The gift or discovery of fire has fascinated all manner of prehistory, mythological and cultural investigation from the cave dwellers to Disney (Baloo the bear). And it is the subject of my Painting of the Month for August.
The Ashmolean has a great collection of artefacts including some iconic Renaissance panel paintings. The Forest Fire by Piero di Cosimo is no exception. His depiction of a terrifyingly destructive forest inferno is quite stunning. His capture of the destruction through the images of exhausted fleeing livestock is a masterpiece. Look closely at the panting exhausted cow or the panic of the bears grappling with the slope.
And then consider why Piero has painted human faces on two of the satyrs faces – a discussion for another day.
Erwin Panofsky, the twentieth century art historian, went to great pains explaining the story of Vulcan, the God of Fire, and all his various re-incarnations. He believed that fire came to humans by accident through natural forest infernos . Humans, the eternal opportunists, no doubt discovered warmth, cooked meat and all the other benefits of fire and harnessed it for their good.
If you go to the Ashmolean spend some time with Piero di Cosimo, and then look around at some other great Renaissance art including Uccello, Michelangelo and Titian.
As an alternative go the The National Gallery in London and look for Piero’s Satyr Mourning over the Death of a Nymph, c1495. Again Panofsky enthuses over this but it is a very difficult painting to explain – Mythology, love allegory, alchemists search for the Philosopher’s? Who knows?