Jupiter and Callisto

Anonymous (circle of Bernard van Orley and Pieter Coecke van Aelst)

In addition to well-known artists who created tapestry cartoons, such as Bernard van Orley (ca.1490-1541) and Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502-1550), a number of other talented artists worked in Brussels. More often than not, the only remaining work to survive from their artistic output is that in history of art books. This work is an excellent example of the many drawings that are still anonymous.

The relatively static and peaceful scene of the foreground contrasts strongly with the animated background. Each of the characters is identified by an inscription. Emerging from thick clouds and making his way towards dense undergrowth we see Jupiter, seated in a chariot drawn by two eagles, and Mercury firmly grasping his caduceus.

From the dense clouds, the duo observes the nymph Callisto, scantily clothed, hair tied loosely back and fast asleep on the grass. At Callisto’s side lays an elegant hunting horn as well as her quiver and bow. In the background we see Jupiter, disguised as the goddess Diana, Callisto’s mistress. The drawing shows how Callisto is trying, in vain, to escape from Jupiter. As Ovid recounts in his Metamorphoses, Callisto “hates this conniving wood and forest”, the setting for her dishonour. It is this theme that marks out the drawing as special because only a few such drawings are known prior to the second half of the 16th century.

Stylistically, the drawing clearly draws inspiration from the work of both Bernard van Orley and Pieter Coecke van Aelst. The graceful and rather Italianate figures of the gods in the heavens, with their large, flat feet and stylised robes, tend to evoke the work of the latter, whilst techniques such as the rather heavy contours in dark brown pen and ink, the wash and the white highlights as well as the light brown paper, remind us more of the drawings made by van Orley’s entourage.

Since Pieter Coecke van Aelst was a pupil or colleague of van Orley, it is possible that as young artists they drew reciprocal inspiration from each other. Yet rather strangely, and despite their talent, both artists disappeared into oblivion.

They were most probably attracted to Brussels by the presence of the exceptionally talented tapestry makers working in the city during the 16th century. Brussels tapestries were to make an important contribution to the international renown of Brussels.

This work has been entrusted to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, in Brussels, where it has made a timely contribution to completing the museums’ drawing collection.

Material / technique: 
Pen and brown ink, brush and brown as well as greyish-brown ink over a preliminary sketch in black stone (watercolour black chalk) on light brown paper
242 x 330 mm
Type of acquisition: 
Acquired by Léon Courtin - Marcelle Bouché Fund
Year of acquisition: 
Depository institution: 
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels