Nyx and Oneiroi: The Depiction of Dreams in Renaissance Art by Erik Martiny

©Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Garofalo, Diana and Endymion
©Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Garofalo, Diana and Endymion

La Renaissance et le rêve, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 9 October 2013 – 26 January 2014


La Renaissance et le rêve, Musée du Luxembourg Editions, 2013


While nocturnes have been showcased before, most notably in striking unchronological fashion at the Musée d’Orsay, dreamscapes have never come together before in such profusion. The twilit atmosphere created in the museum adjoining the Luxemburg Gardens in Paris is ideal for the occasion and each group of companion paintings is as coherently displayed and interestingly commented as the catalogue of the show. All in all, it’s a delightful experience and it’s worth making the trip to Paris for this show alone.

The first section of the exhibition strikingly awakens the viewer to the impact of Michelangelo’s designs on renderings of the dormant nude in the Renaissance. Artists such as Michele di Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio, Francesco del Brina, Battista Franco and others painted or sculpted their own creative yet faithful versions of the sculptures that Michelangelo left on the floor of the Sagrestia Nuova de San Lorenzo when he left for Rome again towards the middle of the sixteenth century. Michelangelo originally sculpted his Night as a funerary monument to adorn the tomb of the young Duke of Medici, assassinated in the Cathedral of Florence. The sensual twist of Michelangelo’s sleeping woman provides the traditional compensatory, resurrectionary eroticism central to much elegiac art. Retaining the signature pose and all the attributes included by Michelangelo, his pictorial followers removed the mortuary significance of the allegory and intensified its venereal properties. Ghirlandaio pulls the motif entirely away from Thanatos, placing it firmly in the realm of Eros by adding a cupid and pushing the funereal garland of flowers up in between the supine maiden’s legs, next to Michelangelo’s already strategically placed wise owl.

Painted a few years earlier in the first half of the sixteenth century, works like Correggio’s Venus and Cupid with a Satyr and Garofalo’s Diana and Endymion are rather more appealing. Suffused in orange and peach-gold Venetian light, they are also anatomically and erotically more successful. Ghirlandaio’s awkward rendering of Night’s breasts uncomfortably evokes a surgical accident for the modern viewer. Of course, it’s a well-known fact that Michelangelo himself employed male models which he then feminized in his works.

The exhibition catalogue makes astute distinctions between the different types of dream identified in the Renaissance and the two compositional traditions at work. Although there is ultimately no strict opposition between northern and southern European iconographic representations in this area, Yves Hersaut argues that Italianate painters tended to separate the dreamer from the dream. The compositions of Italian paintings often situate the dream on another plane, in the sky, on a cloud or in a decorative medallion or cartoon bubble above the sleeper. By contrast, Flemish paintings fuse dreamer and fantasy more readily.

On a thematic level, Irène Salas points out that dreams were divided into a number of categories based on Macrobius’s phenomenology: the somnium or enigmatic dream, the visio (a clear dream of the future), the oraculum (oracular dreams), the insomnium (dreams generated by daytime worries) and visium (dreams containing ghostly apparitions). Steeped in humoural theory, most medical writers also believed that different character types were given to experience specific dreams: flegmatics dreamed of water damage, choleric characters of fire. Melancholics were, as always, the most unfortunate in that they were condemned to dream of death and decay and also the most likely to be the victims of incubi and succubi. Salas also claims that pictorialised dreams of the Renaissance period increasingly open up the suggestion that nightmares are triggered not by the devil but by the dreamer’s own anxieties. Unfortunately, the painting accompanying this claim in the catalogue (Giulio Romano’s Hecuba’s Dream) scarcely bears out the argument.


©Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Garofalo, Diana and Endymion
©Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Foto: Garofalo, Diana and Endymion

Northern nightmares are given the lion’s share of the final stages of the exhibition in the tormented visions rendered by the school of Bosch. It’s a real treat to be able to view them up close to discover details that you wouldn’t really spot in a scaled down reproduction. Chaucer and Rabelais would have been happy to notice the first convincing pictorial depictions of the hell-driven fart in the history of art.

Other surprising, exquisitely lesser-known works exhibited include Bernardino Luini’s Saint Joseph’s Dream, which depicts Gabriel visiting Joseph during a dream to reassure him that Mary’s pregnancy is indeed of divine origin and not proof of her infidelity. Nearby, a rare piece of hybrid iconography conflates the Crucifixion with Adam and Eve in Michele di Matteo Lambertini’s The Virgin’s Dream. Inspired by the spiritual meditations of Saint Bonaventure in Lignum Vitae, it depicts the Tree of Knowledge entwined by a man-headed Serpent under triumphantly sprouting appleblossoms that hold Christ aloft in His splendour. The idea according to which the wood of the crucifix was made from the Tree of Knowledge was widely popularized from the thirteenth century onwards.

Albrecht Dürer’s etching The Temptation of the Idler or the Doctor’s Dream is one of the most enigmatic pieces on show but the painting that garners the most curiosity is Raphael’s Dream, originally an etching by Giorgio Ghisi which inspired at least two other versions by an anonymous Flemish oil painter and Jan Bruegel the Elder. In the background on the left, a mystic dreamer lost in the labyrinth of his meditations appears to be stranded on an island surrounded by turbulent waters and ferocious creatures of every ilk. Cut adrift, his bark is on the point of being submerged by water and the tonnage of sea creatures but on the right hand side a virtuous female warrior comes to release him from peril. She is generally interpreted as an allegorical depiction of Constance. Critic Paola Squellati Brizio convincingly interprets the theme as ‘a disquieting image of the human soul and of the crisis of rational certainty’. Brizio also argues that the later versions of Ghisi’s composition, painted some thirty years after in the 1590s are more reassuring, adopting what she calls the less unsettling atmosphere of the Temptation of Saint Anthony. It’s hard to see how the savagely hellish creatures in some of Saint Anthony’s visions as they are rendered by Bosch, Grünewald, Joos van Craesbeeck or Salvator Rosa could be considered less disturbing, but it is true that some depictions of the saint and his encounters with temptation can focus on the somewhat more ambiguous sin of lust, especially in late nineteenth and twentieth-century depictions.