Stop 14: The Rotunda: Lunettes



Roger Wieck, Melvin R. Seiden Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts
The space is distinguished by three lunettes, or semi-circular paintings, above the entrance and the doorways to Morgan’s library and study. The paintings were executed by Harry Siddons Mowbray and they celebrate the history of western European literature from three different eras.

Above the entrance to the library, the ancient world is represented by Orpheus and Homer and scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey. The lunette above the front doors is dedicated to the medieval world, symbolized by chivalric romances, with depictions of King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, as well as Dante with his beloved Beatrice and guide Virgil. Above the entrance to Morgan’s study, the scene pays homage to the Renaissance, featuring the muse of lyric and amorous poetry and characters from the Italian poet Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, as well as Petrarch, whose sonnets honored his platonic love for Laura.

Mowbray painted these canvases in his studio and brought them to the library for installation. If you look closely, you will see that the gilded details are actually three-dimensional: Mowbray used a composite material to build these up so they would catch the light from the oculus. This was a technique used by the Renaissance painter Bernardino Pinturicchio, on whose sixteenth-century murals Mowbray’s were based. Mowbray also added a fictive, or trompe l'oeil, arch framing the painting above the entrance to match the real arches framing the other two lunettes.