A Muse (Calliope?) – Cosimo Tura

There is a reason that my alias is WidowCranky, one it is obviously a play on the panto character, Widow Twanky from Aladdin, the comedy stock character, who nags and moans, which led me to the change the name to Cranky as I only really moan when I see something that doesn’t sit right with me, but I guess I could be interpreted and moaning when I get overly passionate about how I see things.  I do like to think, however, that when I get in one of these frames of mind, I can be comical with it.

The National Gallery generally has made me drag my soap box out a little.  Maybe because I saw more religious art in there than I did in my visit to St. Paul’s cathedral a few days before.  Maybe it is because the layout was so rigid, and the art work so overly christian in there that I found it a turn off.  Not that I have anything against Christian iconography, by there are only so many images of Jesus and the virgin Mary that I can stand before I want something with a different story line.

Perhaps this is why Tura’s “A Muse” caught my eye.  I do feel the curators where a little lazy in the description of this piece:-

“The figure sits on an elaborate throne decorated with fish, a shell and beads.  This is one of a series of Muses and may represent Calliope, associated with justice.  The meaning of the branch of cherries she holds is a mystery as is the blacksmith’s cave in the distance.  the picture was made for a villa of the Este family of Ferrara by whom Tura was employed as court painter”.

It doesn’t take a lot to know that the mysterious blacksmith would be Hephaestus, the blacksmith God.  They also make no mention of the loan horse rider to the other side of the picture, nor to they speak of the symbolism within the painting.

Had they explored this a little, they may have come to a different theory.  I don’t think that this is the muse Calliope.  I think that this is Aphrodite.  I know, what you might be thinking right now… Cranky is off her rocker.  The title of the painting is “A muse”, it’s part of 9 paintings of the muses which Tura created.  Surely he wouldn’t make such a foolish mistake to paint the Goddess Aphrodite as one of the muses.  Well… stick with me and I will explain.

Let’s talk about that heavily ornate throne for starters.  It is adorned with the ancient depiction of dolphins.  There are six of them around the throne.  Dolphins where considered sacred by Aphrodite and images of her with dolphins feature heavily in Greek art.  Over the top of the throne we see a clam shell, now we know that Aphrodite came to land riding a giant clam shell, so this wold be another of her symbols.

The blacksmith and the lone horseman, I believe are Ares, and Hephaestus.  Aphrodite was betrothed to Ares God of war.  As we know, love and hate are two sides of the same emotion, so this dramatic union seemed to work, up to the point that Hephaestus reentered Olympia.  Hephaestus was the brother of Ares, but had been cast out by Hera (his mother) when he was born because he was ugly and runtish and was not the son that she wanted to provide Zeus.  When I say cast out, I mean she literally flung him down Mount Olympus.  On the way down, his legs were damaged, which meant that he would always walk with a limp.  Brought up at the foot of Mount Olympus, he learnt to be an inventive crafter, and created a throne which pinned Hera in to it, as partial revenge.  The throne was sent as a gift and when she became encased in it, Hephaestus appeared and released her, earning his place back with the Gods and making him the God of Blacksmith and metal work.  Aphrodite ended up marrying Hephaestus rather than Ares.  Therefore I think that the lone horseman riding away is the God of war, dejected at his brothers marriage.

The mysterious cherries in her right hand… really aren’t that mysterious.  Cherries hold heavy symbolism in a number of areas.  The fruit is said to the the elixir of the God which gives them immortality.  Cherries are also seen as a symbol of desire or sexuality which links very nicely with Aphrodite (in fact they can be considered an aphrodisiac).

At her feet, we can see a vine of some sort, if you remember the earth would blossom where Aphrodite stepped.

Come out of the mythology briefly, as there is something interesting about this painting.  It wasn’t necessarily started by Tura.  X-rays of the painting have shown that there is an earlier version behind the layers of paint, which had an organ behind the woman rather than the throne.  It is thought that another artist began the painting, but Tura took over and changed tack.  Why?  Well I have one final addition to make my plea that this is Aphrodite rather than Calliope.

Aphrodite had another name… which was Aphrodite Urania. Urania was one of the muses – in fact she was the muse of astronomy.  The name Aphrodite Urania was given as an epithet to indicate the more celestial being.  This name was to be the embodiment of the love of the soul rather than the more worldly physicality of love.

With all this information, I find it really hard to think of this painting as anyone else now.  Essentially the title is not incorrect, a muses name was given to Aphrodite to give her a transcendentalism.  There is another name for this painting which is “An Allegory of a Muse” which leads me to the belief that there is more of a story to this painting than it just being a depiction of Calliope.  Finally, if this was anyone of the actual muses, she would have been shown with their designated symbol, for example, Calliope’s was a tablet or scroll and pen.

What do you think of this painting?  Who do you think it could be?  Do you think that the National Gallery is right?  Like this post?  Why not share it?  Never miss a post again and find WidowCranky on Facebook.



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