Frieze from the castle of Vélez Blanco: The Birth of Hercules

Frieze from the castle of Vélez Blanco: The Birth of Hercules

Spain, c. 1510-1520
Carved pine
90 x 600 x 10 cm
Bequest of Émile Peyre, 1905
Inv. PE 1812 A
© Les Arts Décoratifs

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During the summer of 1992, while work was being carried out in the basement of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, ten carved friezes were found in a recess where they had been carefully stored then forgotten, probably since their arrival at the museum in 1904. Six of them depict the Triumphs of Caesar, based on the series of paintings (now in Hampton Court) executed around 1485-1494 by Andrea Mantegna for Francesco II Gonzaga; the other four depict the Labors of Hercules. Research revealed that these monumental reliefs had been purchased from an antique dealer in Valencia by Émile Peyre, a collector and fashionable decorator during the Second Empire, and that they came from the castle of Vélez Blanco, built on the site of a Moorish fortress near Almeria in the heart of Andalusia. The castle belonged to Don Pedro Fajardo y Chacón and his wife, Dona Mencía de la Cueva, whose arms adorn the scenes in the friezes depicting the Labors of Hercules. The first frieze begins with the hero’s birth, attended by three female figures: his mother Alcmene, who watches in horror as her son fights the serpents sent by Hera; her servant Galanthis; and Lucina, the goddess of Light and Childbirth. The next scene shows Hercules breaking the Nemean lion’s jaw, followed by the battle between Hercules and Cacus (evoking the legendary founding of Rome). Each relief, composed of two long, parallel planks of pine, is 5-6 meters long, with a total height of about 80 centimeters and a maximum thickness of 10 centimeters. When they were made, the planks were laid side by side and butted together, then carved. The compositions were carved from the solid wood, with no added pieces. The planks, now very fragile, are in a partially fragmentary state, and seven of them have undergone fundamental restoration work. The name of the sculptor or workshop that made these low-relief carvings is still unknown, but their style resembles that of Rodrigo Alemán. The engravings used as models for the Triumphs of Caesar were the work of Jacopo da Strasbourg, and those used for the Labor of Hercules were by Giovanni Andrea Vavassore ; both engravers were active in Venice around 1500. The engravings show the progression of the scenes in the six reliefs as they were placed on the castle walls, and also reveal the missing parts.

M. B. Monique Blanc, ”Les frises oubliées de Vélez Blanco,” Revue de l’Art, no. 116, 1997-2, pp. 9-16
Monique Blanc, ”Les Frises oubliées de Vélez Blanco,” exhibition catalogue, Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs, 1999.

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