Image: Antoine François Callet, Saturnalia (c. 1780s)
Over the course of the year we have focused primarily on pieces related to feasts and communal dining for our Saturday art posts. As the year draws to a close, there is symmetry that the end of the year is marked with some of the grandest feasts.
Christmas – whether treated as one day or twelve – is largely believed to have developed from other traditions tied to the winter solstice. In ancient Rome that festival was Saturnalia. The dates and duration of the festival varied over the centuries. At the heart of the feast was a suspension of rules and hierarchy.
The Roman poet Catullus described it as the best of days. The Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata, has Cronos (Saturn) respond to the entreaties of his priest for riches that he can not change the nature of wealth, that is reserved for Zeus (his satire decrying how difficult life is for the rich has more than a little resonance today). But Cronos does enjoy having the tables turned during his feast:
“Mine is a limited monarchy, you see. To begin with, it only lasts a week; that over, I am a private person, just a man in the street. Secondly, during my week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of tremulous hands, an occasional dunking of corked faces in icy water,–such are the functions over which I preside. But the great things, wealth and gold and such, Zeus distributes as he will.”
It is this merriment and world-turned-upside-down nature of the feat that Callet captures in his painting eighteen centuries later. There is little on the internet to provide background to the painting, with the exception of this abstract from a summary of works in the Louvre:
“Antoine-François Callet (Paris 1741-Paris 1823) was a leading history painter. From 1775, at the instigation of the Comte d’Angiviller, he contributed to the development of the grand genre, forsaking superficial mythological subjects in favour of classical scenes. In this context, at the 1783 Salon he exhibited a cartoon for a tapestry entitled L’Hiver or Les Saturnales to be woven at the Gobelins manufactory. Two preparatory drawings for this composition, recently acquired by the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts and which glorify the courage and grandeur of the Roman people, illustrate the artist’s new pursuits. The Saturnalia, an extravagant festival held in December, in fact gave Romans the opportunity to revive the tradition of the “golden century”, the time of the reign of Saturn, of social equality, of “peace and plenty”. Callet adopts a noble solemn style, theatrical effects and an atmosphere derived from the classical sources that characterised his stylistic evolution after 1780.”
The Louvre website indicates that it is currently on long-term loan to Musée national du Château de Compiègne.
We hope that however you celebrate the season, that it is full of mirth and warmth. Also remember that these art posts are a side hustle to our primary side hustle, which is maintaining a dining guide for Washington, D.C. If your plans call for feasting at restaurants, we might be able to help you find a place.