The Elysium Closet in the Little Castle at Bolsover

English Heritage

A celebration of love 

A Celebration of Erotic Love
The murals in the Elysium Closet celebrate the power of erotic love. Creating children is a divine pleasure. William Cavendish, later Duke of Newcastle, was newly married in 1618 when the paintings were planned. The decoration provides a delightful game, and reveals his hopes for a flourishing dynasty.

The scheme is an intricate and amusing puzzle, full of references to William and his family.

It plays with Classical and Renaissance ideas about the contrast between physical and spiritual love, and how earthly delights can be guiltless.

The paintings are the culmination of an iconographic programme through seven rooms in the Little Castle at Bolsover in Derbyshire. The identity of the artist is unknown.

The building was a pleasure house, used for short stays and day trips. It was the setting for intimate banquets and lavish entertainments.

The Elysium Closet is a small room leading from William’s bedchamber that was probably used for relaxing, drinking, and private conversation.

It is paired with a second closet depicting a parallel scene of music and dancing in Christian heaven.

The Composition 
The decoration is carefully planned to create narrative threads, and to pose questions about the nature of love. It also connects living people standing in the room to the imaginary painted world. 

Three concentric circles of classical figures recede upward into the distance. At the centre is a young man seated on a cloud.

There are contrasting figures in contemporary Jacobean dress over the glazed doors to the balcony, and a banner saying ‘All is But vanite’.

Parts of the Elysium Closet scheme are based on a painted ceiling by Francesco Primaticcio at the Palace of Fontainebleau, near Paris, which no longer survives.

The figures from the print are altered, rearranged, and mixed with other figures whose sources have not been discovered.

The new arrangement cleverly creates lines of connected figures, running vertically from the cornices to the centre.

There is a clue in the aged panelling to why the figures are in ascending sequences. This was originally indigo blue, with a pattern that resembled woodgrain or marble, painted in real gold.

Stunningly, the design would have looked like flames. In the 19th century this was called the hell room.

Fire could cleanse, energise, refine and recast. It was enchanting and poetic. Perhaps its power allowed the Cavendishes, who were lovers, to rise into the classical heaven of Elysium to join the gods. Or maybe its magic could make the paintings come to life.

You can read the text of a Jacobean masque where celestial fire had the power to animate statues (via the Luminarium website).

The gods and goddesses on the cornices are arranged in pairs. Although some of them have more than one identity, the main theme is contrasting versions of Venus, goddess of love.

In Classical and Renaissance philosophy love had two opposing aspects: the earthly and the heavenly. Venus encompassed both.

The goddesses on the first cornice reference Christian interpretations of love, with connected ideas of temptation, sin and purity.

One Venus is being offered an apple, like Eve, although, intriguingly, she rejects the gift. The child is probably Amor or Love. The other Venus holds a rose like the Virgin Mary.

Moving to the right, Venus now flirts with Mars. She is paired with a goddess who is being offered another rose, reminding us of Venus, although she carries a distaff for spinning like Omphale. Omphale was the mother of two sons of Hercules.

One version of Eros here has wings, while the other has none, again symbolising earthly and heavenly love.

On the third cornice, Jupiter flirts with a goddess whose cups might signify physical love. She may be Hebe the goddess of youth, as well as an earthly version of Jupiter’s wife, Juno, to the right. Juno’s pose and white drapery hint at a heavenly Venus.

The theme of earthly and heavenly love recurs in dramatic works associated with William. Ben Jonson’s 'The New Inn' of 1629 includes a debate between the characters Lovel and Beaufort (meaning beautiful castle).


This could have been an in-joke, fitting with the decoration at Bolsover where the plays might be read or performed.

Leading across and upward from the first cornice, we find linked images telling the story of Venus and Mars whose union produced Eros, the god of love. Any or all of the male figures could allude to William.

The goddess holding the rose may be pregnant. She is Venus but could have an additional identity as Diana, the virgin goddess associated with childbirth.

She gazes, perhaps remembering, as Mars, the god of war, seduces a second, seemingly younger, version of herself on the neighbouring cornice.

The crescent moon was an emblem of the family of William’s mother. When Jonson wrote her epitaph, he may have remembered that she was depicted as both Diana and Venus. He called her magnetic.

In early theories of magnetism Mars and Venus were compared to iron and an attracting lodestone.

Venus and Mars are trapped in Vulcan’s net, while Eros shoots an arrow of desire.

Above them, a man and a woman, both derived from the figure of Diana in the original black and white print, are seated beside a standing boy. The boy bends his elbow, perhaps echoing the pose of Eros.

Eros may have morphed into the standing boy, and his parents Mars and Venus have been translated into the seated couple beside him.

Neptune, with his trident, is the god of fertility. He might have ensured the conception.

The boy and the youth have a sash and a wand. It seems the boy is transformed again. Now he becomes Apollo, the sun god, although, curiously he acquires none of Apollo’s attributes like a lyre.

This youth could have a dual identity, as both Apollo and an idealised Cavendish boy.

If William and his relatives occupied the room, engulfed perhaps in magic painted fire, they could, in their imaginations, become any or all of these figures, poetically blending gods and mortals and evolving through the generations.

When the King and Queen visited in 1634 Jonson wrote an entertainment called 'Love’s Welcome at Bolsover'. William, as the host, was ‘Love’.

Eros appeared in the show. Perhaps Jonson imagined that Eros, or Love, had stepped down from the murals to greet the King, because, in the paintings, he alluded to William.

The Son of Jupiter and Juno
Across the room, a second set of linked images tells a similar story of the Classical gods producing a son. This series also ends with the youth in the centre. Its characters, too, can be connected to the Cavendishes.

Juno, leaning on Jupiter, looks up at another version of herself, perhaps remembering past events. Her breasts are amusingly engorged with milk. She is another goddess of childbirth.

On the ceiling her pose resembles depictions of the mythic Danaë, mother of Perseus, receiving seed in a shower of gold.

Juno has produced a son. He is the boy in blue standing over her and looking down towards the cornice. The boy is congratulated by his father Jupiter, while a cupid descends with a garland.

Above the boy in blue, a goddess sits beside a cornucopia of flowers. She is Vesta, goddess of home and marriage.

To the right, a satyr, half man and half goat, waves at the viewer. This figure is derived from Pan in the original print. Here he probably represents sexual desire.

A bearded man and a standing boy who wears a sash lift their arms, echoing the joined pose of Jupiter and his son below. They echo the idealised Cavendish youth at the centre, who also lifts his arm.

The woman in red is copied from Juno in the original print.

The Circle of Love
Love emanates from the gods to the earth, transforming William and lifting him into heaven. 

There is a third boy in the central ring, who also wears a sash. He belongs to a third line of connected images. This boy is kneeling. He has no attribute to identify him as a particular immortal, and he, too, could be a god-like Cavendish.

This sequence begins with the empty space in front of the glazed doors to the balcony. If William stood there, perhaps with his younger brother Charles, they would complete the painted sequence above.

A boy holding a moon sits directly above the doorway. The moon might be a hallmark of William’s ancestry. It makes the letter C for Cavendish, as well as being an emblem of his mother’s ancient noble family, the Ogles of Northumberland.

The boy could be a translated version of William.

The boy with a moon has the body of Diana with the arm of Vulcan, taken from the original print after Primaticcio.

The youth at the centre has a similar arm. There might be a family resemblance. Each male figure in the line could be a transposed version of the next.

The kneeling boy, who is the middle link in the chain, points with a thin index finger that resembles the wand of the young man above him. This creates a reversal in direction: a rotation.

This reversal resonated with the Neoplatonic concept of love as the fundamental force that flows continuously to and from God.

As a personification of love, and as Eros, like the cupids here, William could rise to sit with the immortals, and then return to earth.

Entering Elysium and Playing the Part
Once William and his guests unlocked the puzzles in the paintings, they could engage with their poetic and philosophical messages and amuse themselves with the dramatic possibilities.

Pleasures in Elysium involve all the senses. We can almost feel the fire, taste the grapes, smell the flowers, and hear the sound of chatting, laughter, shrieks and jeers.

Bacchus is swinging on a vine, squeezing grape juice onto the ground below. He is on the point of dropping into the mortal world, perhaps to join William and Elizabeth’s drinking and merriment below.

Some of the figures appear to have strayed into Elysium from Derbyshire without a transformation. The boy in green over the glazed doors is wearing simple Jacobean clothing.

The laughing and weeping philosophers are also dressed in contemporary clothes.

The furred gown of Heraclitus would have been appropriate for a professional gentleman.

Curiously, Democritus wears a soft, felted hat, marking him out as a man of lower status. Perhaps he is an actor?

The philosophers resemble a portrait of Ben Jonson by Abraham van Blyenberch.

The poet came to Bolsover in 1618, shortly before the interiors were decorated, and he may have had a role in the invention.

These could be portraits, advertising Jonson’s scholarship and wisdom, while teasing him as a lowly player.

The finger of Democritus points to the globe, but it also leads across to a pair of satyrs. One of them points back. This makes a connection to Pan whose face is carefully painted. We might think that he, too, resembles Jonson.

Jonson acting the part of Pan would have completed a set of tragedy, comedy and satire.

It might also have highlighted the rude sense of humour that he shared with William.

Jonson wrote a bawdy entertainment for the Cavendish family in 1620, around the time this scheme was painted, probably to celebrate the birth of William’s son.

A weeping man in the central ring, based on Saturn in the original print, is posed like Heraclitus. He could be another version of the philosopher, and so, perhaps, of Jonson.

If the poet stood in front of the glazed doors, he too might rise and be transformed, entering Elysium, alongside William and his family.

The phrase ‘All is But vanite’ is painted on a banner above the doors. It is a biblical quotation that could relate to the philosophers’ optimism and pessimism about the human world.

However, the phrase carries a different meaning if ‘vanity’ was used to mean a masque or show.

Some of the painted clothing and accessories resemble the fanciful costumes worn by the nobility and royal family for masques and private shows.

Perhaps all the characters are performing. Their stage could be both inside and outside the picture space.

While the Cavendishes inhabited the enchanted space of the Little Castle, high on the hill at Bolsover, they were poised between earth and heaven.

Through the magic of the paintings they could be refashioned in body and spirit, becoming patterns of virtue, love and truth.

Delightfully, they could indulge in all the pleasures of the body but still enjoy eternal bliss.

Credits: Story

Contributors
Crosby Stevens, Rose Arkle

Sources
Peter Brears, Martin Butler, Paul Drury, James Fitzmaurice, Mark Girouard, Anna Groundwater, Maria Hayward, Karen Hearn, Nicholas Helm, Paula Henderson, Angela Hobbs, Lisa Hopkins, Helen Hughes, Lynn Hulse, James Knowles, James Loxley, Timothy Mowl, Stephen Paine, Timothy Raylor, Julie Sanders, Bob Smith, Roy Strong, Anthony Wells-Cole, Lucy Worsley

To find out more about the paintings and the literature associated with the castle

Visit Bolsover Castle

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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