Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, ca. 1600, oil)

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld (Jan Brueghel, ca. 1600, oil)

Here is a painting of the Greco-Roman underworld which was painted sometime around 1600 AD by Jan Brueghel the Elder. It is presumed that the painting shows Aeneas and the Cumaean sibyl, although a handful of scholars have argued—unsuccessfully, to my mind– that these are actually Hades and Persephone (whom I never imagine as harrowed pedestrians). Admittedly the sibyl looks quite winsome (these being her pre-jar days). Jan Brueghel does not have the same cachet as his famous father Pieter Bruegel (whose busy landscapes of 16th century Flanders do so much to enliven our understanding of the era), but the son was certainly a master artist in his own right. In this amazing vista the damned souls writhe, scream, and quiver amongst legions of demons and monsters. Along the foreground great heaps of bones and masses of snakes remind us we are in the land of the dead. Yet the painting’s greatest strength is the magnificent dark landscape itself. Honeycombed cliffs rise like a diseased columbarium while volcanoes belch magma onto the spirits. In the distance lies a brooding city of the dead where all is forever night. Strange ghost gardens march along the shores of the Acheron and shrieking…things fly overhead. It is a horrible—and beautiful—vision of a subject which had already obsessed artists for millennia when Jan Brughel painted it (and he wound up painting the underworld again and again through his career).