Mighty Mannerists

Hendrick Goltzius and the Haarlem "Academy"

by Donald Kuspit

Looking at Hendrick Goltzius’s engravings of The Four Disgracers (1588), one is struck by their powerful, muscular bodies, falling from the heavens yet apparently defying gravity, for they seem to be suspended in space, oddly weightless for all their weightiness. Indeed, one of the four, Icarus, seems to float effortlessly in space, looking upward at the sun that melted his wings, and another, Phaeton, also looking upward and floating on his back, points toward the sky, as though trying to grasp with one hand the heaven he has lost as the other hand seems to reach toward the earth, as though to stop his fall. Even Ixion, who is tumbling head over heels toward the earth, from which we seem to view him— we are right below him, suggesting that he might land on us—seems fixed in space. Tantalus seems even more firmly fixed, and even closer to us, indeed, almost on top of us. His broad back, with its well-developed, meticulously detailed muscles—he is a sort of body-builder of antiquity—confronts us, as though to threaten us with his fate. Their muscles stand out of their bodies, and their bodies stand out in space, with a clarity and insistence that makes them all the more impressive--so impressive and outstanding that they seem to stand in our space, impressing themselves on our collective memories. We are forced to identify with them, whether we want to or not.

They are mythic figures, all too ambitious for their own good: aspiring to be gods, they were punished by the gods for their misguided efforts. Tantalus and Ixion spent eternity being tortured in Tartarus, Phaeton was struck by Zeus’s lightning bolt and fell to his death, and Icarus fell to his death in the sea. Hendrick Goltzius, Ixion, from the series The Four Disgracers, 1588One cannot grasp the full meaning of Goltzius’s magnificent figures without knowing the stories—the moral lessons—they embody. We are meant to learn from them: do not overreach, as they did; know your limits, as they did not, or you will suffer at the hands of the true gods, die in perplexed agony—not merely admire their handsome physiques.

Goltzius’s handling is as sensational as the figures it renders, for it transforms, with miraculous deftness, ancient Roman sculptures into living flesh, in effect “modernizing” them, that is, making them “present”—the classical meaning of “modern”—so they seem to “exist now” rather than in the “then” of the remote past. No longer monumental relics, Goltzius’s figures have our bodies and souls; their naked-ness is that of the naked truth. Goltzius was one of the great printmakers of all time. “He was an extraordinary technician and unsurpassed virtuoso of the engraver’s burin and the pen. Uncanny sureness and infinite patience never failed him, and he dazzled his contemporaries with his performances. They were especially impressed by his pen drawings, which simulate the swelling and tapering lines of the engravings.”1

Phaeton, from the series The Four Disgracers, 1588

Goltzius’s graphic works were as highly regarded as Albrecht Dürer’s, and even more highly because of their “bold design,” clearly evident in The Four Disgracers. Their bodies twist and turn like spinning wheels, arms and legs wildly at odds, as though the figure is about to be pulled apart, indeed, drawn and quartered. But for all the turbulence, the figures are marvelously intact, every last detail of light and shadow that falls on them as suavely articulate as every last muscle on their bodies. Goltzius is the master of all he surveys, with a sort of impassioned detachment, an acute intellectual interest that borders on obsessive concern, an infatuation with detail and fact that never loses sight of the grand meaning of the image. Not only the human body, but the sky and the land, are ingeniously drawn, their delicate lines contrasting with the strong lines of the figures, making for another dramatic contrast.

Yet another dramatic contrast—perhaps the most important for under-standing the “mannerist” character of the engravings—is that the four huge figures hurling through cosmic space exist in the narrow space of a small tondo, only 33 cm (13 inches) in diameter. Goltzius’s tondo is a kind of magnifying glass, bringing the distant figures close to us, until we seem to exist in their space, or they in ours, as though they were ideas in our own heads, given corporeal form by our own imaginative consciousness. They are our fantasies, given artistic grace to hide their terrible meaning. The futility and helplessness of the figures—their fall from the grace of the punitive gods—is masked by the robust beauty of their bodies, and the scientific precision with which their anatomy is realistically rendered, distracting us from the truth of their desperate situation.

Time is as much of the essence in Goltzius’s four engravings as space: the figures are frozen in time as well as space. The rapidity of their fall is capsulated in a moment, and the vastness of space is framed by the limited space of the tondo, a sort of picture window that opens on to it. The figures exist in the specious present of the tondo, emblematic of the mind’s contemplative eye, analyzing what it sees and assessing its meaning—its raison d’être. The paradox of this—the paradox of viewing distant, intimidating figures intimately and close-up, of containing and stabilizing the uncontainable and unstable by compressing them in the insular tondo, compounded by the paradoxical relationship of the organically complex bodies of the figures and the simple geometry of the tondo, and also by the paradoxical relationship of the limbs of the figures—is quintessentially Mannerist. Mannerism is an art of paradox— celebrates and elaborates paradox, the paradoxical character of life, making paradoxical use of non-Mannerist art to do so, showing that it is inherently paradoxical, however unparadoxical it seems at first glance.

Most of the engravings that made Goltzius famous were made between 1585 and 1590, almost at the end of the sixteenth century, which is when Mannerism was “born of the rich experience of classical form, harmony and gravitas that is the High Renaissance,”2 as John Shearman writes. He adds that “however much it may betray its parent the stamp of that experience is always there”—as it clearly is in The Four Disgracers. But do they betray it with their “preciosity of style for its own sake,” which is Shearman’s general definition of Mannerism,3 or do they bring out the “something strange”—I would say para-doxical4—in the proportions of [classical] beauty” that the philosopher Francis Bacon and other thinkers have noted? The “something strange” that is latent in classical beauty is made stunningly manifest by Goltzius’s bizarrely precious figures. Their asymmetry signals their anxiety, even as their over-all symmetry signals their perfection: their form is as paradoxical as their meaning. “In theory,” Alex Potts writes, “the Greek ideal should appear entirely whole and centered, its harmoniously poised body the very model of a similarly constituted ideal subjectivity. It still needed, however, to bear some trace of the deep-seated disturbances that motivated the fantasies of ideal oneness it embodied. It had to appear untouched by contradiction and difference even as its affective power drew upon anxieties associated with the ‘real’ divisions of the self, for only on condition that it did not entirely efface the ideological and psychic tension could its potentially bland perfection be of compulsive interest.”5

The Four Disgracers are masterful soul portraits—pictures of mentally disturbed individuals, divided against themselves, neither of heaven nor earth, which is why they exist in the empty space between them, a boundless emptiness that suggests their “groundlessness” and spiritual weakness, however strong-willed they may be—as well as masterful portraits of strong, ideal bodies, epitomizing masculinity at its most powerful. They have perfect bodies but troubled souls. Self-defeating individuals, they failed to realize there are limits, which makes them peculiarly modern—paradoxically Romantic, however ostensibly classical.6 This unresolvable contradiction—the “absurd” character and situation of the figures—gives their beauty a certain poignancy and urgency: they are not blandly and statically harmonious, like many of the neoclassical works that followed in their wake centuries later.

The artists who revived and used the classical tradition were all learned— the Latin ring of words on the inner rim of Goltzius’s tondos makes the point clearly—but the Mannerist classicists conveyed the emotional meaning of classical myths, unlike the neoclassicists, who had a stereotyped idea of it, or were indifferent to it. Goltzius was concerned with the inner meaning of classical figures, while the later classicists were more interested in their outer form, perhaps because he was closer in time to the Renaissance—the rebirth and renewal of classical art and thought—than they were. For Goltzius, classical art intuitively conveyed experiential truth; for the neoclassicists, it was fashionably pro forma. They had a “take-it-for-granted” attitude to it, a “hand-me-down” knowledge of it, leading them to copy and institutionalize it rather than innovatively use it. It was more surface than depth, elegant appearance rather than existentially real.

Goltzius’s four engravings are based on works by Cornelius van Haarlem, with whom, together with Karel van Mander, he founded the so-called Haarlem Academy. “It was not an art school where the theory and practice of art was taught according to a set curriculum,” but rather a place where they and other artists “could study from life.”7 Writing about Goltzius in his Schilderboek, van Mander, the so-called “Dutch Vasari,” called him “the Proteus or the Vertumnus of art, who had as many styles as Ovidian heroes have dis-guises.”8 Proteus was able to assume different shapes at will, and Vertumnus was “he who changes,” more particularly “a deity of gardens and orchards and the seasons in general.”9 Goltzius seemed able to change his figures at will—he was a master of creative metamorphosis, as it were. He was indeed fruitful, producing many engravings and drawings, none of which have lost their freshness, and was enormously influential, his followers being another kind of fruit.

The dog in Goltzius’s Portrait of Frederick de Vries (1897) has the same noble, heroic body as The Four Disgracers, but he is no disgrace. He stands firmly on the earth, unlike the boy who tries to mount him, and fails to do, leaving him precariously perched in space. The engraving has the same excruciating attention to detail and variety of line as the four engravings. The tree behind the dog and boy has as much presence as they do. A face seems to be anamorphically embedded in its trunk, suggesting that it has a mind of its own.

Hendrick Goltzius, Icarus, from the series The Four Disgracers, 1588

Goltzius depicted Apollo and Dionysus, each detail of their naked bodies subtly delineated and anatomically correct. Apollo has the sun for a halo; Dionysus wears a wreath of grape vines, and is accompanied by a horned child, playing the pipes, suggesting he is the nature god Pan. They stand in an oval, surrounded by crossed wine glasses in the lower corners of the print, and grotesque masks of horned devils in the upper corners. Dionysus has a sly, sinister smile on his shadowy face as he invites us to drink from the vessel he holds above him. This contrasts with Apollo’s luminous, open face. Goltzius brilliantly conveys the character and meaning of the different gods—the dual art deities of the Greeks, as Nietzsche said, “the separate art-worlds of dreams and drunkenness, involving perpetual strife with only periodically intervening reconciliations”10—by way of their faces and bodies, and above all by the artist’s use of light and shadow.

Subtly, we see the loins of Apollo—he has nothing to hide—while the loins of Dionysus, whose upper body alone appears, are covered with grape vines, suggesting that Goltzius understands the sexual significance of the competing gods. Dionysus is perversely down to earth; Apollo stands sublimely high in heaven. Every detail of the prints, from the drapery to the landscape, signals their difference. Their bodies, as anatomically correct as those of The Four Disgracers, but with less pronounced muscles, show the range of Goltzius’s knowledge and mastery of anatomy. He was a master of the body, female as well as male, as Pluto and Prosperine shows, indicating that, for him, grace and strength can be reconciled, another Mannerist paradox, already implicit in the myth of the marriage of Venus and Mars.

Careful attention to the naked body persists in the prints of his followers. It is the basic subject matter of the Haarlem School and of the Prague School it influenced, partly because Goltzius’s prints were eagerly collected by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, a connoisseur and lover of art who resided in Prague. Goltzius had many other royal patrons; his prints brought him international fame. Jan Harmensz Muller, one of his young apprentices, copied them, and later worked in Prague, spreading his mentor’s reputation and style, particularly among the printmakers Adriaen de Vries and Hans von Aachen.

Hendrick Goltzius, Tantalus, from the series The Four Disgracers, 1588

Muller’s Cain and Abel (1589) clearly shows the influence of Goltzius in its treatment of the naked male body. We are brought up close to the muscular figures, whose legs dramatically extend into our space. Cain stands over Abel, who is flat on his back on the earth. We view Abel’s body from below, Cain’s body from above. The tension between them is palpable, not only because of the violence, but because of their conflicting positions: Cain’s body is in the middleground, and totally in the picture, while Abel’s body is in the foreground, projecting out of the picture. The spatial tension—which Goltzius was a master of—makes the picture work, not the violence of the scene. The landscape is handled with the same swift delicacy as Goltzius handles his landscapes, but the relationship of landscape to figures in Muller’s work is not as paradoxical—they are not at odds, extremes that only nominally meet—as it is the case in Goltzius’s The Four Disgracers.

Muller seems to have specialized in classical love scenes, among them Bacchus and Ceres (1597) and Cupid and Psyche (1600). The lines in the former are exquisitely delicate, those in the latter stronger and darker, and the figures seem more eroticized than those in Goltzius’s Pluto and Prosperine, but there is the same dependence on classical myths and models, as the full-bodied, idealized figures indicate. Goltzius made his fair share of classical erotic scenes—Jupiter Capturing the Nymph Io (1589) among them, the illuminated figures standing out of an ominous darkness—but seems more interested in the dramatic tension between the figures, and between them and the space. He is not interested in sexually titillating us, but in aesthetically enlightening us—and making a paradoxically moral point. In Prague, Goltzius’s style, developed by Jacob Matham and Jan Saaredam, as well as Muller—all trained by Goltzius—was refined into a kind of court style, perhaps most evident in Sareda’s prints. Its power was sacrificed to elegance by his followers.

Art historians tend to regard Northern Mannerism less highly than Italian Mannerism, from which the former is supposedly derived, but there is a crucial difference: their sense of the body. It is the difference between the vital and the artificial—the lived body, muscular and flexible, and realistically rendered, eflecting a kind of joie de vivre whatever its situation, which is what Goltzius celebrates, and the muscleless, boneless, unrealistic mannequin-like body of Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck (1535–40) or the body of Moses in Rosso Fiorentino’s Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro (1523), with his mis-shapen muscles, frozen pose and sculpture manqué look. It is the difference between the robust, healthy look of Goltzius’s figures and the effete, odd sickliness of the Italian Mannerist figures: the difference between the loving, full-bodied, wholesome couple in Jan Saenredam’s The Face (c. 1595), made after an engraving by Goltzius, and the posturing Perseus and Andromeda in a 1570 painting by Giorgio Vasari, their thinness suggesting that they are not well-fed or are perpetually dieting to look fashionably slim, people who seem to prefer art to life. The works discussed in this essay were on view in “Northern Mannerist Prints from the Kainen Collection” (September 1, 2013–January 5, 2014), at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.


1. Jakob Rosenberg, Seymour Slive and E.H. ter Kuile, Dutch Art and Architecture: 1600–1800 (Baltimore: Penguin, 1967), p. 14.

2. John Shearman, Mannerism (Baltimore: Penguin, 1967), p. 26.

3. Ibid., p. 35.

4. A paradox, according to the Oxford Universal Dictionary, is “a statement or tenet contrary to received opinion or belief.” It can also be “a statement seemingly absurd or self-contradictory, though possibly well-founded or essentially true.” The prefix para signifies “by the side of,” often implying “amiss, faulty, irregular, disordered, improper, wrong,” as well as “subsidiary relation.” To what? To the orthodox, which the dictionary tells us means “right in opinion,” “holding correct, i.e., currently accepted opinions, especially in theology.” Paradox, then, has a certain resemblance to heterodox, which means “not in accordance with established doctrines or opinions, or those generally recognized as orthodox,” “originally in religion and theology,” that is, in the theory and practice of spirituality. But paradox is not just discordant; in contradicting established doctrine, it establishes self-contradiction. It carries difference to the point of absurdity. Releasing us from our bondage to doxia, to use the Greek word, it makes us aware of the ironical freedom of spirit.

5. Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 145.

6. As Daniel Bell writes in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1978), pp. 49–50, “the modern hubris is the refusal to accept limits.”

7. Rosenberg, Slive, ter Kuile, p. 13.

8. Ibid., p. 14.

9. Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 725.

10/  Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” The Philosophy of Nietzsche (New York: Modern Library, 1927), pp. 951–52.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2014, Volume 31, Number 1