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Early modern horror: a study visit to the Wellcome Library

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21/03/2014

By | From the Collections

Notice about UCL course

The second term of the academic year (January – March) is a popular time for seminars and classes at the Wellcome Library. The last two months have seen visits from many university institutions in London (the Courtauld Institute of Art, Birkbeck, Central St Martins, Imperial College) and others outside London (such as the University of Kent at Canterbury and Emporia State University in Kansas).

Among many events organized with our neighbours University College London (UCL), the MA course on Early Modern Horror always brings to light new aspects of the Wellcome Library’s holdings. The course is run in the History of Art department by Dr Maria Loh.

This year the classes looked at paintings, drawings and prints from the 16th and 17th centuries on a range of early modern themes, including death, the devil, Rosicrucians, witchcraft, plague, portents, anatomy, rape, martyrdom, Jesuits, illusions and anamorphoses.

Students were able to study Agostino Carracci’s engraving ‘The Great Crucifixion’ after the painting by Jacopo Tintoretto. The engraving was produced in Venice in 1589 and was printed on three large sheets. In the Wellcome Library’s impression, the sheets had previously been folded, but over the last year it has been unfolded, stabilised and remounted by Amy Junker Heslip in the Library’s Conservation department, and can now be seen in all its astonishing detail.

The Great Crucifixion. Engraving by Agostino Carracci, 1589, after G. Robusti, il Tintoretto. Wellcome Library no. 24605i

The Great Crucifixion. Engraving by Agostino Carracci, 1589, after G. Robusti, il Tintoretto. Wellcome Library no. 24605i

This is Agostino’s most ambitious engraving: according to Bellori, Tintoretto admired it so much that he asked to act as godfather to Agostino’s son Antonio, and held him at his baptism. [1] The originality and dynamism of the figures is amazing, and the engraving has to be seen in reality to be fully appreciated–which is of course one reason for the Library visits.

Detail of the The Great Crucifixion by Agostino Carracci after Tintoretto

Detail of the The Great Crucifixion by Agostino Carracci after Tintoretto

In his diary entries for 18 January and 1 March 1671, John Evelyn refers to Carracci’s print as “that large cartoone or Crucifix of Tintorets, a copy of which I had also my self brought from Venice”. [2] The story of Evelyn’s discovery of Grinling Gibbons carving his virtuoso limewood copy of the engraving in “a poore solitary thatched house” in “an obscure & lonesome place” (Deptford marshes), and what happened to it subsequently is well worth reading.

Another artist who featured prominently in the UCL class visit was Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), a German painter who spent most of his short life in Rome. His 1598 painting of the hospital in Marburg founded by Saint Elizabeth was one of several pictures showing different types of deaths.

The engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar of Elsheimer’s painting of Stellio and Ceres was studied in the context of 17th-century witchcraft.

Stellio mocking Ceres. Etching by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1646, after Adam Elsheimer. Wellcome Library no. 38098i.

Stellio mocking Ceres. Etching by Wenceslaus Hollar, 1646, after Adam Elsheimer. Wellcome Library no. 38098i.

The story, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (V, 446-461), shows the little boy Stellio mocking the goddess Ceres (Demeter) as she gulps down some barley-water given to her by the old woman. As a punishment for his insolence, Ceres will throw the barley-water at Stellio, and his maculated body will be turned into the body of a lizard. (Stellio is one of the Latin words for a type of lizard, possibly a gecko.) The two prints of this composition by Hendrick Goudt and Wenceslaus Hollar are scarcely less miraculous transformations of a piece of paper into a magical night scene.

UCL students with Dr Maria Loh

UCL students with Dr Maria Loh

Classes and seminars at the Wellcome Library can be booked by emailing librarygroupvisits@wellcome.ac.uk.

Author: William Schupbach

[1] Bohlin, Diane DeGrazia. Prints and related drawings by the Carracci family: a catalogue raisonné. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979, pp. 254-257

[2] Evelyn, John. Diary, edited by E. S. de Beer. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1955, vol. III, pp. 567-568 and 571-573

 

 

 

 

 

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