figures the room servants, gests and midwifes (ancelle and guardarinne).


It is important to notice that even in the Middle Ages they shaped the meaning of Mary through architectural associations. However, the spacial meanings were changing around mid-quattrocento. Since then the point of view is now inside the house.? Traces of the outer space around the house disappear and the beholder’s is looking inside room. The room has been expanded from inside.  This change can be seen in the representations of the inner space from Filippo Lippi on. Andrea del Sarto even expanded the scene of birth room – and after him there came Mannerists. Also the role of the gift giver was changing radically; she was now a integral part of the event played inside the room, and step by step she changed as the messenger of the Antique world, first in Ghirlandaio’s famous Birth of the Baptist – and in this way she was again as foreigner – and finally the pagan Antiquity took more and more hold of the scene in Salviati’s and Sebastiano’s and PÅrospero Fonta’s paintings.


Until the beginning of the 15th century, the servant lade who was bringing the food in the birth scene, was a self-evident mediating figure between outer and inner space. The division between these two spaces was clear. Taddeo Gaddi’s Birth of the Virgin is interersting in this sense: The inner space of St.Anne, is emphasized because the canephor is on the threshold of the doorway, but entering inside. All this is history when Filippo Lippi paints his Tondo Pitti (Palazzo Pitti, Florence). Already in this painting we can see one classical canephor far left in the picture and one – in the foreground. When the domestication of Antique maenads took place in the birth scenes in the late quattrocento (Aby Warburg: ”Domestisierung der Wohenstubewärtrerinnen” ( ), they had a “permission” to be a part of the inner space of St. Anne, so to say. But probably the system of thinking was changed.


We can say that rational conception of space rolled over religious beliefs: the walls of the room coincided with the margin of the picture. The picture of the room was the room for the picture. Every figure could be roomed inside. Finally, during Mannerism,Salviati opens the birth chamber  in his Birth of the Baptist (San Giovanni Decollato) to outer spece again. But now it is according to illusory system: behind the wash group of Mary we can see a canephor getting closer to the doorway. In the end of the 16th century especially in Giovanni Lombardelli’s Birth of Mary (Santo Spirito in Sassia, Rome, the beginning of the 1580s)  the transmitter of the gifts is again in the borderline of the two spaces, but now illusorily so far in the background that the former accessory potential or force, so to say, loses it significance.


Also the bed and the place of it in the birth scene is varies – and along with that the symbolic value of the bed.  In Giotto’s Birth of the Mary (Cappella Arena, Padova) the bed seems to fill the whole of the space. The house is the bed. This tendency is quite noticeable even after Giotto in t14th century, in Taddeo Gaddi’s and Milano’s pictures. Later the architectural meaning of the bed is about to grow: it is clearly inside the room but: the space in the space. According to Peter Thornton headboards become more and more architectural in the 1490s (1991, 117). At the beginning of the 16th century the development is easy to be noticed: the beds in the birth scenes become more independent, the space in its own right, from lettiera to cortinagio; 1991, 135. Finally in Mannerism, the bed become so big that it even determines the room outside the bed as “exterior” and the bed is independent spatial unit around which the crowds of acellas bustle. However, at the begging of the 17th century the situation changes radically: we can see new domestic tendencies taking place during the Counter-Reformation (for example Girolamo Nanni’s The Birth of Mary, 1610, Cappella Canuto. S. Catarina dei Funari). In Simon Vouet’s Birth of Mary (San Francesco a Ripa, the beginning of 1620s) we hardly can discern the bed of St. Anne. Instead, the event of the washing of Mary takes the whole of the illusory foreground.



From Birds to Pastry: The Gift Giver and the Question of Purification


When looking at the birth scenes of the 14th century it is difficult to ascertain, what kind of food the servant brings to the birth chamber. This regards many paintings of the Brith of Mary starting from Giotto’s Arena-chapel. Don Denny has maintained that it is bread the servants bring from the doorway inside the room at that time (1973, 207). Laura Jacobus has referred to the decisive role of the Pseudo-Bonaventura’s book Meditationes (1998, 191-192). Especially Taddeo Gaddi’s Birth of Mary (Santa Croce, Firenze) has been the criterion or the measure for the researchers in this respect. Janson-La Palme thinks that in this painting they bring lamb to Anne (1975, 230, 234-235). In the same church, in cappella Rinuccini there is Giovanni da Milano’s fresco The Birth of Mary which is some 30 years younger (1365). It has also been a difficult case for those who have tried to identify the food unambiguously. The gift brought could be either chicken or a cake (sic!). Yet there are no written documents that it could be a cake (see: Musacchio 1999, 51). In the 14th century the meat made of poultry could be given on a plate – and in this way it was a food-gift – as in Giusto de’Menabuo’s painting The Birth of Mary (1367, National Gallery, London). Later, especially at the end of the  15th century, different kinds of sweat cookies (treggea), were gifts in favour (Musacchio 1999, 40-41).[6] In the Florentine tradition water and wine were the main articles which described on the table of St. Anne (Janson-La Palme 1975, 236).[7]  In this sense the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century – at the latest – brought the change: there also fruits and doves in the basket.


On could ask why canephors appeared mainly in the birth scenes, where is the connection between the bringing of food and canephor? This, of course, concerns mainly the births of Mary and John the Baptist. Before we can answer to this question, we have to give a short view of the relationship of men and women in the birth. During the Renaissance the birth room was a space which was intended to be only for women. Men seldom appeared in the birth room and had a marginal place there.  It is consistent that this setting was also to be seen in the imagery of the birth (Haas 1998, 40-41). We have mentioned some typical cases before – and there are lots of more, for example Domenico Beccafumi’s and Sebastiano del Piombo’s paintings of the The Birth of Mary.


When looking at how the situation after the birth of a baby was described in the Old Testament, we soon realize that the gender condition was contrary to the situation in the Renaissance, especially when the sacrificial rite conducted in the Temple is of concern. The passage to the Temple of Jerusalem through the Porta speciosa to the innermost court, the atrium sacerdotum, was allowed only to all healthy men. Women got at the gates of the innermost court only if they wanted to offer a sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of purification after childbirth (Shearman 1972, 55). When depicting a lame man at the gates of the innermost court of the Temple Raphael also shapes the canephor in his famous cartoon The Healing of the Lame Man (n. 1515; Victorian and Albert Museum, London; FIGURE 3). Shearman has paid little attention to this figure. His note is interesting when thinking of the function of the canephor. Shearman holds that the doves, which are in the basket of the carrier figure, refer to the purification after the birth (ibid).


The third book of Moses, Leviticus, gives an exact information of the purification after the birth, and not only that, also information of those gifts which are proper in that situation: ”Kun pojan tai tytön synnyttämisestä määrätty puhdistumisaika on kulunut umpeen, naisen on tuotava papille pyhäkköteltan oven eteen vuoden vanha karitsa polttouhriksi tai metsäkyyhky tai muu kyyhkynen syntiuhriksi” (3. Moos. 12; syntiuhrista: 3. Moos. 6-7). The doves have a double function: on the one hand they refer to the rite of the sacrifice of the purification rite (this happens especially in the pictorial tradition of the birth of John the baptist)[8] and on the other hand they refer to the purity of the Virgin. Anyway, in the pictorial tradition of the Renaissance a woman who carries the basket of doves over her head refer to the purification rite after the childbirth. As for the birth of the Virgin, the situation was a bit unstable: if there was a belief in the idea of the immaculate conception of Mary (as was the case among the fransiscans), then rite of purification is of no need (ks. Levi-Acona 1957, 5-15). However, doves were depicted in both of the birth scenes. That was not all: also other poultry were depicted, such as hens.


The servant who is bringing the presents (be it canephor or not) to St. Anne, is connected to the birth of Mary especially the symbolic attribute of the dove. In the Christian symbolism the dove means purity, in several levels of meaning – in several stories. Already Leviticus connects a dove to the idea of the purity. This has been stated in other sources, also. Besides that a dove is a symbol feminine beauty. When referring to the symbolic role of the grotesque figures Pirro Ligorio mentions that the symbol of the feminine beauty and purity is a dove (see Coffin 1955, 183, note 101).  Also in the Middle Ages a dove is connected to the purity of the Virgin Mary. Yrjö Hirn states that the union between Mary and the God has been represented via the motive of the dove. The dove descends on the head of the Virgin Mary (1958, 224). The connotation of purity connects doves, not only to the Virgin’s first visit to synagogue, but also to the birth of Mary the Virgin.


In his book La vita di Maria Vergine (1539) Pietro Aretino mentions doves and associates them to  Mary’s first visit to the synagogue (Aretino 1539, 17r). And really, this is one of the common ways doves have been described in the imagery of Mary the Virgin. This particular episode the sacrificial doves could be seen for example in Prospero Fontana fresco Mary’s first visit in the synagogue in Cappella Legato, Bologna (1562) – to take an contemporary example. However, this iconographic association was not always literary exact; there were also other metaphoric chains which effected more freely. In the late Middle Ages a dove was a general symbol of the humility, and it was the principle of humility which was connected to the vices of the Virgin Mary (Meiss 1978, 153). Holy Irenaeus (d. c. 202) has said: ”[A]s the human race was sentenced to death by means of a virgin (–) the guile of the serpent was overcome by the simplicity of the dove and we are set free  from those chains by which we had been bound to death” (Warner 1985, 60).


In the fresco program of Sala dei cento giorni painted by Giorgio Vasari (1546, Palazzo Cancelleria, Rome) there is a personification of the Religio; besides her face we can also see a dove as her attribute (see Carloni 1984, 136). In Francesco Salviati’s fresco in Palazzo Farnese,in Sala dei fasti Farnesiani (1555-7) there is the personification of Religio on the other side of Paul III – and on her head there is also a dove in a same attributive role as in Vasari’s fresco (cf. Cheney 1981, 257).  Instead, (?) Cheney sees that personifications (le virtù) who are in the open illusory (contrafatto) scroll, which is above the pope Paul III are close to Vasari’s personification Religio which is in Sala dei cento giorni, especially the figure on the right (ibid.). Indeed, we can even see some similarities in these figures, in spite of the difference in symbolic function. According to Charles Dempsey the figure right to the pope Paul III (who have the dove in her head in Sala dei Fasti Farnesina) is the personification of Purity and sincerity (Dempsey 1982, 61). On the left hand side of the pope there is the personification of Peace – the figure which according to Cheney can be compared to Salviati’s late canephor in San Marcello, from the year 1563 (Cheney 1963, 414). Althouh the comparison is not an exact one, (the figures have the same accessory role – the flanking of the main figure – in spite of the differences in their shape and look), the main target for our attention is, of course, the dove (above Religio) and its close relationship Mary.


We can state that the common denominator between the gift giver, the personification of Religio and Mary is a ”cephalic” one (kefale, kr., head). The significant feature is the connection between head of a female figure and a dove – either on a head of canephor or as a symbolic attribute on the level (or above) of the head of the personification (religio). We can shape an indefinite continuity of meanings, a kind of semantic axis or chain, which transmits one symbolic meaning – yet altering it step by step: canephor – dove – Purity – Religio – Mary. The other end of the symbolic chain has to do with the purification after the birth – and Mary, the other end to humility, purity, Religio – and Mary. These symbolic attributes have a bit different metonymic significance in each special case, and in this sense the chain has a more semiotic than iconographic significance. In each case particular references modify. But as a chain it can show the basic semic dimension of meaning, the symbolic line which hold specific meanings together and show how attributes link to each other – also visually. And, really, the common denominator is an attendant figure, mostly a canephor.


However the offering of doves to Anne after the birth is a new symbolic configuration at that time. What is of significance here is that the offering has been made by nymph-like figures in Sermoneta’s fresco the Birth of the Virgin (Santa Maria dell’Anima, Rome)[9] and in the engraving of Giovanni Battista del Moro, made according to Giulio Romano – and finally in Salviati’s fresco The Birth of the St John the Baptist (1551, FIGURE 1).


In Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta’s fresco The Birth of Mary in the Cappella Fugger, Santa Maria dell’Anima, Rome the nymph-like lady offers two doves to St. Anne. The fresco has been painted between the years 1561-63 (Hunter 1996, 59-60, 158; the first date offered, has been 1548). Sermoneta repeats the main configuration of the scene in his later fresco which is in San Tommaso dei Cenci (1565). But there is a little difference, probably cost by the Counter-Reformation the figure offering doves is not any more a vaga or richly decorated nymph. Still some features referring to Antique reliefs have been preserved; especially the        .


Although the offering of doves is a kind of modification of the canephor bringing doves above her head, the subject has been puzzling many researchers. In this sense it is interesting to note the amazement of Jean Weiszin when interpreting the doves in Salviati’s Birth of the Baptist (FIGURE 1). He sees these symbols unusual in this connection and cannot find the predecessors for this motive. Weisz refers to  those paintings which depict Christ’s first visit to the Temple. And surely there is a firm literary reference to that event in the Bible, in the evangelism of Lucas. It does not only tell of Christ first visit to the Temple but also of the sacrifice: each male child has to sacrifice ”two colombine or little doves” (Lucas 2: 22-24; e.g.. Weisz 1984, 32 ).


In addition Weisz takes into account the drawing which depicts the birth of John the Baptist attributed to Giuseppe Porta, the assistant of Salviati (Victoria and Albert Museum, Dyce Collection, No. 289). Traditionally the drawing has been seen as the sketch for Salviati’s Birth of the John the Baptist (Cheney 1963, 337). There is a same motive: on the other side of the bed of Elizabeth there are a bunch of women offering the basket of doves to her. Taking into account the rareness of the subject Weisz thinks that it is highly probably that the drawing is the preliminary drawing of Salviati’s fresco (1984, 32). Without doubt, Weisz’s argument is relevant. However, McTavish has denies the attribution to Giuseppe Porta (1981, 25, note 12). Cheney’s stance is contrary to McTavish: it is Porta’s drawing (1963, 337, note 2). Cheney repeats her opinion later when dealing with Jacopino del Conte’s art (1970, 37, note 24). Also Rolf Keller refers to the drawing attributed to Porta – and mentions also Sermoneta’s both paintings. However, he dines the connection to Porta’s oeuvre (1976, 41, viite 6).


The painting has a clear symbolic meaning: the purification of John the Baptist. The name giving by Zacharias has left out of the picture – which itself could signify the baptism). Weisz refers the idea of the parallel lives of Christ and John the Baptist, which fact could imply that the washing of John the Baptist (purification) has a symbolic connection to Eucharist (1984, 31). In fact the painting also refers to the symbolic connection of the Virgin and John the Baptist (Mary was present when the Baptist was born), because we cannot say without knowing the theme, whose birth is in question, Mary’s or John the Baptist’s. Zacharias is missing from the picture.


Both Keller and Weisz have left unnoticed the fact that there is a painting in which a poultry gift is a part of the scene of the Birth of John the Baptist. The Birth of the Baptist by Giannicola di Paolo Manni has been made only some decades earlier, between 1526-28. It is in Perugia, in Cappella di San Giovanni Battista, Collegio del Campio. The offering of poultry has been represented the way which recalls the process of gift-givers in Masaccio’s Desco da Parto -painting (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin): a man carries a basket on his solders in which there are some hens. The exact meaning of the event is open. There are not so much research made on Giannicola and his painting. According to Musacchio the offering of poultry was common in the birth pictures, especially in the 14th century (1999, 40-41). But probably only in those pictures which illustrated the birth of secular people.


It is also symptomatic that we can also discern hens in Francesco Torbido’s painting in the choir of the cathedral of Verona. The fresco is made a little bit later than Giannicola’s painting, dating circa from 1535. Torbido’s painting takes very thoroughly into account the engraving of drawing of Battista del Moro which has been engraved according to drawing of  Giulio Romano’s Birth of the Virgin (Massari 1993, 189, image no. 177). The hens have now passed the decorum-borderline to become a motive in the Birth of Mary. We can see that in the engraving the hens are in a basket which is carried by a canephor twisting heavily her upper body. The painting is equal to the modello of del Moro. We don’t know what has been there in the basket in the original drawing of Romano? Alessandro Serafini pays attention to hens in Torbido’s painting (even if he does refer to the engraving of del Moro). Serafini states: the presence of hens and other birds in the birth imagery has been connected to the purification ritual of Hebreans in the connection of the chilbirth. He also refers to the Northern Italian pictures of the Birth of Mary in which they offer hens. Especially he hens represented in a painting of Liberale da Veronan Serafini finds strange. Also in Carpaccio’s Birth of Mary, there is a woman who is in a room background and holds a chicken wing. They serve rosted chicken in The Birth of Mary by the Master of Osservanza (Museo della Collegiata di Sant’Agata, Asciano, 1436; see also: The Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 9, 41, n. 31 [215]). This motive has been interpreted as a Christological symbol which can be interpreted in the context of Mary as the anticipation of the Christ’s suffering. And yet Serafini is speaking of the purification after the birth (1998, s. 135, note 125).[10] In this sense a hen can be compared to a dove, which seems highly improbable. All in all the symbolism of poultry is a bit fuzzy or indistinct, partly because secular and holly symbolic practices coincide.


In this context it is important also to refer to the engraving of Nicolas Beatrizet which depicts the Birth of Mary. Indeed the picture is a kind of eclectic mixture of all previous births of Mary with its encyclopedic features (Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 29, 253). In the engraving one can see surprising cross-quotations which obviously refer, first, to Baccio Bandinellis’s drawings for the reliefs in Loreto – dealing with the Birth of Mary (see: Uffizi 712E), and also to Salviati’s many paintings. In the illusory foreground of the engraving one can see a staircase[11] – which is the pastiche from Salviati –and a woman ascending its steps. On her head there is a plate with two living hens…


According to L. Baird in the Roman antiquity the cock was symbolically connected to the birth. In that sense it is very difficult to accept a cock as a Christian symbol owing the same function as before (1981-82, 81). However, if we think the modeling force of antique relief in the Renaissance, then there might be a possibility to take into account cock’s connection to Dionysus, especially when we think the theme of the birth (e.g. ibid. 91).


On the basis of these examples one could come to conclusion that hens are not only secular animals offered in the event of holy birth, and this goes from Giannicola Manni to Beatrizet, rather they refer to similarities between the lives of Christ and John the Baptist. Therefor their role and function does not merely tell of practices of that time (to which Manni’s painting could refer with a good reason) but mainly they imply the symbolic relations connected the story of the holy family. Hens do have a symbolic message, in spite their role as growing secular message bearers. The dove, of course, is a new motive in the immediate symbolic context of the birth of Mary the Virgin. It refers to sacrifice of purification and leaves open the exact reference to the Immaculate Conception. The narrative meets the symbolic message in the curious poses of the assistant figures.


Yet there are some ”role-conflict” cases even when the doves rules the scene in the middle of the 16th century. In Sermoneta’s Visitation (fresco, the Fugger Chapel in Santa Maria dell’Anima, Rome, 1561-3) there is an assistant figure who have hens in her basket. We meet the same configuration in Federico Barocci’s famous Visitation from the year 1568 in Chiesa Nuova, Rome. This painting was theologically “secured” because Filippo Neri was very fond of the painting (     ).


In the Mannerist birth scenes the increasing of the number of acting figures itself engaged the attention by being attractive assistant figures in their own right and in that way helped to forget the exact meaning of animal symbols and the food via a new maniera.


Some symbolic settings tell the license taken by an artist at the time of Mannerism – even so that we can imagine that some symbols have a double role, especially in the pictorial stories of  Salviati. There is a great unanimity concerning Salviati’s fresco Visitation: that the group in the right side of the scene which refers symbolically caritas (Weisz 1984, 29, Cheney 1963, Keller 1976, 32, Patridge 1978, 172). The same way we could argument that in Salviati’s The Birth of the Baptist (San Giovanni Decollato; FIGURE 1) the woman who is sitting and pouring water from can which she holds quite high  represents the virtue of Temperantia – and still she acts in the practical role of an ancella. The assistant function and allegory meets on the level of the “difficult” style. Also in Salviati’s late fresco The Birth of Mary (San Marcello al Corso, Rome, 1563; FIGURE 4) is interesting in the same sense: There is a relatively large canephor in the illusory foreground of the scene which could be interpreted as a personification of the fertility (Abbundentia) (see Kuusamo 2005, 6). It could also be challenging to have some evidence for the supposition that there might be an affinity between Salviati’s canephor-figure and Donatello’s lost Dovizia (circa 1428) – the statue which stood in Mercato Vecchia in Florence and was the first pagan canephor by its own right. The position and the size of Salviati’s canephor implies that it is something more than an assistant figure carrying fruits the birth place. Moreover we can think that Salviati gave his assistant figures symbolic roles which exceed their function as bystanders. We can form an iconographic chain relating to Salviati’s assistant figures dealing with the motive-circle around Mary and John the Baptist. Question is of the process which connects the iconographic chain to the ”semiosic” chain of representation: Visitation: Caritas; The Birth of John the Baptist: Temperantia; The Birth of the Virgin Mary (San Marcello): Abbondentia. This is a connotative chain of meanings in which assistant figures have a double role. This double role strengthens their “artistic” position to dwell as figures which have their own self-referent status to be the stimulants in the process of “higher” visual meaning, to the represent certain maniera, certain vaga, e.g. difficult beauty.


There is still another level of meaning in the birth images. By carrying the plate on her head the canephor in Salviati’s Birth of the Virgin (San Marcello, FIGURE 4) is a metaimage in the pictorial scene: she carries the birth tray, desco da parto, the plate which given to a mother as a the birth present. Usually in every desco da parto there was a picture – of the child birth or of the situation after the birth. The picture on a tray had an exactly the same subject as the the scene in which the tray was – and in the position that it was illusorily impossible to  see the subject of the plate. Therefore desco da parto or impagliate was a “picture in a picture” which no one could see. Besides that it remained its self-referential function as a system which return to itself. Therefore they told the story of the birth in the metalevel inside the narrative. They were hidden but internalized to the main story. Those trays enunciated the story of the birth via the canephor who carried the disk, the tray. They were also a kind of euphemisms: the indirect way to tell the story of the birth: we don’t see but we know that the tray tells a story of the birth. There has not been paid much attention to the problem of the ”visual” narrative which represents itself inside the narrative, none (see Musacchio, 1999,  Bandini 1996).



The Relationships of Christian the Birth scenes and the Dionysian sarcophagi: Fates or Nymphs?


Besides the pictures of the birth of Mary and John the Baptist there emerged some pictures in the early 16th century which depicted the birth of pagan gods. Sermoneta’s fresco The Birth of Adonis in Monterotondo (1558-60; Sala di Adone, Palazzo Communale, before: Palazzo Orsini; FIGURE 5)   is unique in many respects (Hunter 1996, 117-118; cf. Ilari 1992, 28), even so rare that it seldom mentioned.[12] The scene is an interesting mixture of ingredients which come from the topos of the birth of Mary, on the one hand, and pictorial schemes which come from Dionysian sarcophagi, on the other. Despite hear heavy way of walking the striding canephor has some affinities to canephor of Salviati’s Visitation. This is not difficult to notice, not speak of other familiar features. More difficult is to find Antique models for the picture. When comparing the scene to the Christian birth, there is a big difference to be seen: the birth in nature. Then we have to search the visual model for the event from Dionysian sarcophagi. The literary sources cannot make a picture by their own right. According to the myth Aphrodite had changed Smyrna into a myrrh-tree – and when the sword split the tree in halves, out tumbled the infant Adonis. Although Sermoneta’s painting is a rare visual narrative of the mythical birth of Adonis, it also contains the event of the wash of the baby which was a common in Christian imagery at that time, as we have seen. However, the wash scene was also common in the Dionysian reliefs, whereas the births of pagan gods which Giulio Romano painted were different from those visual models which we at hand – and what Sermoneta later must have used. This is noteworthy. Any how the painting of Sermoneta opens us the irresistible way to the birth images of Antiquity, especially, because it has not been done without some visual models.


Getting back to the wash group of the birth of Mary, we have to ask: what is the genealogy of the striding nymphs and the wash scene? What kind of key Antique reliefs gives for this imagery? In his early work La Madonna (1900) Adolfo Venturi discusses the influence of the Antique models regarding Giovanni da Milano’s Birth of Mary. According Venturi the women who take care the new born baby in front of Anne’s bed resemble the three fates (pàrche) which can be found in the pictures of the Roman sarcophagi (1900, 87). He refers to the image which is in the Greek menologium (calendar of the saints) from the 1025 (Biblioteca Vaticana; vat. graec. 1613) in which three women carry food to Anne who is lying in a bed while one women is preparing a warm bath for Mary. Venturi holds that this type of image dates back to the Roman times, toreliefs in which fates assist (assistono) in the birth of Achilles (as he thinks). Venturi believes that in the relief slave who wash the baby, has been described in Amphitryon of Plautus in which the slave called  Bormia is taking care of the wash of Achilles. Venturi refers to the sarcophagus which Raoul Rochette has described.[13] In this sarcophagus among the slaves who washes the baby there is a woman who holds in her hand a cloth in order to dry the baby. The Three Fates are looking at the event; the first has in his hand a ball, the other a little table, and the third a cone and spinner (ibid. 89).


In his early book The Sacred Shrine Yrjö Hirn is reflecting Adolfo Venturi’s notes. According to Hirn Venturi asserts that the composition in the Greek manuscript is based on old models, e.g.  antique reliefs which depict the birth of the baby. Hirn also refers to Venturi’s interpretation according to which those fates flanking to the bed of Anne, date back to Antiquity. He states: ”whatever we think of such a theory, it is in a way remarkable that artists so often describe the bath of Mary in spite of the fact that it has not been mentioned in literature” (1958, 185). Indeed, the bath of Mary is really based on the visual sources. It has not even been mentioned in the Apocrypha of Mary, from  Protoevangelium Jacobi (The end of 100s) via Pseudo-Matthew up to  Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend, the end of the 11th ) (cf. Lafontaine-Dosogne I, 1964, 95; Hirn 1958, 148-149). We are partly in the unknown zone, because even today only a few researchers are interested in migration of the images of this subject.


It seems that the interpretation of the image of the Antique relief in Venturi is not thematically connected to the birth of Mary. The names of the Three Fates (Moerae) were Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. Even if we think that Clotho ruled over the moment of the birth (and held the spinner, Lachesis, “the measurer”, ruled over the course of life and Atropos determined the moment of the death), yet they were described in the textual tradition only as givers of the present – and that in the story of the birth of Meleager (see Graves 1, 1973, 48-49, note 1). In addition they have been characterized from Hesiod on as old (Graves 1,1973, 34, note 1). Even Catullus states in one of his verses: ”Huojutellen ja kouristellen kohtalottaret aloittivat ennuslaulunsa. Valkoisen vaatteen punainen reunus peitti heidän vanhat jalkansa” (1990, 90).


The identity and the role of the women who cared the newly born child after his birth is more problematic than Venturi thought. Venturi was referring to Achilles instead of Dionysus. It is more likely than we can find an answer from the Dionysian cycle of stories.  In one event of the sarcophagus of Los Angeles sarcophagus there are four women around the event of the birth of Dionysus. They are not Fates but nymphs who in the mountain of Nysa took care of Dionysus hidden from the anger of Hera ( Graves 1, 1973, 104). It has to be remembered that Dionysus was twice born: Zeus moves him from the burned Semele to his own thigh, from which he was born a new – hidden from the wrath of Hera. Both Philostratus and Ovid describe the two births of Dionysus.


Also Jacqueline Lafontaine-Dosogne ponders the origin of the ladies in the scenes of the birth of Mary when dealing with the byzantine tradition of the pictures of the birth of Virgin. Lafontaine-Dosogne is more accurate than Adolfo Venturi and does not refer to the Three Fates. She is interested in the Antique reliefs depicting the birth of  Dionysus – of which she mentions only the sarcophagus of the Antinoé-type (I, 1964, 96). However it is noteworthy that both Friedrich Matz and Lafontaine-Dosogne refer to the painting, which has still been relatively undamaged during the Renaissance in Domus Aurea, in Nero’s Golden house. There was only one drawing left of the scene of which there has been made an engraving on in the 18th century (FIGURE 6). In this engraving Semele, the mother of Dionysus, has been depicted lying on a bed in the company of some servants (Lafontaine-Dosogne I, 1964, 96, note 2). There are no nymphs of Nysa in this picture. Also Matz refers to this enigmatic picture (III 1969, 345; the image: Beilage 88,1). The picture of Semele gives us the ground to make two conclusions: 1) we can clearly see the event of the washing of Dionysus flanking the bed of Semele, 2) many artists of the Renaissance might have seen the painting in real life. It is rather strange that there are not many references to this picture in the research literature, hardly none. Lafontaine-Dosogne also mentions the byzantine predecessor of the motive of the Birth of Mary, which was the ingunable in the manuscript from 11th century. According to Lafontaine-Dosogne the influence of Dionysos comes from to sources, from Antiquity and Middle Ages (1964 I, 98).


Although the present givers in the birth scenes cannot be seen as based to Fates  – nor straight to the nymphs of the mountain  Nysa –,  any way Antique sarcophagi have been functioning as inspiration sources for the composition of some Renaissance (and Mannerist) birth scenes and  of some “moving” details – in a synthetic way. This has happened the way in which witnessing details might have gone. It is a bit moving for the migrating of our subject that  for example the assistant figure who holds the scarf in the washing scene, has been a constant motive through centuries, from Antiquity via Middle Ages to Mannerism. We can state: the pictorial tradition of Dionysus lived  in Renaissance with the help of material and pictorial tradition, not through literary one (cf. Bull 2005, 243 – who speaks only of river nymphs ). This means that the theme of the bath of Dionysus lived mainly in and through the visual tradition and affected the contemporary birth scene the way which neglected the literary tradition.


It is symptomatically interesting that in some reliefs depicting the birth of Dionysius which have been found later, after the Renaissance – and even after 19th century – there appears a nymph who is striding towards the baby Dionysus, in order to accompany or accentuate the event. This kind of episode has been depicted in the relief called The Birth of Dionysus, which was found in the year 1938 from Ostia (FIGURE 7). In this picture the nymph rushes towards Dionysus and her scarf is making a typical ellipse around her head (see: Becatti 1951, 2-4; Matz does not mention this particular sarcophagus; see Matz 1969-1975, I-IV). Instead Matz refers to the Child sarcophagus of Baltimore (Walters Art Gallery; 23. 33), which has been found from via Salaria in the year 1885. In this scene a canephor carries over her head a basket, in which there are fruits to the baby-Dionysus (Matz III 1969, no. 199, 350-351; cf. Turcan 1966, 429-430).


Those sarcophagi found after the Renaissance we meet in many museum. One of the most significant is the Child sarcophagus in Musei Capitolini (Rome). There we can see an episode in which two nymphs bath the baby Dionysus while the three other women to the right flank or ornament the event; one of the nymphs crouch gives the basket of fruit to the newly born (Matz III 1969, no. 200, 352; also Turcan 1966, 413 and note 3; FIGURE 7). The same subject can be seen in the Child sarcophagus in Munich (Glyptotek 240) which was found in the year 1815 (ibid., no. 201, 353; FIGURE 8). On the basis of these examples it is clear that the relief type called the Child sarcophagus demonstrates quite clearly the structure on which representations of the birth of important persons were based on in the Renaissance, especially from early 16th century on: the washing group, servants and the striding nymph who is moving quickly with a fluttering chiton.


It has to be noted how, according to Matz, in some sarcophagi depicting the early childhood of Dionysus, we can see the flanking poses of the nymphs. We can see the means of the overdetermination of the vertical tradition effecting here. And really in exactly these relief we can see the kernel of the ”bevegtes Beiwerk” (accessory figures) of which Aby Warburg so eagerly speaks of when referring only  to frescos of the end of quattrocento. Unfortunately he didn’t problematize the scene of the birth (see: Kuusamo, 20002, …  2004, 63-66).[14]


As has been noted by Bull, visual descriptions of the birth and the early childhood of Dionysus has not been a common topic in the imagery of Renaissance. This sound a bit strange. Indeed, there were no direct descriptions of the birth or childhood of Dionysus based on Roman sarcophagi in Renaissance. The only way was to use the Dionysian images as models for visualized Christian stories. The question is of the curious crossing of iconographic lines of topoi or, shall we say, the disjunction between pagan and Christian motives – the way in which these particular pagan motives didn’t live quite independently during the (pagan) Renaissance. This not only due to the fact that Ovid does not tell much of Dionysus, especially as regards to the birth and early childhood (Ovid III, 313-315; cf. Bull 2005, 242-243). Rather, the main reason might be that visual descriptions of Dionysus during the Renaissance leaned mainly on literary sources, not on visual material of Antiquity. During the 16th century Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Philostratus’ Imagines or Euripides’ Bacchants were not so much in favour, as was Nonnos’ Dionysiaca (5th century). It is exactly for this reason that in the birth scenes of Dionysus during the 16th century assisting female figures were water nymphs. This was a case for example in some Giulio Romano’s birth images of pagan heroes (Hartt 1963?, 305; ill. 434, 455, 456, 457, 458, 459; especially ill. 461: Birth of Bacchus, modello for lost painting). In these images the wash group as it existed in the child-sarcophagi and the striding nymph were both out of the question. There was also another point of the discontinuity (of which we are not absolutely sure): in the Renaissance they didn’t know enough of those ancient sarcophagi in which the nymphs role could have been some other than the washing of Dionysus. Most of the sarcophagi of the birth with striding nymphs were found later. Of course, during the Renaissance there were ancient Bacchic scenes present, but there nymphs were described as a part of the other subject than the birth.


It is precisely for this reason why the similarities with Antique relief were to be found the in the  Renaissance subjects of the birth of Mary and the birth of John the Baptist, not at all from the subjects of the Birth of Dionysos from that time. There is not much attention paid to this strange discontinuity. At least I haven’t seen a text which could clarify the problem. The question is of the strange branch in vertical tradition or a structural or dispositive factor.


All in all the painting of the birth of Mary and John the Baptist relate to Antique reliefs in two ways and with two modes: on the one hand birth scenes of John the Baptist relate to the Antique birth of Dionysus (assisting nymphs: the wash) and on the other hand they relate to those Dionysian reliefs which depict frenzied maenads and their furious poses. At the same time three ages crosses: Antiquity, the age of the New Testament and the age of Renaissance (Mannerism) with its curious modes to make quotations from its own contemporary sources.





[1]  Cheney 1963, 241-242: ”A girl, who have two doves on kaksi kyyhkystä (kädessään) näyttää periytyvän laajasti kopioidusta sarkofagi-figuurista Los Angelesin County Museumissa.”

[2] Rubin states: ”Salviati oli kekseliäs, ei-toisteinen omien lainaustensa mestari” (1987, 90-91). Tämä

oli Rubinin mukaan myös aikalaiskäsitys (see also: Vasari VII, 27, 33).

[3] When Keller refers to the seklf-quotation of Salviati and to its Antique model,( Letto di Policleto –sarcophagus) he does not mention Giulio Romano’s figure (Keller 1976, 41; vrt. Cheney 1963, 239). Hall: ”Salviati imitated another antique sculpture, conveyed through the mediation of a print after Giulio Romano’s drawing for the Nativity of the Virgin (Hall 1999, 307, note 109).

[4]  There is a wide agreement that in Sebastiano del Piombo’s Birth of Mary the Virgin, in the part Salviati finished  (S. Maria del Popolo, Rome) the crouching the ancella in the foreground resembles heavily the famous Crouching Venus from Antiquity (Hall 1999, 159).

[5] Kemp emphasizes, that Pietro Cavallini in his famous Birth of Mary -mosaic (Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome) “forgot” to describe the exchange between the outer and inner space, so that borderline of the room is a borderline of the picture. In that way Cavallini ”domesticated” (verhäuslicht) the space (1996, 44-45). The next time it was possible in the middle of the 15th century by Filippo Lippi.

[6]  There was also a practical reason for the giving of poultry. According to Michele Savonarola (in the Este court of Ferrara poultry was easy to digest after the childbirth (Musacchio 1999, 40 ).

[7] On the other gift given by parents and godparents in the Florentine tradition after the childbirth, see Haas 1998, 58-60.

[8] They refer to the parallel lives of Christ and John the Baptist (see e.g. Patridge 1978, 172).

[9]  Adolfo Venturi states that in The Birth of Mary by Sermoneta the woman who offers doves to Anne is « Tornabuoni del Cinquecento » (1933, IX, 5, 572).

[10]  See especially L. Charbonneau-Lassay: Le Bestiaire du Christ (1940), Milano 1974, 648-651.

[11]  The staircase is a self-evident quotation from Salviati’s Visitation (1538) in San Giovanni Decollato, Rome.

[12] Malcom Bull (2005, 214) asserts that there were no pictures of the Birth of Adonis in the 16th century. Really, it is not easy to find Sermoneta’s Birth of Adonis out of Rome, from Palazzo Communale in Monterotondo.

[13] Raoul Rochette was active between the years 1830-40.

[14]  As I stated in the first part of the series of articles (Synteesi 2004/2), Warburg in his Mnemosyne-Atlas table no. 46 dealing with the topos of Nymph, he does not refer to those sarcophagi of the Antiquity which describe the birth of Dionysus. When Nicole Dacos speaks of dancing  maenads (1962), she leaves those reliefs of Dionysus which describe the birth, untouched.






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