Can you unravel the meaning of this painting?

Can you unravel the meaning of this painting? It’s not that hard, but I didn’t succeed when Chicken asked me to try. It’s a painting by Otto van Veen that hangs in the National Gallery of Denmark. I urge you to have a go before you read what follows. It’s doable.

I recognised many of the characters: Venus, goddess of love; Bacchus, god of wine; Athena, goddess of wisdom (I am here, I think, mixing up Greek and Roman names for the gods); and Old Father Time.  But I didn’t work out how they fitted together. I flatter myself to think I mightdanish-picture have done so if I’d had more than moments.

The main character is the young man on the floor at the centre of the picture. Every young man must decide what to do with his life. Poverty at the bottom left of the picture is trying to strip him of his clothes. Bacchus and his retinue are tempting him with drink (and think drink and drugs not just drink). Venus, meanwhile, is squirting at him the sweet elixir of love. Cupid is holding the young man’s head to receive Venus’s love elixir. Old Father Time reminds him of the brevity of love, and, I think, life.

Athena (in the helmet), meanwhile, calls him to wisdom and reason and blocks Venus’s love elixir from reaching him. Ceres, the goddess of crops (at the very edge of the picture behind Bacchus) , tells how you cannot live by sex and drugs ( and rock and roll) alone. Perhaps, I speculate (and everybody is free to speculate), the two boys in the right are perhaps his future sons waiting to crown him father. On the hill to the right is the church that will sustain him and the mausoleum where he will eventually be entombed.

So this is a picture of the conversations that take place in every household with adolescent children. Perhaps it might be used as a teaching aid.



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