The Forest Fire by Piero di Cosimo

Piero di Cosimo

The Forest Fire, c.1505, Oil on panel, 71.2 x 202 cm, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford; Presented by the Art Fund, 1933, WA1933.2 , Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / Bridgeman Images

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Devouring Flames

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Jennifer Sliwka

Piero di Cosimo’s masterful rendering of the frightened, charging animals attempting to escape a forest fire, the intense sparking blaze visible in the middle distance of this landscape, recall Joel’s description of the fire that devoured the wilderness and deprived the beasts of home and sustenance.

Piero probably painted this panel, however, as part of a series inspired by passages from Book 5 of De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’) by Lucretius (98–c.55 BCE), who traces the origins of life on earth and the birth of community life, emphasising the role of fire as a catalyst for change. Although the artist was interpreting a classical source, when considered in light of Joel 1:18–20, the painting may also be read as an example of the devastation that precedes the deliverance of Israel as described in Joel 3:16–21. The open, gasping mouths of the animals in the foreground of Piero’s panel, especially the bull who extends his long pink tongue, suggests their panting and thirst after fleeing the fire, but also calls to mind Psalm 42:1: ‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God’. Read in this light, the flames and the thirst of the beasts so vividly rendered by Piero might also stand for the ardent desire to know or be close to God.

Piero’s painting also suggests a particular affinity between animals and humans, as some of his beasts possess human faces. This extraordinary depiction suggests a world in which the divisions between animals and humans are not distinct and which speaks to both the shared desires and sufferings of all living beings as described in Joel.

References

Geronimus, Dennis. 2006. Piero Di Cosimo: Visions Beautiful and Strange (New Haven: Yale University Press), pp. 134–136.