Posted: February 12th 2021
by Dr Mac Graham, Librarian and Historian
Above the fireplace in the Green State Bedroom – the grandest bedchamber in the whole of Holkham Hall - is a very dramatic painting of Jupiter caressing Juno. Jupiter is the supreme ruler of the gods and they are ‘husband and wife’ (and, er, also twin brother and sister!)
The mythological story being told here is full of twists and turns. So here is the short version for Valentine’s day. Jupiter is almost naked, and he looks up at his wife with an almost pleading look upon his face. But what is the look on her face? Maybe it is triumph, because this painting tells the story of Juno using the girdle (or belt) of Venus to drive her husband wild with desire. Jupiter was a famous philanderer and sired many children with mortal women. Here, for once, she gains his full attention – by fair means or foul. Above Jupiter is his symbol, the eagle. Next to Juno is her symbol, the peacock, so that we know exactly who they are.
In Roman times, Juno, the goddess of marriage, was celebrated with a festival on the first of March. Matronalia was a day when husbands were expected to present their wives with gifts. Very similar to today’s Valentine’s Day.
The story of this painting in the hall is nearly as interesting as the subject. It was commissioned from Gavin Hamilton (1723 to 1798), an English artist and art dealer who worked in Rome. He made several purchases on behalf of Thomas Coke, the builder of Holkham Hall. It was hung in pride of place in the ‘Royal’ bedchamber, in full view of the bed itself, by Lady Margaret as Dowager when she completed the hall after her husband’s death.
When George V and Queen Mary came to stay, in 1912, the painting was considered a little too risqué for their bedchamber and it was removed for many years. Then, when the 7th Earl and Countess Sarah were reviving the fortunes of the hall, it was re-hung in its original position over the fireplace. In other words, we have come full circle and the painting is again considered suitable for this, the grandest bedchamber in the hall.