Weird Renaissance Art / by Chris Hall

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's Vertumnus, 1590.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's Vertumnus, 1590.

The Renaissance isn't generally known for its weird art, but it does exist.  Here are a few examples of weird art from the Renaissance that I particularly enjoy.

The first piece is by an unknown artist.  It shows a strange man-looking baby rolly-polly infant Jesus creature being held by a bulging eyed Madonna offering her breast, which looks remarkably like a water balloon.  The painting is most likely Medieval, but I thought I would include it as an introduction.  The second piece is an icon representing Saint Sisoes astonished before the bones of Alexander the Great.  Depictions of  the Saint discovering the Alexander's bones proliferated after the fall of Constantinople in 1452.  The third piece is Giotto di Bondone's Saint Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds, c 1299.  I've always thought that this painting was charming.  Giotto is generally heralded as introducing the Renaissance aesthetic to Italy.

Next we have Giorgione's The Tempest, dated 1507.  This Venetian painting is strange and unique as its subject matter is unknown.  During the Renaissance, art was often restricted to portraiture, Biblical subjects, and Classical Mythology.  Another Venetian painting, Vittore Carpaccio's Saint Jerome and the Lion in the Monastery, dated 1509, shows Saint Jerome leading a lion into a monastery, with the other monks running away in fear.  It is an intentionally humorous piece, something you rarely see in Renaissance art.  Hans Holbein the Younger produced a strange piece in 1533, The Ambassadors.  The work shows two men behind a blurred example of an anamorphosis, a memento mori of a skull.  You could only view the skull properly by looking at the painting from the left.

Here we have Giulio Romano's Jupiter and Olympia, 1534.  Jupiter is depicted with an erect penis.  This is only Renaissance work I have seen depicting obvious sexual arousal, and therefore must have a private commission.  Next we have a Presumed Portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrees and Her Sister the Duchess of Villars, by an unknown artist, c 1594.  At first glance one might think that this is a painting depicting lesbians, but the lady on the right holding a ring, suggests that this is a portrait of a newly wed.  The lady on the left, pinching her companion's nipple, is, perhaps suggesting that she is pregnant and will soon be nursing.  Besides, lesbianism would have been too taboo a subject to paint in the Renaissance.  Finally we have Lavinia Fontana's Portrait of Antonietta Gonzalez, 1595.  Antonietta Gonzalez was a Spanish aristocrat who had hypertrichosis, or werewolf syndrome, like her father, Petrus Gonzalez.  Lavinia Fontana painted portraits of both.  

Here we have a strange, unknown painting by an unknown artist, depicting a man running away in fear from a naked woman in a bed.  I have no idea what this painting is about, but I find it to be a humorous subject and like to imagine different stories to try to explain the scene.  Next we have Elisabetta Sirani's Timoclea Killing Alexander's Captain, 1659.    I've always thought the scene, depicting Timoclea trying to drown a grown man in a well.  The whole thing just seems so ridiculous, that I get a good laugh out of it.  Finally we have Aert DeGelder's Baptism of Christ, c 1710.  There are many paintings during the Renaissance that depict Christian scenes with strange, UFO references, but this is one of the more obvious among them.