The development of Ovid’s metamorphoses from early woodcut-series to Johann Wilhelm Baur (1639-41)

With the beginning of the renaissance the interest of painters, sculptors and etchers in mythology and especially for Ovid’s metamorphoses grew. Such ancient literary works were widely spread to make the contemporary reader acquainted with mythological topics. Besides that Ovid was especially important for artists who used his metamorphoses until the 18th century as wide source of themes for their works. For that reason many metamorphoses-editions are declared as Bible des poètes, “bible for artists”, a title which underlines its importance.

In paintings it was more common to illustrate single themes whereas in graphic works whole illustration-series came up. The first illustrated edition of the metamorphoses was executed in 1484 by an unknown artist from Bruges and contained 17 woodcuts.[i] Early woodcut-series had the function to illustrate the written work and to familiarize the reader with mythology in general and with ancient authors, like Ovid, in particular.[ii] The ancient text was often translated into the local language with commentaries of contemporary theologians to simplify the original text. The purpose of illustration-series changed through the 17th and 18th century. They then no longer had the function of illustrating a text but emerged as an autonomous series without concrete function.

The metamorphoses-series of Johann Wilhelm Baur (1607-1642) falls into this category. His father, a goldsmith from Strassbourg, decided to apprentice Joann Wilhelm to Friedrich Brentel, the leading master in miniature-painting in Strassbourg.[iii] While working in Brentel’s workshop, Baur was trained, besides miniature-painting, in etching and got familiar with works of Hendrick Goltzius and Antonio Tempesta. After those first years of study, Baur left Strassbourg and headed to Italy. Influenced by his stay there between 1630 and 1637, where he got in contact with works by Adam Elsheimer and Jacques Callot, he brought a new atmospheric effect and spaciousness into his etchings. In Rome and Naples he worked for commissioners like Federico Colonna and Paolo Giordano II. Orsini. In 1637 Baur moved to Vienna and worked for the court under Ferdinand III.[iv] Here Baur was particularly appreciated for his harbour-paintings which showed Italian harbours and sea-sights. Baur spent his last years in Vienna equally productive as the years before in Italy, and executed his largest series between 1639 and 1641, 151 etchings of Ovid’s metamorphoses.

Unlike his other series for Italian commissioners, the metamorphoses were not made for a commissioner. Baur himself was interested in the metamorphoses as a topic which suited his ability for narrative illustration particularly well. Nonetheless Baur surely was hoping to find a buyer for this work. The finished title-page shows a dedication to the imperial counselor (kaiserlicher Rat) Jonas von Heyssperg.[v] The following 150 sheets show the most important and well-known episodes of the metamorphoses, beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the murder of Caesar.

The most important influence on Baur was Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630) whose metamorphoses-series from 1606 contained 150 sheets, too. Tempesta in turn was influenced by another earlier series, executed by Bernard Salomon in 1557. It is therefore interesting to see how patterns first invented by Salomon in 1557 were carried on until Johann Wilhelm Baur, and which elements were new in Baur’s series.

Although Ovid’s metamorphoses are among the most translated ancient literary works, the conception in fine arts remained the same. Once a certain illustration pattern was found, it was widely copied and became standard for generations of artists. This means that there are only a few original metamorphoses-series in the graphic arts; most of the series contain at least some elements from such standard-series. One reason for the lack of a large number of original series can be found in the fact that most of rather successful artists had no intention to illustrate the whole of Ovid. In fact, it was the craftsmen who produced the woodcuts for the metamorphoses-editions. This way of overtaking a widely accepted illustration-pattern was easier both for image producer and public reader.[vi] The early metamorphoses-prints usually contained one woodcut per book, i.e. at least 15 woodcuts. Each woodcut showed the most important episode from the specific book so that the reader could recall the whole episode easily. The main purpose was to simplify mythology as far as possible for the ordinary reader. For that reason Ovid was often translated into the various local languages. Thereby, the translator used the original text very freely. He often interpreted Ovid from a catholic point of view as warning against sin and dissolute life, as described in the metamorphoses. For that reason, many Ovid-translations have additional comments, written by theologians, explaining the text further. The illustrations were a valuable support for the text. Because every metamorphoses-edition and translation differed from each other, different illustrations were needed, too. Particular illustrations for a particular text came up. This tight linkage between text and image loosened during the 16th and 17th century and in the following certain editions appeared without the originally designed illustrations.

Fig. 1: Bernard Salomon, Acis and Polyphemus, 1557, woodcut, 4,2x5,5 cm. Source: Henkel 1930, Tafel XVI, fig. 29.

Fig. 1: Bernard Salomon, Acis and Polyphemus, 1557, woodcut, 4,2×5,5 cm.
Source: Henkel 1930, Tafel XVI, fig. 29.

In this context, the illustration-series by Bernard Salomon is outstanding because his series has no specific model. Salomon used his own imagination to create original illustration-patterns which generated a new tradition for the next generations of printmakers. Published in 1557 the series contained 178 woodcuts and illustrated the Metamorphose figurée, a French metamorphoses-edition. The letter of dedication addresses the edition to an intellectual reader. The illustrations have a close relation to the text which can also be seen by the formal structure (Fig. 1). The text cannot be understood without these illustrations which were made for this particular text. Each episode includes three parts: the headline gives a short introduction to the illustrated episode. The woodcut is placed in the middle of the page. Below there are eight verses describing the illustrated episode. Contrary to many other early editions, the scenes are only shown and not further explained. Arabesques and figural motifs border the illustration-scene.

Fig. 2: Bernard Salomon, Detail,Acis and Polyphemus, 1557, woodcut, 4,2x5,5 cm. Source: Henkel 1930, Tafel XVI, fig. 29.

Fig. 2: Bernard Salomon, Detail,Acis and Polyphemus, 1557, woodcut, 4,2×5,5 cm.
Source: Henkel 1930, Tafel XVI, fig. 29.

Salomon used his rich imagination to create new and exciting scenes in which the figures are always in motion. They act in a very expressive way and are located in a dramatic situation. The image of Acis and Polyphemus shows such a dramatic scene (Fig. 2). We see Polyphemus holding a large piece of rock in his left hand. Coming down from a massive rock in the background, he is still chasing Acis, who is already lying dead in the foreground at the edge of a river.[vii] In the left background Galatea flees into the water. Salomon manages to visualize three different moments. The first moment is visualized through Galatea who takes flight immediately after Polyphemus has seen her together with Acis and leaves her beloved behind. The moment after that is shown through Acis who lies motionless on the ground, already mortally hit by a piece of rock. Then Polyphemus shows the third moment. In his anger he had not yet realized that he had already killed Acis, and is about to throw another piece of rock on him. Salomon succeeded in showing a course of action in one single picture. For that reason his series became standard until the beginning of the 17th century.

Fig. 3: Antonio Tempesta, Acis and Polyphemus, 1606, etching, 9,5x11,7 cm. Source: Bartsch 1983, p. 74, fig. 129.

Fig. 3: Antonio Tempesta, Acis and Polyphemus, 1606, etching, 9,5×11,7 cm.
Source: Bartsch 1983, p. 74, fig. 129.

One of his successors who began to replace Salomon in his role model function during the 17th century was Antonio Tempesta. Unlike Salomon, he executed only 150 scenes of the metamorphoses. He took over Salomon’s illustration manner but transformed Salomon’s French-Renaissance-figures into Italian-Early-Baroque-figures. Tempesta’s series was not made of woodcuts but of etchings, a technique which allows the etcher to implement more subtle chiaroscuro-effects. By changing the technique, differences in the effect between Salomon and Tempesta occur which can be seen in his version of Acis and Polyphemus (Fig. 3.). Tempesta uses the same setting as Salomon. He shows Galatea more distinct in the background and Acis lying in the foreground with a piece of rock on him. Polyphemus is about to toss another piece of rock upon him. Tempesta used a larger format than Salomon, so he has more space at disposal and is thus able to execute larger figures.[viii] Further, the figures occupy more space in proportion to the whole picture which reduces the place for background decoration. The rock behind Polyphemus which took a great part of the picture by Salomon is now reduced to a smaller section and is rather indicating a huge rock than actually showing one. Tempesta differentiates his scenes by shading the surfaces. He makes no effort in hiding the shades and lets them appear very obvious. The comparison of Salomon and Tempesta show that Tempesta creates the more dramatic scene. He achieves this by choosing a narrower image section, larger figures and a more incisive moment of illustration. Polyphemus is running down the hill. He does not have to wind up the piece of rock first, he is already about to drop it on Acis. Galatea, too, is shown in a more dramatic way, stretching out her arms widely while fleeing into the water.

Fig. 4: Johann Wilhelm Baur, Acis and Polyphemus, 1639-41, etching, 13x20,5 cm. Source: BSB München, Res/4 A. lat. a. 451 y.

Fig. 4: Johann Wilhelm Baur, Acis and Polyphemus, 1639-41, etching, 13×20,5 cm.
Source: BSB München, Res/4 A. lat. a. 451 y.

These are the most important predecessors for Johann Wilhelm Baur. In the following the most important questions are what Baur took over from Salomon and Tempesta, and what the new elements in his series are. As Baur’s series contains 150 sheets too, he shows in most cases the same episodes as Tempesta but often changes the moment of illustration. His version of Acis and Polyphemus differs from Salomon and Tempesta and illustrates another moment (Fig. 4.). Acis is still alive and flees from Polyphemus who is after him. Acis is aware that the giant is about to throw a piece of rock upon him and that he has no chance of escaping. Polyphemus runs down the hill and holds the piece of rock over his head, ready to let it drop. The Nereid Galatea in the background has already reached the safe sea and is about to submerge into the water. Through this manner of illustration Baur thrills the viewer and appeals to his compassion. It has a more dramatic effect showing Acis alive while the spectator already knows what will happen to him. However, at least a brief knowledge of the metamorphoses is necessary to understand the scenes.

The most striking difference between Salomon/Tempesta and Baur is the strong atmospheric effect in Baur’s illustrations. Baur leaves much place for the background  which is filled with vegetation, hills, clouds and birds. Salomon and Tempesta had made attempts to shape the background too, but they did not quite achieve a true illusionistic effect. Baur takes over the setting from Salomon and Tempesta. He, too, shows the huge rock in the right foreground and the sea on the left side, thus leading into the depth. Nevertheless, he did not find the right motion and dynamic neither in Salomon’s nor Tempesta’s series, so he transferred the elements into his own illustration-language. In comparison with the two later series, the illustrations of Salomon have the disadvantage that they are made of woodcuts which limits the capabilities of making a three-dimensional impression. They look rather flat and two-dimensional and therefore not as illusionistic as the ones by Baur. Compared with Baur and Salomon, Tempesta’s version seems very stiff and without motion. He uses quite the same elements as Baur to create motion but fails to achieve the same effect.

Baur surely knew the series of Salomon and Tempesta and overtook what he thought suitable for his own but nevertheless created new, illusionistic and dramatic scenes. In most cases, he does not show the culminating moment of the episode but the moment shortly before or after. Thus the viewer is addressed emotionally and his compassion for the illustrated figures is evoked. He is able to relate to their suffering, pain and despair. This joy in narration and the attempt to involve the viewer cannot be found in Baur’s predecessors.

In conclusion it can be said that Baur’s metamorphoses-series mirrors his experiences in Italy. The metamorphoses-series was one of his latest works and the topic suited his talent of narrative illustration perfectly. Baur introduces new dynamic, motion, dramatic action and emotion into his scenes which cannot be found in Salomon’s or Tempesta’s works. He transfers established elements into his own form and thus addresses the viewer in a more direct way. Through the technique of etching he achieves vivid and illusionistic illustrations with figures of which each has an individual expression. Contrary to many early metamorphoses-series Baur did not have the intention of illustrating a text but of executing an independent series. So the illustrations were not made for a specific text but in the following often published together with it. Baur’s series became very popular and was often used as source for other metamorphoses-series but also inspired certain paintings, frescoes and ivory-carvings.[ix] Until the beginning of the 18th century, Baur’s series was published in various metamorphoses-editions.

The reason why Johann Wilhelm Baur is hardly known today is that he was appreciated by his contemporaries mostly for his miniatures, a genre which became old-fashioned during the 18th century. The same happened to the metamorphoses. Until the end of the 17th century, a number of new series came up, but afterwards the interest in the topic and Johann Wilhelm Baur’s following diminished.


Eva Stachel

[i]The metamorphoses are divided in 15 books, so there is one sheet for every book and two additional belonging to the preface.

[ii]With “early series” are in the following meant woodcut-series from 1484 until the beginning of the 16th century.

[iii]Miniature-paintings, often containing portraits, were very popular in the 17th century and often used as precious gifts e.g. in exchange for a done favour.

[iv]The reasons why Baur moved to Vienna are not quite clear, there can often be read that he followed a call of Ferdinand III. to come to Vienna, but Baur was never a court painter and was only now and then working for the court.

[v]In the dedication he calls Heyssperg his „gracious and dignified master“ and recites his dominions in Lower Austria.

[vi]The producer could use such standard-editions as a pattern for his own work and did not have to invent a new illustration-pattern and the public reader thus got to see almost the same illustrations again and again and could recognize the illustrated episode easily.

[vii]Polyphemus is in love with the Nereid Galatea who does not return his love. When Polyphemus sees her together with Acis, he gets furious and kills his rival. In the following, Acis transform into a river.

[viii]Size of Salomon’s woodcuts: 4,2×5,5 cm; size of Tempesta’s etchings: 9,5×11,7 cm.

[ix]E.g. the frescoes by Georg Asam in the Schönach-castle; Giovanni Lanfranco’s ceiling-frescoe in the Villa Borghese; Johann Heinrich Schönfeld’s painting of the „battle of giants“.

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