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Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Mercury descending from the clouds
A red chalk drawing showing Mercury flying towards a seated woman.
The subject of this detailed drawing is not clear. Mercury, holding his caduceus, descends from the clouds, watched by a number of the gods. He is approaching a young woman who sits on a grassy mound and holds her hand out towards him, either in greeting or supplication. Behind her, Mercury’s descent is watched by a goatherd, who leans on a staff and looks upwards. Mercury’s role was often to interfere in the course of love and it may be that here he is meddling in an affair between the seated woman and the goatherd.
The draughtsman was probably a French artist familiar with the work of Primaticcio (1504/5-1570); the heavily worked red chalk with white heightening was a technique used by Primaticcio for many drawings, including his designs for frescoes at Fontainebleau. This drawing of Mercury may similarly be a design for a wall painting or tapestry. Mercury was a popular subject for such decoration in the sixteenth century; a drawing by Primaticcio of a scene from the god’s legend, which can probably be connected with a decorative scheme, is now at Chatsworth. The present drawing can be compared interestingly in style and subject matter with contemporary murals in the Hôtel du Faur in Paris, now destroyed but recorded in drawn and printed copies. Like the Windsor drawing, the Hôtel du Faur paintings appear to have shown a series of lovers’ adventures, the subject of which is often unclear.
Catalogue entry adapted from 'The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein', London 2011