Though the patronage of art had shifted partly from the Church to the great magnates, especially the great commercial princes like the Medici at Florence, her influence was still paramount, and though secular subjects were not uncommon, the vast majority of paintings executed for patrons, whether clerical or lay, were still religious in subject. It is not therefore, surprising that among the artists of the Fifteenth Century, many of whom were monks and all Church painters, we find a distinct cleavage dividing artists whose aim was to break away from all traditions—realists—classicists—in a word, reformers, from artists who clung tenaciously to the old ideals, and whose main aim was still the perfection of devotional expression.

The Rape of Helen. Gozzoli.

The Rape of Helen.

It was to the former class that Benozzo Gozzoli belonged, pupil though he was of Fra Angelico. Although his special quality may be partly discerned in the altar-piece that hangs above his master's predella, in the strongly marked character of the saints, and perhaps more in the carefully studied goldfinches, there was little scope in such a subject for the exercise of his imagination or the display of his individuality. It is different with the little panel opposite, The Rape of Helen (No. 591), in which he has depicted with great liveliness and gusto a scene from a classical legend. Possibly, to Fra Angelico, who regarded painting only as a means of edification, its employment on such a subject may have seemed little less than sacrilege, not unlike the use of a chancel for the stabling of horses. Such views can scarcely be said to be extinct now, and this is the more remarkable as no one has the same feeling with regard to the other arts, such as sculpture or poetry. To a young man like Benozzo, and many others of his day, not monks, nor specially devout in disposition, it must, nevertheless, have been a change which was welcome. To paint the Virgin enthroned with Saints over and over again, must have been a little wearisome to men conscious of a fancy to which they could give no scope except by putting S. Jerome's hat in a new place, or introducing a couple of goldfinches. One likes to think of the pleasure with which Gozzoli received his commission one morning, perhaps from Cosimo de' Medici himself, for whom his master was adorning a cell in the Convent of San Marco, recently rebuilt at the great man's expense. Did he know the legend of Helen of Troy, or had he to seek the advice of some scholar like Nicolli or Poggio for the right tradition? He seems, indeed, to have been rather mixed in his ideas on the subject. Did he consult Brunellesco in the construction of his Greek Temple, or Donatello or Ghiberti for the statue inside? Whence came that wonderful landscape with its mountains and cypress trees and strange-shaped ships? From his imagination, or from some old missal or choir-book illumination? At all events, pleasure evidently went to the making of it, for his fancy had full scope. His costumes he adopted frankly from those of his day, adding some features in the way of strange headgear, much like those in Fra Angelico's Adoration (in which he possibly had a hand), to give an Eastern colour to the group of boyish heroes on the left; not knowing or considering that the robes in which he was accustomed to drape his angels were much nearer to, were indeed derived from, the costume of the Greeks. For his ideal of female beauty he seems to have been satisfied with his own taste. One can scarcely imagine a face or figure much less classical than that of the blonde with the retroussé nose (presumably Helen herself), who is riding so complacently on the neck of the long-legged Italian in the centre. The figures in the Temple are of a finer type, and the lady in the sweeping robe, with the long sleeves, who turns her back to us, has a simple dignity which reminds one less of Gozzoli's master than of Lippo Lippi or Masaccio, whose frescoes in the Carmine he, in common with all other artists, had doubtless studied. There is nothing so classical or so natural in the picture as the beautiful little bare-legged boy that is running away in the foreground. This little bright panel—so gay, so naïve, so ignorant, and withal so charming—is of importance in the history of art as illustrated in the National Gallery. It is the first in which the artist has given full play to his imagination, and entered the romantic world of classic legend, and, with one exception, the first which is purely secular in subject, and was designed for a "secular" purpose. It probably once formed part of a marriage-chest. The important share which the landscape has in the composition, and its serious attempt at perspective, are also worthy of note. As an example of the master himself, of the painter of the great panoramic procession of the notables of his day, which under the title of the Adoration of the Kings, covers the walls of the chapel in the Medici Palace at Florence, of the designs of the history of S. Agostino at San Gemignano, and of the frescoes in Campo Santo at Pisa, it is of course extremely inadequate, but it suffices to indicate many paths which the young artist was to strike out from the old track which sufficed for his saint-like master.

In the National Gallery (London, 1895).