One of the first major paintings produced by Bartholomäus Spranger after being summoned to the Imperial Court in Vienna in 1575, Mercury carrying Psyche to Mount Olympus is a seminal work by the most important Northern Mannerist painter of his generation. With this picture Spranger announced himself in the Austrian capital with a dazzling display of his technical brio and dynamic, sensuous style which he had honed over the course of the previous decade working in Italy. Considered lost for more than half a century, the re-emergence of this picture - unfortunately just two years too late to be included in the 2015 monographic exhibition on the artist - cements its pivotal place within Spranger’s painted oeuvre. It remains arguably the most significant painting by the artist still in private hands.
The picture illustrates one of the penultimate events in the story of Cupid and Psyche, as recounted in the third, fifth and sixth books of the Roman writer and philosopher Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, referred to by Saint Augustine as The Golden Ass, the only complete surviving Classical Roman novel. The story of Cupid’s love for the mortal woman Pysche and the overwhelming obstacles they had to overcome before their eventual marriage in Olympus gained great popularity during the Renaissance and became a widespread subject for painters across Europe. Spranger’s picture shows the climactic moment when Jupiter ‘ordered Psyche to be brought by Mercury and introduced into heaven. Handing her a cup of Ambrosia, he said ‘Take this, Psyche, and be immortal. Never shall Cupid leave the tie that binds you, but this marriage shall be perpetual to you both’. Spranger handles this episode with spectacular verve. Mercury and Psyche are shown intertwined, surrounded by billowing yellow drapery, soaring up diagonally across the composition to where the gods assemble, and where Psyche’s bridegroom stands, one hand outstretched, one resting on his bow, waiting to greet her.
Karel van Mander records Spranger working on a painting of this subject in Vienna in 1576 - ‘Mercurius in den Raedt der Goden Psyche brengt’ (‘Mercury bringing Psyche to the Council of the Gods’), which must almost certainly be a description of the present work (K. van Mander, Het schilder-boeck, Haarlem, 1604, f. 272r). Spranger had been summoned to Vienna by the Emperor, Maximilian II (1527-1576) on the recommendation of Giambologna who could not himself be tempted to leave the Medici court in Florence. Unfortunately, Maximilian died less than a year after the painter’s arrival and the imperial court moved to Prague with the ascension of Maximilian’s son and heir, Rudolf II. Despite the lack of a formal relationship between the painter and the new emperor, Rudolf must have been aware of Spranger’s work. Though no contemporary documentary evidence from the mid-1570s associates the emperor with Mercury carrying Psyche to Olympus, that the painting was designed to attract Rudolf and his patronage is perhaps made clear by the picture’s iconographic content. While the ambitious composition of dynamic, intertwined bodies and the multi-figural groups represent the painter’s already considerable talents in creating sensuous drama and vibrant movement within his canvases, the subject of the painting itself seems pitched specifically to attract the attention of the Emperor. Indeed, as Metzler has demonstrated, the conception of the subject and the treatment of the figures is suggestive of a political allegory ‘symbolizing Rudolf’s induction into the imperial pantheon of power’ (S. Metzler, op. cit.). The picture later appears as number 879 in the 1621 inventory of Rudolf’s celebrated Kunstkammer.
While the subject of Spranger’s picture appears to have followed closely the details set out in The Golden Ass, the compositional and stylistic treatment of the subject demonstrate the pervading influence of the painter’s time in Italy and his careful reconstruction of earlier compositional types shortly after his return north. Indeed, it can be suggested that, in many cases, these quotations and therefore the more ‘conventional’ aspect of these works were designed ‘to please the new emperor and garner his patronage’ (ibid., p. 40). Spranger had trained initially in Antwerp as a landscape painter, serving successive apprenticeships under Jan Mandyn, Frans Mostaert and Cornleis van Dalem. The landscape element in the lower right corner of the present work certainly recalls his Antwerp beginnings. He left Flanders as a nineteen year old, first travelling to Paris and then on to Milan where he arrived towards the end of 1565. He moved to Parma in 1566 – the work of Parmigianino was to have a lasting impact on him - before arriving in Rome where he was to remain for most of the next decade. One of the most important influences for Spranger, which likewise appear to have directly informed the present work, were Raphael’s frescoes at the Villa Farnesina. Taken from the Stanze by the poet Angelo Poliziano, a member of the circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici, these depict classical and secular myths and among them the story of Cupid and Psyche. Spranger’s treatment of Psyche’s ascension to Olympus, and predominantly the figure of Mercury (fig. 1), is particularly close to the same figures occupying one of the vaults of Raphael’s frescoes. Likewise, Spranger’s gathering of gods at the right of the canvas can be seen to owe something to the classicising features of Raphael’s Council and Feast of the Gods.
Spranger’s design for the figures Mercury and Psyche, however, can further be traced through a number of other visual sources. The seductive pose of Psyche, almost recumbent in the arms of the more energetic Mercury, appears to have been adapted from an engraving of Venus and Cupid, part of the famed Loves of the Gods, a series of prints made by Jacopo Caraglio (1501-1547) after drawings by Perino del Vaga (1494-1540) and Rosso Fiorentino (1495-1540). This print was also adapted by Giovanni Battista Scultori in his circa 1539 engraving of Venus and Mars (fig. 2), which Spranger likewise seems to have known and to have used for his depiction of Psyche. It may be significant, and is certainly indicative of the painter’s own particularly sensual treatment of the female nude, that Spranger’s sources for Psyche all originally depict Venus. Spranger’s interest in the seductive nude seems to have led him to ignore the more demure Psyche of Raphael’s frescoes and to follow the more overtly sexualised Venuses depicted by Caraglio and Scultori. The fashion for this type of posed figure, popularly termed figura serpentinata, became a popular trope of Mannerist art, ultimately deriving from the famous Laöcoon group which had been discovered in Rome in 1506 and popularised by Michelangelo. Caraglio and Scultori’s languidly reclining nudes, with one leg tucked up and the other extended, also seems to have influenced sculptural compositions, like Giambologna’s Allegory of Architecture (Florence, Museo del Bargello) and Female Figure (fig. 3; Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum). While the sculptor’s Allegory takes a more vertical pose, the figure again shares the basic traits of the Venuses in the earlier engravings. Indeed, the close connection between Giambologna, who evidently knew and even worked with Spranger in Italy, and the shared knowledge of the composition gives credence to the possibility of Spranger’s knowledge of the prints and his adaptation of the design for his Psyche.
Spranger’s initial design for his Mercury carrying Psyche to Olympus are preserved in two drawings, one now in Hamburg (fig. 4; Kunsthalle, inv. no. 22540) and another in Budapest (Szépmuvészeti Múzeum, inv. no. 58.420; though this may in fact be a copy of an original, lost preparatory drawing). Both show slight variations for the left-hand portion of the final painting, and show the artist’s concern about the most effective way to capture to movement of the final composition. The painter also seems to have reused elements of his final painting when working on the slightly later circa 1579 Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine with Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist (Private collection), where the figure of the Virgin follows the figura serpentinata composition of Psyche. The features of Saint Catherine too can be recognised in those of the goddess at the far right of Spranger’s earlier painting.
The painter returned to the subject of Cupid and Psyche a number of times throughout his career. Most significantly for the present work is, as van Mander described it, a ‘grand and astonishingly well-designed’ drawing of 1583-1585 depicting The Wedding of Cupid and Psyche (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. no. RP-T-1890-A-2339), which was later used to create a large-scale engraving by Hendrick Goltzius in 1587. The complex grouping of Olympians is naturally reminiscent of Spranger’s earlier painting and a variety of facial types and poses are shared between the two, suggesting perhaps that he turned back to his earlier work for inspiration. Whether the Rijksmuseum drawing was intended as a design for a complimentary painting to the Mercury carrying Psyche remains undetermined, but it is certainly significant that his initial depiction of the tale of Cupid and Psyche warranted the later production of numerous elaborations and re-visitations of different elements of the story.
Indeed, while Spranger himself appears to have made use of Mercury carrying Psyche to Olympus for later works, the picture also seems to have quickly proved important and influential at the Prague court of Rudolf II, where Spranger eventually arrived in 1580. The specific influence of this picture can be felt most significantly perhaps in the monumental sculptural group of Mercury abducting Psyche, a masterpiece cast in bronze in 1593 in Prague by the sculptor Adriaen de Vries, which suggests in its composition that the great Dutch sculptor knew the present work at first hand. (fig. 5; Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv. no. M.R. 3270).
The present work is being offered for sale pursuant to an agreement between the consignor and the heirs of Dr. Curt Glaser. This resolves any dispute over ownership of the work and title will pass to the buyer.