Orpheus and the Beasts
- Place of origin:
- Materials and Techniques:
tempera on panel
- Credit Line:
Given by Lady Sackville
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
British Galleries, Room 56, The Djanogly Gallery, case 17, shelf EXP 
Many 17th-century houses were decorated with mural paintings, ranging in technique from colourful painted wood panels as here, to crude monochrome designs painted directly on to the plaster. Changes in fashion have meant that few houses now have such paintings visible, though there are undoubtedly more to be discovered under layers of paint or newer panelling.
Orpheus, in Greek mythology, was the son of the god Apollo. He was able to charm the wild beasts with his music and by its magic power even move trees and rocks. This story was a favourite theme for poets, painters, printmakers and musicians in the 17th century. For example, the first successful opera, performed in Mantua in 1607, was Monteverdi's Orfeo. The anonymous artist here has copied closely his composition from a print in a natural history book, the frontispiece to A Book of Beasts, published anonymously in 1630 by Thomas Johnson. Book illustrations and other prints were frequently used as image sources for embroidery and tapestry weaving, which decorated rooms and furniture.
The inscription reads:
Such Heavenly power in musick rests
It calmes and tames the savage beasts
Whilst Orpheus playes
Each beast obeyes.
Wall panel with a roundel depicting Orpheus charming the beasts with his lyre. The design is based on the frontispiece to A Book of Beasts by Thomas Johnson.
Place of Origin
Materials and Techniques
tempera on panel
Height: 46 cm unframed, Width: 56.7 cm unframed, Depth: 0.7 cm unframed
Object history note
Given by Lady Sackville, 1923
Painted in England by an unidentified artist (active 1630-1640); the design based on the frontispiece to 'A Book of Beasts', published by Thomas Johnson
WALL PANEL Orpheus charming the Beasts with his Lyre
Labels and date
The painter of this panel based the painting on a print published in 1630 (see photograph, right).The artist left out some of the smaller creatures in the foreground of the original print, such as the snake, rabbits, cat and dog. This panel is probably only a small fragment of a larger scheme, intended to decorate a room. [27/03/2003]
Design based on the frontispiece to 'A Book of Beasts', published by Thomas Johnson
Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection