Baroque Drama in the Painted Room

By Historic Royal Palaces

Brett Dolman, Collections Curator

Inside the Little Banqueting House, the Painted Room is an explosion of colour and gilded extravagance. It is typical of the baroque love-affair with  creating an illusionistic three-dimensional interior space, open to the sky, overpainted onto a plainly coved ceiling and walls.

The original decorative scheme of 1701 is all largely intact. The wood carvings are by Grinling Gibbons and the exquisite mirrors are by the royal cabinet maker Gerrit Jensen.

The Banqueting House, The Painted Room by Antonio VerrioHistoric Royal Palaces

Dominating the room are the painted murals of Antonio Verrio, with elaborate and flamboyant gilding work by Peter Cousen.  Each scene is presented as if it was a framed painting, surrounded by garlands of flowers and within a carved architectural setting.

But it is all pretend – a trompe l’oeil trick that makes the room appear fantastically magnificent.

Around the walls of the Painted Room, Verrio painted various scenes from the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet Ovid, racy tales about the lives and loves of the ancient classical gods and goddesses. But there is a little more to these paintings than immediately meets the eye...

Minerva surrounded by the Arts and Sciences (1701) by Antonio Verrio and Peter CousenHistoric Royal Palaces

The King and his Audience

On the ceiling of the Painted Room, Minerva, goddess of wisdom and patroness of all wise things, presides in Majesty over assembled allegorical figures representing the Arts and Sciences.

The Arts and Sciences are attended by the Four Winds, who also have representations of the Four Seasons to keep them company, along with their zodiacal identifiers: Here a figure representing Winter is paired with Capricorn and the harsh, ice-breathed North Wind.

Some of the arts and sciences are readily identifiable: Astronomy, crowned by a circle of stars; Painting, with an easel and brushes; Music, with trumpet; and Sculpture, presenting a carved bust of William III himself...

His appearance here is a clear message to royal guests about the civilising wisdom of the King, across all the seasons!

Alpheus and Arethusa (1701) by Antonio VerrioHistoric Royal Palaces

Indecent stories and Victorian sensibilities

There are two more full-colour murals by Verrio in the Painted Room. Both are taken from the stories of Ovid.

Alpheus and Arethusa (1701) by Antonio VerrioHistoric Royal Palaces

Here, the river-god Alpheus is in lustful pursuit of the nymph Arethusa, while the goddess Diana attempts a rescue, concealing Arethusa by a cloud before magically transforming her into a stream.

The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne (1701) by Antonio VerrioHistoric Royal Palaces

In the final scene, Bacchus liberates Ariadne from her misery on the island of Naxos.

The Cretan princess had been abandoned there by an ungrateful Theseus, who Ariadne had helped escape the infamous Minotaur and the Labyrinth created by her father King Minos. 

The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne (1701) by Antonio VerrioHistoric Royal Palaces

We can just glimpse Theseus’ ship departing Naxos in the background.

The Marriage of Bacchus and Ariadne (1701) by Antonio VerrioHistoric Royal Palaces

Later, Bacchus throws Ariadne’s crown into the air, immortalising her as a constellation in the heavens. 

We hope you enjoyed this brief look inside at the beautiful details of the Little Banqueting House.

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