Roelant Savery - Orpheus among the Animals

by Dr. Stefanie Meier-Kaftan


The period around the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries was subject to a number of changes, both politically and artistically. Not least of all, this affected Dutch art and its numerous artists. Among those, the Dutch landscape, animal and flower painter Roelant Savery stands out. Savery was born in 1576 in Kortrijk / Courtrai (Belgium) and died in 1639 in Utrecht (Netherlands). He was a pupil of his brother Jacob Savery, who had studied under Hans Bol.


Roelant Savery worked in Amsterdam since 1591 and went to Prague from the end of 1603, where he worked as a court painter for Rudolf II. Rudolf II had been emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations since 1576 and had moved the seat of government from Vienna to the now burgeoning metropolis of Prague. He ruled there until his death in 1612, which is how long Savery worked for him at the Hofburg in Prague. During this time, he created countless landscape depictions, as well as his famous animal paintings, to which he devoted himself with great interest. The imperial stables with their magnificent horses and the Lion Court, where various exotic (predatory) animals were kept, provided him with models for these.

(1) His depictions of Orpheus and Paradise were based on these studies. Two compositions to which he devoted himself even after he left Prague again after the death of Rudolf II. From 1614 he worked as a court painter in Vienna for Emperor Matthias, Rudolf II's brother.

Especially those pictures in which seemingly the entire animal kingdom and the ordering power are depicted, testify to encyclopedic character. These include above all the depictions of Orpheus. Orpheus was a singer from the Greek myth. His parents were probably the Thracian Oiagros and the muse Calliope.(2) Orpheus, who was considered the hero of music, was also said to have miraculous powers. Through the power of his music, both in singing and in playing the strings, he evokes a harmony of the animals in the sense of an earthly peace. He stands for the reconciling power of art.(3) Around 1600, two themes are found in Flemish art: either Orpheus is shown as a good shepherd in the midst of two lambs with a lyre, or borrowed from Greco-Roman myth - in the midst of wild animals, playing the lyre. These are mostly very similar in the composition of the picture. Orpheus is in the midst of the animals, usually near a tree. Here follows an interplay of light and shadow, with plants and trees shown more in shadow, while the animals appear almost illuminated by the light. Animals of the most diverse species are shown, which in the wild would rather not live next to each other, but here seem to live in harmony, in peace. "If one looks here to Rudolfinic science, one sees: world events are a great music, ordered by God, and man has the task of harmoniously fitting in." (4) The scholars in the Rudolphine circle were educated and well-read, and it is with this knowledge that the depictions of Paradise seem to have been viewed. Compared to the depictions of Orpheus, Savery's depictions of paradise are teeming with even more animals that are on the ground as well as in the trees and in the air. Probably both subjects were created at the request of the emperor, as they were both popular and preferred motifs.


Thus, in the painting "Orpheus among the Animals" Orpheus is almost exactly in the center of the picture and has settled down in a clearing. He is wrapped in a blue robe and plays the lyre. He is surrounded by several birds that seem to circle him. Among the animals are equally mammals, including native species, as well as numerous exotic animals, including elephants, dromedaries, lions and pelicans. The entire clearing is populated by animals peacefully resting and grazing side by side or gazing at each other.


Savery had the opportunity in the menageries, among others, to observe rare species of birds and animals in a vivid way and to put their physiognomy on paper. Therefore, his depicted animals are true to detail and also naturalistically reproduced, but just the vast number of different animal species - especially in the Orpheus and Paradise depictions - seems rather dreamlike and fantastic and little realistic. It seems rather as if he tried to make a classification of the animal species and to reproduce the entire wealth of species in only one painting. In addition, he also projects the play of light and shadow, as already in the landscape painting , now also on the animal representations. The animals appear illuminated by light, the surrounding nature is immersed in shadow. He also continues to apply the color division of foreground, middle ground and background.


Although the Rudolphine circle and Kunstkammer did not survive in their original form after 1612, they lived on in inventories, in books, musical pieces, engravings, and paintings. Roelant Savery has preserved a small part of them with in his paintings. They give an idea of the encyclopedic wealth of naturalia that must have been in the emperor's art chamber and the skill Savery possessed in depicting them so vividly in his paintings. This is especially true of his still lifes of flowers, as well as his depictions of animals. He also created for the emperor a macrocosm of the manorial environment in his landscape depictions. If his works were ultimately primarily commissioned works, they in no way conceal his Dutch roots, which were influenced by Mannerism.


1 Cf. Fucíková, Eliska; Werdau, Otto: Die Kunst am Hofe Rudolfs II. Hanau 1988. p. 135.

2 Cf. Olbrich, Harald [ed.] u.w.: Lexikon der Kunst. Vol. 5, p. 316.

3 Cf. Olbrich, Harald [ed.] u.w.: Lexikon der Kunst vol. 5, p. 316f.

4 Trunz, Erich: Wissenschaft und Kunst im Kreise Kaiser Rudolfs II: 1576-1612. Neumünster 1992. p. 68.


Roelant Savery - Orpheus among the Animals

Oil on canvas, 1610, Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany.

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