15 AUGUST 1958, Page 22

Orphic Art

THERE are certain masterpieces of Italian Renais- sance art, invariably secular works with antique themes, that have always offered difficulties to the interpreter. Botticelli's mythological paintings of Primavera and The Birth of Venus or Michel- angelo's marble Bacchus at once come to mind. Who are the eight figures in the Primavera, and what are they doing? Why did Michelangelo represent Bacchus as he did? Does the image of 'the intoxicated god—once called 'the coarsest work by Michelangelo that we possess'—still repel us? Was Shelley right when he said : 'the countenance of this figure is the most revolting mistake of the spirit and meaning of Bacchus. It looks drunken, brutal and narrow-minded, and has an expression of dissoluteness the most revolting"?

We have respondqd to such works—favourably In the case of the Botticelli mythologies, un- favourably in the case of the Bacchus—without knowing for certain what they are about; the logical necessity of the subject matter has some- times eluded us. As Professor Wind in his new book says, 'the sentiment of the picture has extinguished the thought,' and it is with the revela- tion of the thought behind this kind of Renais- sance art that the Pagan Mysteries is concerned. It is a study in iconography, the description of ' images, that branch of art history which, as the author admits, is 'an unavoidably round-about approach to art.' Professor Wind has made a speciality of this kind of exegesis; he is one of a number of scholars (Panofsky and Gombrich are others) who have followed the direction pioneered by Warburg.

The argument falls into three distinct parts. On one side are the pagan mysteries themselves—the

worship of Orpheus, deliberately obscured in a cloud of half-knowledge. What we today can dis- cover of this has to be pieced together from a vast number of fragmentary sources. In the centre of the argument are the Renaissance humanists- Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Politian—so avidly exploring the rediscovered philosophical literature of the past that they had little time for original thinking themselves. These were the men who revived the study of Plato, then regarded as an Orphic theologian, and broke down the hegemony of Aristotle. They put into circulation a vast num- ber of new (or rather forgotten) ideas which attracted artists like Raphael, Botticelli, Leonardo and Raphael. Which brings us to the final part of the triad, the paintings and sculpture that embody these neo-Platonic ideas, and, at their most inspired, go to the heart of the mysteries them- selves.

With an immense breadth of learning Professor Wind discusses certain subjects popular among the Renaissance artists : The Three Graces (Cor- reggio, Raphael), Mars and Venus (Cossa, Bot- ticelli, Piero di Cosimo, Veronese), The Flaying of Marsyas (Raphael), Leda (Leonardo and Michelangelo, whose Night in the Medici Chapel is a Leda figure), and the pairing of two Venuses (as in Titian's misnamed Sacred and Profane Love). In each case he demonstrates why they appear as they do by reference to the ancient mysteries as transmitted in the humanists' mystical theology.

It is a complex and often fascinating story that is told, but the non-specialist reader will pick his way through only with some difficulty. Great demands are made upon him. He is expected to have the same kind of comprehensive scholar- ship that the author himself possesses, and there is even a touch of intellectual arrogance about the book. Because such enormous know- ledge is presumed, the author can narrow his focus, but, as an inevitable consequence, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance will, I fear, prove just about as intelligible to the uninitiated as the Orphic rites themselves did. ALAN BOWNESS