According to the artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari, Piero was an eccentric recluse who restricted his diet to hard-boiled eggs which he prepared in batches of fifty. It makes a good story but although Vasari was not the most reliable of biographers it seems likely that his account, at least in regard to his eccentric behaviour, contains more than a grain of truth. Certainly much of his output betrays his highly personal and idiosyncratic view of the world which endeared him centuries later to the Surrealists who saw him as a precursor of their own work.
Looking at this picture, you can see what they meant. There is a distinct air of incongruity, principally due to the presence of the large dog who has been given equal billing with the mythical protagonists. A satyr grieves over a dying or recently dead young woman, tenderly stroking her brow. The dog, gazing intently at the stricken girl, also seems to be mourning. The drama takes place on low-lying ground at the margins of an estuary or bay. Life goes on in the background — sailing vessels can be seen in the distance, more dogs roam nearby, a heron fishes by the shore.
It seems very likely that Piero is relating the story of Cephalus and Procris which appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Aurora, goddess of the dawn fell in love with the handsome Cephalus who rebuffed her advances, staying faithful to his wife Procris. Aurora, however, managed to plant the seeds of doubt in Cephalus’ mind regarding the faithfulness of his wife and after a confrontation, Procris lived for some time in the countryside until they were eventually reconciled. But before long it was the turn of Procris to have her doubts about Cephalus (aided by some convoluted interaction between gods and satyrs). She decided to follow her husband on one of his hunting trips as she suspected him of having a liaison with a nymph. As Cephalus was resting he heard a noise and thinking he had discovered an animal he launched his magic unerring spear (given to him by Procris) which, true to its enchanted nature, found his intended target only too well. Procris dies in Cephalus’ arms.
In Piero’s composition Cephalus is nowhere to be seen. However scholars have pointed out that Ovid’s tale formed the basis of a play (Fabula di Cephalo) written about 1480 in which a satyr figures prominently. Piero may have used this as his source rather than Ovid’s original.
The shape of the piece means that it must have originally formed part of a cassone or perhaps a bench back (see Botticelli Venus and Mars), often presented to newly weds. If this is the case then Piero’s beautiful painting would have provided a salutary reminder of the merits of fidelity.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
c1490 Geertgen tot Sint Jans: St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Berlin, Staatliche Museen
c1496 Luca Signorelli: The Adoration of the Shepherds, London, National Gallery
1498 Albrecht Dürer: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Woodcut)