Saturday, 24 March 2007

Pagan mysteries by Edgar Wind

Pagan mysteries in the Renaissance by Edgar Wind

Gathering dust on my bookshelf for 26 years, this book was bought whilst at Oxford in June 1980, as attested by a note inside the front cover. I recall buying it to improve my knowledge of the iconography of Renaissance paintings, following a vivid holiday to Florence the previous year. Quite why I picked this off the shelf and read it now, I cannot say, but it surely proved useful on my recent holiday to Rome.

Indeed, I saw and studied one of the paintings discussed in detail: ‘Sacred and profane love’ by Titian, located in the Galleria Borghese. It shows the same young woman twice, one sitting, gorgeously dressed beside a well, while the other ‘self’ is virtually naked, and half standing beside the same well. The author explains the symbols and iconography of the picture at length, as part of his broad theme of explaining pagan (i.e. Greek/Roman mythology) in Renaissance art.

Edgar Wind is a very academic writer, and on many pages the notes occupy more space than the main text. It could be better written, and made more accessible. There is no biography of Wind, but I think he was an Oxford professor. However the fascination of the subject matter makes this a valuable and unusual book. One can learn a tremendous about about mythology, symbolism, history, humanism and so on through this book. Some sections are obscure, seemingly addressed to other academics, but some chapters, such as the description of Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ are wonderfully revealing. The meaning of that picture is totally obscure, unless one is initiated into these mysteries. The deep meaning of the word ‘mystery’ is also explained here.

This book will awake your appetite for many aspects of art and philosophy – maybe more as a reference book than as a sit-down read.

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