The Four Elements (Arcimboldo)

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The Four Elements is a series of paintings by Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo in 1566 during the Renaissance. They were commissioned by Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor. The portraits display figures in profile formed by different animals or objects. Earth is represented by land animals, Air by birds, Water by marine creatures and Fire by burning wood and cannons. This series attempts to express harmony out of chaos with wild animals forming distinct faces. It also praises Maximilian, suggesting that he is a ruler who controls even the four primal elements.


Historical Background[edit]

After training in Milan, Arcimboldo moved to Vienna and became the court painter for the Habsburgs. Giuseppe gained knowledge of exotic and local animals because at the time Prague was a cultural center. Exotic creatures such as the lion and elephant came from all over the world.


Air displays a cornucopia of small birds that combine to create a slender male face. The majority of the birds are only partially visible which allow the artist to create the face and hair. The body is formed by a peacock; the goatee is a tail of a pheasant, and a duck forms the eyelids. The eagle and peacock are references to the Habsburg dynasty. Giuseppe included this reference to please his patrons and form a permanent bond between the painting and the Habsburgs.

Unlike the others, Fire is formed from inanimate objects. Flint and steel form the nose and ear. Burning wood creates a crown of glowing hair. Arcimboldo uses guns to create the main part of the body. Fire has the most references to the Habsburg dynasty. The golden fleece hangs in front of the body, which is a reference to the most important knightly orders time. The double headed eagle, a symbol of the Holy Roman Empire, sits proudly on the torso. The two large cannons refer to the strength of the Habsburg armies in their ongoing war with the Turks.

Earth is perhaps the most skilfully blended piece the land animals curving together to create a strong, thick face. Antlered creatures surround the head, forming a crown. An elephant creates the cheek and ear while a wolf eating a mouse forms the eyelid and pupil. A full cow represents the neck. Like its siblings, the lion and the fleece are references to the Habsburg dynasty.

Water features the most realistic depictions. A chaotic mess of sea creatures create a woman's face. Her breast plate is a crab, turtle and lobster along with an octopus on her shoulder. The animals that make up her head are obscure but a clear crown is formed by the spines on the back of a fish and long pieces of coral. Almost seeming out of place, a pearl necklace lies across her neck framing her face and completing the pattern of order from confusion. She also wears a pearl earring.

This series matched another of Arcimboldo’s sets called The Four Seasons. They have the same number of pieces, and correspond to each other. Air goes with Spring, fire with Summer, Earth with Autumn and Water with Winter. This creates linked themes of chaos brought into harmony and the glorification of the Habsburg dynasty.