Do It Like A Deity: A Dutch Artist Depicts Gods Gone Wild At the turn of the 16th century, Joachim Wtewael painted passionate stories from the Bible and mythology. The Dutch artist was a very strict Calvinist, but on canvas, he let loose.
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Do It Like A Deity: A Dutch Artist Depicts Gods Gone Wild

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Do It Like A Deity: A Dutch Artist Depicts Gods Gone Wild

Do It Like A Deity: A Dutch Artist Depicts Gods Gone Wild

Do It Like A Deity: A Dutch Artist Depicts Gods Gone Wild

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/420570486/421083697" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Editor's Note: Before you scroll down, a warning that the images below depict gods, goddesses and biblical figures engaging in some NSFW behavior.

Wtewael revisited the adultery of Mars and Venus several times. In this version of Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan (1604-1608), Apollo raises the curtain on the bed as Vulcan, Venus' husband, approaches with his net, hoping to ensnare the couple. Cupid — Venus' son — takes aim at Apollo, as Mercury, Diana and Saturn look on and laugh. The J. Paul Getty Museum/National Gallery of Art hide caption

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The J. Paul Getty Museum/National Gallery of Art

Wtewael revisited the adultery of Mars and Venus several times. In this version of Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan (1604-1608), Apollo raises the curtain on the bed as Vulcan, Venus' husband, approaches with his net, hoping to ensnare the couple. Cupid — Venus' son — takes aim at Apollo, as Mercury, Diana and Saturn look on and laugh.

The J. Paul Getty Museum/National Gallery of Art

The Dutch have given the world an array of master painters — Van Gogh, Vermeer, Rembrandt. But the brilliant and risque work of a lesser-known Dutchman is currently on display at the National Gallery of Art.

In his 1601 Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, Wtewael shows Mercury raising the bed curtain to let the other gods see the couple. Here, Cupid raises an arrow at Mercury as Saturn, Diana, Jupiter, Minerva and Truth look on. National Gallery of Art hide caption

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National Gallery of Art

In his 1601 Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, Wtewael shows Mercury raising the bed curtain to let the other gods see the couple. Here, Cupid raises an arrow at Mercury as Saturn, Diana, Jupiter, Minerva and Truth look on.

National Gallery of Art

Joachim Wtewael (pronounced U-te-val) worked in Utrecht in the late 1500s and early 1600s. He loved painting stories from the Bible and mythology — impressively buff Roman gods and goddesses in — at times — downright salacious comportment.

"You know, gods didn't always behave particularly well," says curator Arthur Wheelock Jr. "And that was something Wtewael and people from his generation loved to explore."

In vivid colors, with precisely painted details, on huge canvases as well as small copper plates, naughty gods and goddesses frolicked and fooled around.

Wtewael depicts Mars and Venus "having at it," says Wheelock, "and this was not so good because Venus was married."

In 1610, Wtewael paints Venus looking up at Mercury as Apollo and Minerva raise the curtain of the bed. Vulcan, with his net, stands to the side of the bed, with Apollo, Jupiter, Saturn and Diana above. Carola van Wijk/National Gallery of Art hide caption

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Carola van Wijk/National Gallery of Art

In 1610, Wtewael paints Venus looking up at Mercury as Apollo and Minerva raise the curtain of the bed. Vulcan, with his net, stands to the side of the bed, with Apollo, Jupiter, Saturn and Diana above.

Carola van Wijk/National Gallery of Art

Her husband, Vulcan, caught them in the act. He got a big metal net and trapped them inside it. In three separate small paintings, Wtewael shows Vulcan revealing Venus and Mars to the other gods.

"All the gods are lying around, looking and laughing at them being caught in the act," says Wheelock.

Large canvases show gods getting married, taking baths, waging wars. Wtewael also did Christian scenes — adoration of the baby Jesus, the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. They're all gorgeously painted works, just teeming with life.

In the late 1500s, inspired by a story from Genesis, Wtewael painted Lot and His Daughters:

They've just fled Sodom. Lot's wife looks back at the destroyed sin city and is turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and his daughters hide in a cave, thinking the world is coming to an end. His daughters fear that — with no men left — they'll never have children. So ...

Sodom burns in the background as Lot's daughters seduce him in Wtewael's 1597-1600 depiction of a scene from Genesis. National Gallery of Art hide caption

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National Gallery of Art

Sodom burns in the background as Lot's daughters seduce him in Wtewael's 1597-1600 depiction of a scene from Genesis.

National Gallery of Art

"In the efforts to maintain the line and keep the line going, Lot's daughters got Lot drunk. ... This [painting shows] the moment when they're all partying. Lot doesn't know what's going on," Wheelock explains.

And then a Lot of things got out of hand; Wtewael paints him blotto, surrounded by his voluptuous, naked daughters. "He's clutching one of their breasts, and she is reaching up to tickle his chin," Wheelock says. "It's a very sensual work."

The daughters end up with two sons. Incest! Booze! Lust! Adultery! And to make it even more intriguing— the painter himself was such a proper 16th century fellow — a very strict Calvinist, a pillar of the community. But with his paints and brushes, he embraced the fullness of life.

"I think that is what I love about Wtewael," Wheelock says. "The engagement in all aspects of life: the sensual, the spiritual, religious, all these things are there. It's a fun show; nobody's having a bad time."