Masterpieces from World Museums
in the Hermitage: Velazquez’s Menippus and Aesop from the Prado museum
On 21 October 2008 in Hall 233 of the New Hermitage an exhibition in
the Masterpieces from World Museums cycle opened. The exhibition, organized
by the State Hermitage in conjunction with the Prado museum in Madrid,
presents two canvases by the great Spanish artist Velazquez (1599–1660)
that are among the most celebrated masterpieces of world painting. The
names of the Ancient Greek thinkers are given in inscriptions on the works.
Aesop, the famous writer of fables, lived in the 6th century B.C. An
apocryphal biography of him was compiled in the 13th century. His works
were first published in the late 15th century and became widely known
in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s. According to the legend, Aesop was a
freed slave, the mercilessly witty author of moral epigrams in which he
often expressed his ideas through dialogues between animals. He met a
violent death as a consequence of his bold attacks on human vice. Aesop’s
fables were well known in Spain; they were used for teaching Greek in
The philosopher Menippus lived much later than Aesop - in the 3rd century
B.C. We know of his life from Diogenes Laertius and Lucian of Samosata.
Like Aesop, Menippus was a freed slave. He managed to accumulate wealth
and became a money-lender; then he lost his fortune and ended by hanging
himself. He belonged to the philosophical school of Cynicism that rejected
scholarly learning and subjected everything to harsh criticism. In the
Spain of Velazquez’s day the Cynics were accused of slander. Lucian’s
Dialogues that mention Menippus were as well known as Aesop’s works and
were also used in schools for the teaching of Greek.
It is believed that Aesop, Menippus and Mars were painted for the royal
hunting pavilion of Torre de la Parada that was built in 1636. The paintings
were mentioned together in the earliest surviving inventories (from 1701).
All three works are the same size and have a classical Greek subject.
There combination in a sort of “triptych” might have a special meaning.
The significance of the images and the skill with which Aesop and Menippus
were executed have always attracted the attention of both art-lovers and
artists. They were engraved by Goya; Manet was guided by them when he
created his own Philosophers; they have been copied by many painters,
including Ilya Repin.
The curator of the exhibition and author of the illustrated booklet is
Liudmila Kagane, chief researcher of the Department of Western European
Fine Art in the State Hermitage, a Doctor of Art Studies.
Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage, at the opening of
Liudmila Kagane, curator of the exhibition
At the exhibition
Booklet of the exhibition