In this magnificent and highly eccentric series of prints, Goltzius depicts The Four Disgracers Tantalus, Icarus, Phaeton and Ixion - having offended the Gods through arrogance and disrespect - falling to their punishment, tumbling down to earth or being cast into Hades.
Goltzius may well have intended The Four Disgracers as a well-disguised, yet eloquent commentary on current political events: At the time the Netherlands were under Spanish rule and Philip II was an unpopular, absent, Catholic monarch with little sympathy for the largely Protestant Netherlands. In the summer of 1588, Philip had launched his mighty Armada against the English and failed. As the inscription of a medal, minted by the English after the defeat of the Spanish, read: Flavit Jehovah et Dissipati Sunt ('Jehovah blew with His wind and they were scattered'). The allegory is clear: just like the Four Disgracers, Philip too had fallen from grace, God had turned against the Catholic king and in favour of the Protestants.
The theme of The Four Disgracers also presented an irresistible formal challenge: the depiction of nude, muscular bodies in the most unusual viewpoints and positions. Through the use of extreme foreshortening and drastically swollen lines, Goltzius created a sense of unlimited movement and space - Phaeton seemingly comes crashing through the picture plane and the viewer is drawn into the image, almost plunging with Ixion into the depth of Hades. Goltzius' Four Disgracers are undoubtedly his most radical compositions and arguably the epitome of Northern Mannerist printmaking.