This balletic battle scene shows Chastity, the graceful woman in a billowing dress, defending herself against the golden arrows of Love, the athletic naked youth. The combat takes place on a summer day, and the only sign of commotion in nature is a swan, wings outstretched, in pursuit of its companion.
The battle of Love and Chastity was hugely important in Renaissance society, representing the suppression of illicit passion in favour of chaste and faithful devotion in marriage, particularly on the part of women. The theme came from a famous poem by the fourteenth-century Italian poet, Petrarch. Our panel was part of a larger series of paintings probably made to decorate the rooms of a newly wed couple.
Gherardo worked more often as a miniaturist and this is reflected in his attention to the smallest details. Chastity’s shield is beautifully embellished with gold and jewels, and a variety of wild flowers – like the white clover – bloom in the grass.
This balletic battle scene shows Chastity, the graceful woman in a billowing dress, defending herself against the golden arrows of Love, the athletic naked youth. The combat takes place on a summer day: the hillsides are carpeted in lush green grass, and the neat, rounded treetops dense with foliage are reflected in the still, glassy water of a small river below. The only sign of commotion in nature is a swan, wings outstretched, in pursuit of its companion.
Such details reflect those used by the Netherlandish painter Hans Memling, well known for his peaceful landscape backgrounds (see, for example, The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors (The Donne Triptych)). This idyllic setting seems an unlikely backdrop for a serious contest – but that is exactly what it is. The battle of Love and Chastity was hugely important in Renaissance society, representing the suppression of illicit passion in favour of chaste and faithful devotion in marriage, particularly on the part of women.
Gherardo worked more often as a miniaturist, which is reflected here in his attention to the smallest details. Chastity’s shield, for example, is beautifully embellished with gold and jewels – we can see one of Love’s arrows rebounding from it – and a variety of wild flowers, including little white clover, bloom in the grass.
The theme of the Triumph of Chastity was the subject of one of a series of poems, called the Triumphs, by Petrarch. It describes how Cupid had been riding a chariot full of his captives (those who succumbed to the power of lust) and was challenged to a battle by Chastity, as shown in our panel. She defeated him, watched over by her band of exemplary women. As punishment, the women tore the feathers from his wings and he in turn was paraded as a captive in Chastity’s chariot. Finally, Chastity led Cupid to her temple, where she lay down her victory wreath.
Gherardo painted the other episodes in Petrarch’s poem as part of the same commission. The scenes spanned three separate horizontal panels, each about a metre long, and were probably sawn into individual scenes in the nineteenth century. Only three survive, including ours, from two of the panels; the entire third panel is now lost. Our scene formed the centrepiece of the first panel, flanked by one of Love’s chariot (lost, but known from old photographs) and another showing Chastity’s faithful companions (private collection). The second panel showed Cupid’s chastisement (lost, but again known through old photographs) while the final scene of Chastity’s triumphal chariot is at the Galleria Sabauda, Turin.
The horizontal format of the original cycle suggests they may have been made, like Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, as spalliere (paintings which were fitted into the panelling of the walls). Scenes from the Triumphs were the most popular subject commissioned for the decoration of the rooms of a newly wed couple within the groom’s family palace.
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