This extraordinary painting presents a narrative from classical mythology playing out within a temple interior bathed in light. The narrative involves Perseus, son of Zeus, king of the gods, and the mortal Danaë, rescuing his mother who was taking refuge from king Polydectes who forced her to marry him.
It is a rare, if not unique, example of this subject from the mid-seventeenth century. It is set in the centre of the ceiling of the ‘double cube’ room of Wilton House, Salisbury, the country house of the fourth Earl of Pembroke. Yet, despite being an important part of this otherwise highly acclaimed interior, the ceiling narratives were dismissed as ‘lamentably provincial’ in Margaret Whinney and Oliver Millar’s major survey, English Art 1625–1714 (1957). Little attention has been given to mural painting – wall or ceiling paintings that are integral to the architecture – but things have been changing in recent years, and they have begun to be afforded more scholarly attention and space.
How did a whole genre go missing from the canon for so long? The painting of Perseus Rescuing Danaë at Wilton can give us some clues. Firstly, mural paintings are not the kind of moveable works on canvas or paper that powered the British art market from the early eighteenth century onwards. Furthermore, a hierarchy of genres emerged in that period in which murals did not figure. In the microcosm of the ‘double cube’ room, interest in the murals was always overshadowed by other aspects of the space and its history: namely, the extent of the famous architect Inigo Jones’s role in its design, its place in the development of neoclassical architectural taste, and the authorship and display histories of Van Dyck’s family portraits housed in the room. Mural artists, often migrants from the Continent, did not find themselves part of an illustrious history of a genre that later flourished, like portraiture, but were rather viewed as being at the tail end of an artistic tradition tainted with religious and political overtones from which Britain was keen to distance itself.
Finally, with murals, you really had to be there. They were part of a multimedia experience that viewers would have understood more in terms of the ephemeral performance culture that prevailed at this time, than in terms of static works of art to be contemplated. Perseus rescuing Danaë would have been experienced as part of a walking route through the house, taking in the adjacent muralled rooms and the gardens beyond. Taken together, the two state rooms at Wilton can be read in terms of the contemporary masque (theatrical entertainment). The spaces share aspects of the iconography of the masque, as well as being experienced temporally and spatially, one scene after the other, like such entertainments. The protagonist Perseus parallels the patron, his act of rescue bringing harmony relating to what the fourth Earl saw as his own patriotic stance in the recent English Civil Wars. It was part of a matrix of understanding with Van Dyck’s own portraits of the family, not a backdrop to them. As with many murals, Perseus rescuing Danaë is a site of knowledge, yet to be fully mined.