Explore the social and cultural background of one of the Hunt Museum’s star objects: Apollo as Genius of the Arts.
By David McBurnie, Hunt Museum Docent
This striking 17th century object was carved in Germany from limewood. It was originally polychromatic but little of the original colouring remains. It represents the Greek god Apollo, one of the 12 gods of Olympus. He appears frequently in Renaissance art as the embodiment of perfect beauty of form, an idea deriving from the famous Apollo Belvedere statue, displayed in Rome’s Vatican Palace from the early 16th century.
Apollo as The Genius of the Arts | Polychromed lime wood | c.17th AD | Hunt Museum | PD
Apollo’s many attributes, reflected in the variety of mythical stories linked with him, account for the wide range of his patronage. Here, the variety of finely detailed objects displayed on his body indicate his role as patron and protector of the various trades, arts, and professions of the city of Augsburg, where this statue originated. Founded by the Romans in c.15 BCE, by the 16th century Augsburg had become one of Germany’s largest, finest, and most prosperous cities. It enjoyed the status of a free, imperial city from 1276 until the beginning of the 19th century, assuming special importance as the location of some of the key events of the Protestant Reformation. Its wealth principally derived from the financial and metalworking businesses of two powerful families, The Fuggers and the Welsers, who dominated European banking in the 16th century.
Panorama of Augsburg. Woodcut of Augsburg from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493. Public Domain. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augsburg#/media/File:Nuremberg_chronicles_-_Augusta_vendilicorum.png
Augsburg was a major manufacturing centre for instruments, textiles, and armour, as well as the printing of books. Crafts and manual skills are represented on his lower body, while on the upper body there are depictions of scientific and mathematical instruments. Augsburg was also celebrated for music and the manufacture of musical instruments. These occupy a central position on the figure. The presence of such symbols most alludes to Apollo’s role as the god of music and poetry. In this role, he is given the title Apollo Musagetes. His crown of laurel leaves denotes his distinction in the arts, as well as his skill in playing the lyre, which leads to his victory in a contest with the satyr Marsyas, a skilled flute player.
Apollo and the Muses on Mount Parnassus by Johann Christoph Storer, c. 1650. National Gallery of Art. CC0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johann_Christoph_Storer,_Apollo_and_the_Muses_on_Mount_Parnassus,_c._1650,_NGA_127331.jpg
Augsburg’s wealth attracted a large number of painters, sculptors and musicians seeking patrons. Artistic patronage in Northern Europe at this period was linked closely to rapid social and economic change in the region. From the 14th century onwards, the growth of cities (e.g., Antwerp) as centres of trade and commerce led to ‘ordinary’ people becoming richer. Money, rather than ownership of land and property, became the key measure of wealth. Trades and professions brought prosperity to a new urban middle class that was rapidly increasing in power and confidence. Works of art now tended to be commissioned by merchants and master craftsmen with large workshops that employed apprentices. They tended to favour works of art which reflected the reality of the world they lived in, rather than depicting classical myths or religious themes.
Butcher’s Shop by Annibale Carracci, early 1580s. Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford. Public Domain. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butcher%27s_Shop#/media/File:Carracci-Butcher’s_shop.jpg
The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer, 1669-1671. Musée du Louvre. Public Domain. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lacemaker_(Vermeer)#/media/File:Johannes_Vermeer_-_The_lacemaker_(c.1669-1671).jpg
In this context, patronage in the form of commissions came from other sources, not the church or nobility. In the case of the Apollo statue, it may be that the commission came from the association of the city’s powerful and wealthy trade guilds. Guilds were created to guarantee high standards of workmanship and to represent the interests of craftsmen by ensuring fair competition. As in other cities, Augsburg’s guild would have been central to civic life and it seems certain that they would have commissioned this work to occupy a prominent place in the Guild Hall as a symbol of their city’s rich cultural and commercial life, as well as the unity of the guilds themselves, indicated by the pomegranate in Apollo’s left hand (many seeds enclosed in a protective skin). The theory that the statue would perhaps have been placed in an alcove is supported by the absence of objects on the back of the figure.
Stylistically, with its striking use of realistic detail, it corresponds to a style of art unique to Northern Europe at this time. Known as ‘genre painting,’ it usually emphasises scenes of ordinary life in urban settings. However, a sub-category also portrays individuals in their places of work, celebrating, as in the Apollo statue, the qualities of skill and craftsmanship. A notable early example is the extraordinary Annunciation Triptych (Merode Triptych) (1422-1430) by Robert Campin (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece) , Workshop of Robert Campin. Public Domain. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/470304.
In this Annunciation picture commissioned by a middle-class merchant, the central panel takes place in the Virgin Mary’s front room. The right-hand panel portrays St Joseph, normally not present in such works (having no part in the conception) in his carpenter’s workshop. Here, he is portrayed as a skilled artisan, highly unusual at a time when only the church or aristocracy were wealthy enough to commission works of art and little or no attention was paid in art to craft skills. Like the Hunt Museum’s statue, Joseph’s tools are portrayed to an almost obsessive degree of detail (note the mousetrap!) and Joseph’s concentration in the positioning of his drill shows the artist as appreciative of craft skills.
Similar points may be made regarding the painting A Goldsmith in his Goldsmith Shop (1449) by Petrus Christus (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which depicts St Eligius. In the 17th century, Augsburg became pivotal to the European network of goldsmiths. Gold was the predominant symbol of wealth and power and special status was granted to the members of the guild. St Eligius was their patron saint, and so here we have the same combination of religious/secular as in the Campin work, and similar to the juxtaposition of mythical and everyday in the Apollo statue – all making for fascinating works of art.
St Eligius in his Goldsmith Shop, Petrus Christus. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/459052.
Hunt Museum – Essential Guide, Hunt Museum/Scala, 2005
Rose Marie and Rainer Hagen, What Great Paintings Say – Vol. 1, Taschen 2005
James Hall, Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, (Revised ed. John Murray 1996)
Kenneth Clarke and John Murray, Civilisation, 1969