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Classical literature is full of references to four basic elements – fire, air, earth, water. Ancient Greek philosophers believed in the existence of five classical elements – fire, air, earth, water and ether. Ancient Hindu scriptures also refer to panchabhuta or the existence of these five classical elements – kshiti, ap, tej, marut, byom (earth, water, fire, air and ether). Modern day literature of Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, Harry Potter series of J K Rowling etc also refer to this idea of four elements.

Artists of all ages explored the existence of these four or five basic elements through their paintings or sculptural essays. Giorgio Vasari, with the help of the scholars Giovanni Batista Adriani and Vincenzo Borghini, created The Studiolo (1570 – 1572) for his patron Francesco I de’ Medici based on this concept. The Studiolo was a complex decorative set of small chambers where Francesco used to keep his treasures. The entire room including the decorations, frescoes and arrangements of the cabinets were personified in accordance to the four basic elements, earth, air, fire, and water. Giuseppe Arcimboldo, court painter of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, created The Four Seasons (circa 1569) based on the four classical elements. This allegorical series of paintings was striking example of Arcimboldo’s quirky sense of humour.

Representations of these four basic elements are found in the paintings of Jan Lievens (24th October, 1607 – 4th June, 1674) as well. The Dutch painter is known for his friendship with Rembrandt. Yet, Jan Lievens was an artist in his own right. In fact, he was a child prodigy whose work attracted attention of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange. Maurice bought a life–size painting of the artist which in turn was presented to James I. For some strange reason, his talent never realised its full potential during his lifetime. However, he left behind memorable pieces of work on a wide range of subjects from landscapes to portraits. And, he too explored the theme of four basic elements through his paintings. Interestingly, he also associated fire–air–earth–water with four different stages of a man’s life.

Have a look at his fascinating interpretation of this classical hypothesis.

Fire and Childhood

Fire and Childhood by Jan Lievens

Air and Youth

Air and Youth by Jan Lievens

Earth and Maturity

Earth and Maturity by Jan Lievens Water and Old Age

Water and Old Age by Jan Lievens