Roelandt Savery

Orpheus playing his lyre to the animals, about to be attacked by the Thracian Maenads

Oil on panel: 14.4(h) x 19.3(w) in /

36.5(h) x 48.9(w) cm

Signed and dated lower left: ROELANDT / SAVERY / 1628

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BT 213



Kortrijk 1576 – 1639 Utrecht


Orpheus playing his lyre to the animals, about to be attacked by the Thracian Maenads


Signed and dated lower left: ROELANDT / SAVERY / 1628

Oil on panel: 14 3/8 x 19 ¼ in / 36.5 x 48.9 cm

Frame size: 20 ½ x 25 ½ in / 52.1 x 64.8 cm



Vitale Bloch, Paris, 1952

Private collection, Milan

Private collection, Europe



Roelandt Savery came from a Kortrijk Mennonite family, which after their home town was occupied by Catholic Malcontents in 1580, fled first to Bruges and then to Haarlem. He was trained as a painter by his older brother Jacob Savery (born c.1565) in Amsterdam, who died in April 1603 of the plague. Later in 1603, after August, Roelandt Savery moved to the court of the Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, where he was appointed the court painter. The strange landscapes of Bohemia and the Tyrolean Alps, which he visited in 1606/1607 at the Emperor’s behest, inspired him to create wild mountain and forest landscapes. In the Emperor Rudolf II’s menagerie in Prague he made numerous sketches of exotic animals. In Prague and later in Holland he also sketched dilapidated buildings and ruins. After the death of the Emperor in 1611 Savery finally returned to Amsterdam in 1613, and in 1618 he settled in Utrecht. He reached the peak of his career in the 1620s with his numerous paintings of animal subjects. Although his brother Jacob had already produced panel paintings depicting animals, Roelandt Savery can be described as the first outstanding specialist of the animal genre.


Animals of all kinds have gathered in a hilly landscape dotted with ruins to listen to Orpheus playing his lyre, seated in the background near a ruined tower. The Thracian Maenads are hastening furiously towards him from the gateway. Those animals nearest are frightened by the attack and take flight. As Orpheus had avoided women since the death of his wife Eurydice, the Maenads saw in him someone who despised their sex. When they chanced upon him, they killed him and tore him to pieces in their rage (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 11, 1-65). The artist has built up the landscape in stages, partly shaded and partly lit up in a decorative manner, and framed by ruins at both sides. The scene with the story is shifted into the remote middle ground on the right, but stands out because it is brightly lit, painted in great detail and with particularly delicate colouring. The foreground is limited to darker brown shades, with numerous lively animals lying on the ground, as yet not affected by the disturbance in the background. But they are looking out of the picture, as if they had perceived the presence of the beholder. The painting is distinguished by the gradation of the animals’ reactions and their lively organisation in the composition. Savery utilised his rich stock of studies for the animals in his paintings. A very similar leopard can be found in the drawing book published in 1643 by Crispijn de Passe the Younger (1594-1670), Luce del dipingere et disegnare – Van’t Light der teken en schilder kunst, in illustration no.92, engraved by Robert van Voerst (1596-1636). Roelandt Savery is credited as the person who drew the original[1]. For the tower Savery took inspiration from antique rotundas, Prague’s Romanesque round churches and church towers.


The painting now under examination, hitherto unpublished, is signed and dated 1628. The third figure of the date is somewhat blurred, but is clear enough to be recognised as a “2”. The painting is not only important because of its artistic quality, but also because it is the signed and dated version of a composition that, to date, has been known through an unsigned and undated painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna with almost identical dimensions (Oak panel, 35 x 49 cm, Picture Gallery, Inventory No. 1091). As far back as 1988 the Kunsthistorisches Museum painting was dated 1628 by Kurt J. Müllenmeister[2]. When compared with the Vienna painting, the signed and dated version has stronger colours and is overall warmer in tone. The two versions differ only in minor details.


At approximately 26 pictures, the Orpheus paintings constitute the most comprehensive subject group in Roelandt Savery’s output, more than either the Paradise or Noah’s Ark pictures. The Orpheus pictures date from 1610 to 1628, hence his work on this subject must have commenced during his time in Prague, but reached its peak in the Utrecht period[3]. The 1628 painting now under examination was among the last of Savery’s pictures on this subject. Savery constantly found new solutions and aspects for his Orpheus pictures. In this case he chose to depict the moment of Orpheus’ horrible death, which is rarely shown in paintings. Previously he had already treated the subject in two other compositions. Again there are in existence two, almost identical versions with virtually the same dimensions, although slightly smaller than the painting under examination. One of these is dated 1624[4]. When compared with Richard Green’s painting, both of them have a similar structure and an almost identical tower in the background, in front of which the attack on Orpheus unfolds in outline, although in both pictures the placing of the animals is quite different from that of the painting under consideration. The other composition is completely independent and was created around 1618. It relates to a bird picture in Antwerp, in which a tiny feature in the background is the inert body of Orpheus, torn in pieces, surrounded by the Maenads[5].


In his Schilder-Boeck Karel van Mander (1548-1606) gives an allegorical interpretation of the taming effect of Orpheus’ song on the wild animals: the wise poet taught mankind, still wild at the time, to live in a prudent, peaceful and moral manner[6].


Stefan Bartilla, Prague



Roelandt Savery, Orpheus and the Thracian women, c.1628.

Oil on panel 13 ¾ x 19 ¼ in / 35 x 49 cm. Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

[1] Illustration of the engraving in: Olga Kotková (ed.), Roelandt Savery, Malíř ve službách císaře Rudolfa II. A Painter in the Services of Emperor Rudolf II, Národní galerie v Praze / National Gallery in Prague 2010, Prague 2010, pages 320/321, Catalogue no. 35/e.

[2] Kurt J. Müllenmeister, Roelant Savery, Kortrijk 1576-1639 Utrecht. Hofmaler Kaiser Rudolf II in Prag. Die Gemaelde mit kritischem Oeuvrenkatalog, [Roelandt Savery, Kortrijk 1576-1639 Utrecht. Rudolf II’s court painter in Prague. The paintings with critical catalogue of works], Freren 1988, p. 296, cat. no. 210.

[3] The 1610 picture is in the Frankfurt Städel-Museum, inv. no. 977. For the Orpheus pictures see Müllenmeister 1988, pp. 129-130. Kurt J. Müllenmeister, Neues und Ergänzungen zum Oeuvreverzeichnis Freren 1988, Roelant Savery. Kortrijk 1576–1639 Utrecht. Hofmaler Kaiser Rudolf II. in Prag. Die Gemälde mit kritischem OEuvrenkatalog [New details and supplements to the list of works Freren 1988, Roelandt Savery. Kortrijk 1576-1639 Utrecht. Rudolf II’s court painter in Prague. The paintings with critical catalogue of works], Bremen 1991, pp. 13-14.

[4] Panel, 27.6 x 40.3 cm, signed and dated 1624, RKD, database, Art work no. 225276; panel, 27.8 x 41.1 cm, Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum, inv. no. 865.


[5] Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum Voor Schoone Kunsten, inv. no. 866.

[6] Carel van Mander, Wtlegghingh op den Metamorphosis Pub. Ovidii Nasonis, Haarlem 1604 [appeared with own pagination in: Carel van Mander, Het Schilder-Boeck, Haarlem 1604], folio 84v.


Old MasterRoelandt Savery