Hanging in Room 8 of London’s National Gallery is another painting of Cupid and Venus, made for yet another King of France. But this time, a pop culture icon is hidden inside.
The painting is Bronzino’s Mannerist masterpiece An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, made in the 1500s for King Francis. The piece hangs large alongside works by Michelangelo and Raphael, depicting with great detail and texture Cupid kissing his mother Venus.
Hundreds of years after Bronzino created his allegorical painting, a young animator working on a British television show wandered the museums of London looking for inspiration and imagery to use at work. The animator was the gifted Terry Gilliam and the show was the epic comedy series Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
If you look carefully at the bottom lefthand corner of the painting, you may notice that Cupid’s foot is the emblematic Monty Python foot — you know, the giant foot that randomly stamps down from the heavens obliterating objects beneath it. You may recognize the foot from the Flying Circus’s animated title sequence: at the end of the opening, the giant foot descends and crushes the title. The foot became a trademark icon for the Monty Python comedy troupe.
It was here in the National Gallery that Gilliam saw the wonderful, huge Bronzino painting and borrowed Cupid’s foot for TV. Indeed, this is something Gilliam did quite frequently.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus was written and performed by five Englishmen while Gilliam, the lone American living abroad, was the sole creator of the show’s surreal and wonderful animation (although he occasionally pops up in sketches, too). His collage-like animations would combine borrowed bits and pieces of famous paintings and photography.
Decontextualizing the images and juxtaposing them with other absurdities worked perfectly with the show’s humor and doubled as a commentary on classical art. It transformed many of the classic images into, well, something completely different — cultural icons in their own right.