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Piero di Cosimo's "The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus" revisited

Posted by Sebastian Smee  June 23, 2011 12:29 PM

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discovery honey.JPGAfter taking a look at Piero di Cosimo's "The Discovery of Honey by Bacchus" at the Worcester Art Museum in Tuesday's Frame by Frame column, I received an email from a man named Donald Novak:

"One thing you didn't comment on but seems to jump out of the painting is that the tree trunk is a grotesque of a woman in labor. I don't understand how that image might belong to the story. But maybe just another manifestion of his [Piero's] strange personality. Or is it a figment of my diseased mind?"

Decide for yourself, but I personally don't think Mr Novak's mind is diseased. I have no idea how much validity his interpretation has, but it does chime with an interpretation once offered in Art Bulletin by Fr Thomas Matthews of Boston College.

Where Panofsky's interpretation underplayed the significance of the discovery of honey, Matthews points out that honey had long been associated with the theme of love. 

The multiple occurrence of couples in the painting and Pan's offering of a bunch of onions (a known aphrodisiac to the ancients) confirmed for him the amorous theme.

And so perhaps, with this interpretation in mind, Novak's observation about the tree makes sense? 

There is, after all, an infant issuing forth from the hollow in the tree's base...  Or, as Matthews put it: "For this gnarled and very striking tree which holds the hidden and desired honey is the same tree in whose hollow, as in a womb, we discover the child at play. In one bold stroke, the discovery of honey is thus identified with the discovery of love."

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About the author

The Boston Globe Journalist Series: Sebastian Smee
Sebastian Smee is the Globe's art critic, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He joined the paper's staff from Sydney, where he served as the national art critic for The Australian. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee. Read Smee's full bio.

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