Two Scenes in One Painting: multiplex narrative from 1500 to 1600

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), The Garden of Eden (1530), oil on lime, 80 x 118 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first of these three articles about telling stories in paintings using the multiplex technique (or ‘continuous narrative’), I showed a series of examples stretching from classical Rome to Hieronymus Bosch just before 1500. According to some accounts of art history (the few which consider narrative modes), multiplex narrative declined during the 1500s, and by 1600 had vanished, an aberration of the past.

In fact, what I aim to show here is that it remained popular with the greatest narrative artists, and the subject of further innovative development.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Story of Lucretia (1500-01), tempera on panel, 83.5 x 180 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Sandro Botticelli’s textbook demonstration of perspective projection and multiplex narrative is in one of his lesser-known works, The Story of Lucretia, painted in 1500-01.

This tells its story in three scenes which are integrated into its single architectural whole. At the left, Lucretia is raped at knifepoint by Sextus Tarquinius. She then commits suicide in shame, and anger erupts through Rome. Her body is carried from her house (right) and placed in the Forum. There, her husband and his friends swear to overthrow the king (centre), and this brings about the new constitution for the city of Rome.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Last Judgment (left wing) (c 1500-1505), oil on oak panel, left wing 163 x 60 cm, central panel 163 × 127 cm, right wing 163 × 60 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

Hieronymus Bosch was one of the first painters to use multiplex narrative to tell the story of the Fall of Man, in the left wing of his superb triptych of The Last Judgment, from about 1500-05.

This shows the Garden of Eden, with lush rolling countryside and lakes. At the top is God the Father, in a bright area, below which there is a host of angels tumbling from Heaven, from the darkening clouds. Some angels are shown white, and some (those who have been cast out from Heaven) are black, and engage in aerial combat with one another.

The story of Adam and Eve is told in three multiplexed scenes, read from front to back. In the foreground, God the Father (dressed in red robes) has just created Eve, while Adam rests on the grass. Behind that, Adam and Eve are at the foot of an apple tree. From its canopy, a naked figure hands them an apple to eat. In the middle distance, a red-robed angel brandishes a sword at Adam and Eve, as it chases them from the garden.

Titian (1490–1576), The Birth of Adonis (c 1505-10), oil on cassone panel, 35 x 162 cm, , Musei civici di Padova, Padua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

This account of the Birth of Adonis, painted on a cassone panel in around 1505-10, may well be one of Titian’s earliest works, although this is disputed and even Giorgione has been credited. At the left, Myrrha and her father Cinyras lie together in their incestuous union. In the centre, a baby is delivered from the woody womb of Myrrha, who was turned into a myrrh tree by the gods.

Fra Bartolomeo (1472–1517), The Rest on the Flight into Egypt with St. John the Baptist (c 1509), oil on panel, 129.5 x 106.7 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Fra Bartolomeo was one of the first artists to use an asymmetric variant of multiplex narrative which is more subtle, and may have been seen at the time as being progressive. In his Rest on the Flight into Egypt with St. John the Baptist, from about 1509, Joseph and Mary are shown in the dominant scene with the two infants.

In the distance at the right is a couple, dressed identically, undertaking the same journey. They too are Mary and Joseph, and remind the viewer of the underlying story.

Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521), Andromeda freed by Perseus (c 1510-15), oil on panel, 70 x 123 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Piero di Cosimo wasn’t in the least shy of being thoroughly multiplex in his Andromeda Freed by Perseus (c 1510-15). Centred on the great bulk of Cetus, Perseus stands on its back and is about to hack at its neck with his curved sword. At the upper right, Perseus is shown a few moments earlier, as he was flying past in his winged sandals. To the left of Cetus, Andromeda is still secured to the rock by red fabric bindings (not chains), and is bare to her waist.

He also shows scenes which are more peripheral to the story. In the foreground in front of Cetus are Andromeda’s parents stricken in grief. Near them is a group of courtiers with ornate head-dress. But in the right foreground the concluding marriage of Andromeda and Perseus is already in full swing, complete with musicians and dancers.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Haywain Triptych (c 1510-16), oil on oak panel, left wing 136.1 x 47.7 cm, central panel 133 × 100 cm, right wing 136.1 × 47.6 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

The left panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s late triptych The Haywain revisited the story of the Fall of Man from the Garden of Eden, with God the Father shown in the narrative content and in Heaven above, and the fall of angels occurring at the same time.

Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516), The Haywain Triptych (left wing) (c 1510-16), oil on oak panel, left wing 136.1 x 47.7 cm, central panel 133 × 100 cm, right wing 136.1 × 47.6 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

This is told in three scenes on grassy lawns amid the trees. This time, the story is read from the back to the front.

In the middle distance, God, standing in red robes, has just created Eve, who stands naked on his right. Adam, also naked, rests on the grass in front of them, facing away, in a posture similar to that in The Last Judgment above. Near the centre of the panel, Adam and Eve are stood at the foot of a large apple tree. Part way up its trunk is a serpent with a human head and arms, which is offering them an apple.

In the foreground, Adam and Eve are covering their crotches with their hands and leaves, and stand outside a stone arch beyond the edge of the Garden. A winged angel is brandishing a sword at them, banishing them from the Garden of Eden.

Lorenzo Lotto (1480–1556/7), Susanna and the Elders (1517), oil on panel, 50 x 60 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Lorenzo Lotto’s account of Susanna and the Elders from 1517 shows a closely integrated composite of at least two scenes from different sections of the story.

In the foreground, Susanna is naked in front of the two elders, who have entered the privacy of her walled garden and tried to blackmail her into having sex with them. Entering this walled section of garden at the right is Daniel, who in a later scene interrogates the two elders to reveal the lies behind their allegations about Susanna.

Jan Gossaert (1478–1532), The Metamorphosis of Hermaphrodite and Salmacis (c 1517), oil on panel, 32.8 × 21.5 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Telling the story of the integration of male and female bodies to form Hermaphrodite proved too great a challenge for a single scene in one painting. Jan Gossaert’s The Metamorphosis of Hermaphrodite and Salmacis (c 1517) shows the couple in their final battle. Union of their bodies then takes place on the bank at the far left, where they appear like Siamese twins, with two legs and two heads.

Jan Rombouts I (c 1480-1535) (attr), The Beheading of St John the Baptist (1500-1550), oil on panel, 166 x 70 cm, M van Museum Leuven, Leuven, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Rombouts I shows three key scenes from the life and death of John the Baptist in his Beheading of St John the Baptist, from 1500-1550. In the distance, John baptises (possibly Jesus Christ); in the middle distance is Herod’s feast at which John’s head is being presented on a large salver, and in the foreground the executioner places John’s head in the salver held by Salome.

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), The Garden of Eden (1530), oil on lime, 80 x 118 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Wikimedia Commons.
Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), The Garden of Eden (1530), oil on lime, 80 x 118 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Wikimedia Commons.

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s The Garden of Eden (1530) follows Bosch’s double precedent of telling the story of the Fall of Man using multiplex narrative. This time there are six scenes, which start in the centre distance with God and Adam, jump to the right for the creation of Eve, cross the centre, and end up at the left with the angel chasing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Bosch’s influence can be seen in the posture of Adam when Eve is created from his rib.

Agnolo Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo) (1503–1572), The Flaying of Marsyas (1531-32), oil on canvas, transferred from panel, 48 × 119 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Bronzino’s The Flaying of Marsyas (1531-32) is a detailed summary of the complex story of this mythical tragedy. At the right, the musical contest between Marsyas and Apollo is taking place, with a very human Marsyas playing a wind instrument resembling a clarinet.

In the left distance, Apollo subdues the defeated Marsyas and binds him. In the centre, Apollo is flaying the satyr, with Olympus in the left foreground expressing his grief.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), The Crucifixion (E&I 123) (1565), oil on canvas, 536 x 1224 cm, Albergo, Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

In the later 1500s, some were starting to consider traditional multiplex narrative was archaic, preferring monoscenic painting. Jacopo Tintoretto found an innovative solution by which he told the story of Christ’s Crucifixion in detail without confusing his classical composition, or repeating any of the figures, in his vast Crucifixion of 1565 for the albergo of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.

Its single image shows events at more than a single point in time by the depiction of each of the three being crucified at a different stage of the whole process. To the right of Christ, the ‘bad’ thief is still being attached to his cross, which rests on the ground. To the left of Christ, the ‘good’ thief is just being raised to the upright position. These also emphasise the figure of Christ, who is already nailed to his cross and in the fully upright position.

Niccolò dell’Abbate (1510–1571), The Rape of Proserpine (c 1570), oil on canvas, 196 x 220 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Turning back to the generally more twisting and twisted narratives of myth, Niccolò dell’Abbate’s The Rape of Proserpine (c 1570) shows Pluto carrying Proserpine up a hill. At the far right, he is about to drive his chariot into a huge cavern, which will take them down into the underworld.

In the foreground are associated scenes: Cyane is by her pool, and about to literally dissolve into tears in its water. Six other nymphs, the daughters of Achelous, are also protesting at the girl’s abduction.

Virgil Solis (1514–1562), Iphis and Anaxarete (before 1581), engraving for Ovid, Metamorphoses Book XIV, Frankfurt 1581, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes, the scenes included in multiplex narrative appear too contradictory to form a coherent image. Virgil Solis’ engraving of the Ovidian myth of Iphis and Anaxarete shows the body of Iphis discovered hanging outside the door to Anaxarete’s house, in the left foreground. In the right distance, Iphis’ corpse is carried to his funeral pyre, with his mother in close attendance, as Anaxarete looks on from her balcony, and is turned to stone.

Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) (and Agostino, Ludovico Carracci), Jason and Medea (one painting from 18) (c 1583-84), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Ghisilardi Fava, Bologna, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

When the Carraccis painted their frescoes of the story of Jason and Medea in the Palazzo Ghisilardi Fava in Bologna, in about 1583-84, several of their eighteen separate images used elaborate multiplex technique. In this example, two of the fire-breathing bulls are still yoked, in front of King Aeëtes, at the left, from the first of his tasks for the king. The army sprung up from the dragon’s teeth appear behind the wall, armed still with spears but no longer fighting, referring to the second of Jason’s tasks.

In the foreground, in the last task to acquire the Golden Fleece, Jason has put the dragon to sleep using Medea’s magic concoction, and is unhitching the Fleece while he can. At the right, two of the Argonauts offer to help Jason (shown a second time) carry the fleece away.

Cornelis van Haarlem (1562-1638), Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon (1588), oil on canvas on oak, 148.5 x 195.5 cm, The National Gallery (Presented by the Duke of Northumberland, 1838), London. Photo © The National Gallery, London.

My last painting from the sixteenth century tells another story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in Cornelis van Haarlem’s Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon from 1588. This shows a very dragon-like monster killing and eating two of Cadmus’s men. But look carefully into the distance, and you will see the same beast being impaled by Cadmus with his javelin.

Together, these add another fifteen paintings and one engraving, bringing the total of paintings showing multiplex narrative to 26. In the third and final article, I’ll add further to that from art which was created after 1600, when this technique supposedly ceased altogether.


Lew Andrews (1995) Story and Space in Renaissance Art, the Rebirth of Continuous Narrative, Cambridge UP. ISBN 0 521 47356 X.

The Story in Paintings: Modes of painted narrative
Telling the story: narrative across media, including spoken, written, movies, graphic novels, paintings, photos, and music
The Story in Paintings: So what is a narrative painting?
Every picture tells a story: narrative paintings