The painting shows the moment described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses when the mythical winged horse Pegasus stamped his hoof on Mount Helicon, causing a spring to gush forth. The spring became known as the Hippocrene, or Spring of the Horse. Here the artist shows several thin streams flowing down to feed a larger body of water in the plain. Surrounding Pegasus are the Muses, singing and making music, while the daughters of Pierus, who sang in contest with them, stand in a circle in the background. The painting was probably the lid of a keyboard instrument.
The nine Muses all wear Lombard costume of around 1540, which is similar to that in Romanino’s murals in Palazzo Salvadego, Brescia, of about 1543. The facial types are also typical of Romanino as are the short, curled shading lines beneath the arm of the man to the left. However, it is not certain that the painting is by Romanino.
The painting shows the mythical winged horse Pegasus on Mount Helicon. He is surrounded by the nine Muses who make music in the glade around him. Some of the ladies sing from music books while others play instruments. They are accompanied by three men – the one on the left with his hand extended may be conducting. The ladies on the left play the recorder and the rebec, while the standing lady on the right plays a lira da braccio. The circle of women in the background may be the daughters of Pierus, who sang in contest with the Muses.
This is the moment, described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (V, 312: 36, 374: 430), when Mount Helicon swelled with pleasure at the sound of the Muses' music. Poseidon, the father of Pegasus, ordered the winged horse to stamp his hoof. Mount Helicon ceased to swell and subsided but a spring gushed forth from the ground. The spring became known as the Hippocrene, or Spring of the Horse. Here the artist shows several thin streams flowing down to feed a larger body of water in the plain.
The whole picture is covered with a thick nineteenth-century varnish that has yellowed. The foliage of the tree behind the second group of figures on the left has darkened and is not now easily distinguished from the slope behind. On the hill is a group of houses and a tower linked by a wall with an arched entry between two of the houses, typical of a Lombard village.
The nine ladies in the foreground who represent the Muses are all wearing Lombard costume of around 1540. The style of the costumes is similar to those in Romanino’s murals in Palazzo Salvadego, Brescia, of about 1543. The facial types in the National Gallery’s panel are typical of Romanino as are the short, curled shading lines beneath the arm of the man to the left. However, it’s not certain that the painting is by Romanino; it shows a slightly timid restraint in the rendering of the figures and landscape that is not typical of his very gestural handling of paint.
The reverse of the panel is also decorated, although much of the painting has worn away. There is an oval shield painted in the centre with an unidentified coat of arms. Quatrefoil ornaments are painted to left and right.
The painting was probably the lid of a keyboard instrument or the case in which one was kept. The festive and musical subject as well as the size and shape of the panel would have fitted this function, as would the decoration on the back and the type of damage it has sustained. Burn marks may have been caused by candles used to read music. There is no evidence of hinges having been fitted, but it is clear that the painting has been cut down at the top and sides. The whole panel may have been irregular in shape as was common with many virginal lids. A similar instrument can be seen in Bernardino Campi’s Portrait of a Musician.
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