A celebration of love
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Crosby Stevens, Rose Arkle
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