Amor and Psyche on a tapestry: How ancient gods were depicted in the early modern period

October 2, 2020

The exhibition Amazing Features of Ancient Gods presents items from the personal collection of collector Olga Zateyeva. Ancient myths unite 300 exhibits — paintings, engravings, sculptures, fans, and items made of porcelain, bone, silver and bronze created by European artists and craftsmen of the 16th–19th centuries.

Olga Zateyeva started collecting pieces of Western European art more than 20 years ago. She began with fans, then came 18th-century engravings, and later works of applied arts. According to Tatyana Tyutvinova, curator of the exhibition, the collection, which mostly consists of items made of bone, is unique. After carved bone trade was prohibited in 1989, there are only a few collectors who collect such art objects.

This article by and Mosgortour agency presents the five most interesting exhibits.

The duel of Pan and Apollo

The painting Apollo and Pan by Gaspare Diziani takes a central place in the hall dedicated to Apollo. The Venetian artist of the 18th century, a representative of the late-Baroque period, and the founder of the Academy of Arts spent his career in different countries over the course of his life. Diziani worked at the court of Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, in papal Rome for cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, and at the royal court of the Russian Empire. For instance, by order of Catherine the Great, the artist painted the ceiling plafonds with mythological subjects in the Chinese Palace in Oranienbaum.

Diziani was a master of a wide range of art — he created not only frescoes and paintings, but also, being fond of music and theatre, worked on stage scenery.

The painting Apollo and Pan of 1746 is considered to be one of the best works of the Venetian period of the artist’s work. The plot revolves around the legend of the musical duel between the patron of art, Apollo, and the god of shepherding and cattle breeding, Pan. One day during a stroll along a brook, Pan found an aulos made of deer bones — the flute of the goddess Athena. She wanted to play the aulos at the feast of the gods, but was afraid that she would look ridiculous with puffed cheeks, and threw it away, having put a curse on it. As soon as Pan raised it to his lips, the aulos started to play a beautiful melody. Unaware of the curse, Pan invited Apollo to compete in musical skills. He lost the contest miserably. The muses and Tmolus decided that Apollo won when he played the golden cithara. King Midas was the only one who supported Pan, for which he paid a price — Apollo became angry and turned the stubborn king’s ears into those of a donkey.


The goddess Diana was the patroness of hunting, so most often she was depicted with characteristic features: a quiver with a bow and arrows, and a crescent moon above her head, since Diana was considered the embodiment of the moon. In most cases, the image of the goddess appeared on hunting cups and horns. In paintings and decorative panels, artists of the 19th century depicted famous ladies — actresses, singers, spouses and daughters of influential people — using the image of Diana.

What stands out most among the exhibition’s works of applied arts is a small decorative plaquette made of ivory. It features the goddess setting out on a hunt holding a spear, accompanied by a faithful dog. The plaquette was created in the 1880s by a French bone-carver who worked in the guild of Antonin Topar. Topar founded the bone-carving workshop that bore his name in Paris in 1867 after participating in the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts.


One of the funniest exhibits is a small amusing mug, the Forge of Hephaestus. The vessel, made of ivory, silver and precious stones by German craftsmen in the second half of the 19th century, was used for entertaining guests. During large celebrations, such mugs were presented to feast guests as gifts.

If we look at the bone case of the mug, we will see the divine smith Hephaestus working. He crafted jewellery, forged weapons for heroes, and made thunder and lightning for his father Zeus. According to ancient Greek myths, the lame and ugly Hephaestus was married to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, for whom he created marvellous jewellery in his forge.

Looking at the mug, you cannot immediately tell why it is amusing. It has nothing to do with the plot on the mug, but with the fact that such vessels had secret, in most cases invisible, holes on the upper edge. If you knew this, you could plug them with your fingers and drink safely, and if you did not know, you would spill your drink to the merriment of others.

Amor and Psyche

In the hall devoted to Amor and Psyche, we can see art objects connected with the love story of the earthly beauty Psyche and the son of Aphrodite. According to the myth, the goddess could not come to terms with the beauty of the girl and asked her son Amor to make her fall in love with an unworthy person, thus making her unhappy. When the young god saw the girl, he fell in love with her and married her. Turning into the wind, he carried Psyche to his palace, where he appeared only at night. Psyche did not see her husband's face until one day when she decided to check if he was a monster. The awakened Amor immediately flew away, and Psyche set out to look for him.

The story of the lovers over time has got various interpretations in European culture, but the most widespread is the allegory of the wanderings of the human soul, striving to be forever together with love. Psyche is the personification of the soul, while Amor is the embodiment of physical love.

A French tapestry from the studio of Pierre Legouez shows the key moment of the myth. You can see a beautiful woman with a lamp in her hands examining the face of a sleeping Amor. The woven wall carpet belongs to the "alentour" type (from the French alentour — "framing"). Alentour tapestries typically place the image in the form of a medallion against a background that imitates a carved gilded frame.

Neptune and Amphitrite

The engraving The Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite by the Austrian artist Jacob Schmutzer (1733–1811) continues the series of stories about gods and their beloved ones. The god of the seas, Neptune, incited fear not only in brave seafarers, but also in sea creatures. The nymph Amphitrite, whom Neptune decided to make his wife, was also afraid of him. The girl avoided his courtship and did not even allow him to admire her beauty. After many attempts, the frustrated Neptune sent a dolphin to Amphitrite to tell the nymph about his love and persuade her to become the queen of the seas and oceans. The messenger did so well that, as a reward for the girl's consent, he was put in the sky as a constellation.

The Triumph of Neptune and Amphitrite is an example of classical engraving on copper. It shows the well-known mythological scene based on the painting of the same name by Peter Rubens: Neptune and his wife, surrounded by deep-sea dwellers, are depicted as if they were created by forces of nature. The inscription and coat of arms at the bottom of the work indicate that Schmutzer dedicated this piece to Leopold II, who was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1790.


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