Category Archives: Mythology on Canvas

John Everett Millais

I just found another Pre-Raphaelite painter whose name I didn’t know but who made some works which I recognize. The paintings shown in this post are ones I don’t recall having seen before.  Compared to some of the other Pre-Raphaelites, his work seems centered more on portraits and accounts from the Bible.  His name is John Everett Millais, and he was evidently quite popular during his lifetime.

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The Return of the Dove to the Ark (1851). This is taken from the account of Noah and the Ark from the book of Genesis.

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Victory O Lord! (1871). This is from the account of a battle in which the priests needed to keep the hands of Moses aloft during the Exodus of the Hebrew nation.

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The Tribe of Benjamin Seizing the Daughters of Shiloh (1847).  This event comes at the end of perhaps one of the most disturbing stories in the Bible. It is found in the book of Judges.  The Bible is not a book for the faint of heart. Then again, it is.

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Esther (1865). From the book of Esther, this evidently shows her preparing to go into the king of the Medes and Persians to plead for the lives of the Jews in captivity.

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Christ in the House of His Parents (1850).




Stanhope (cont.)

Here are some more paintings from the second wave Pre-Raphaelite, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope.  The painting below is taken from the story of Psyche. She had unintentionally aroused the ire of Aphrodite when men, aroused by her beauty, had turned from worshiping the goddess in favor of her.  Later on in her story, she becomes Aphrodite’s servant and is sent on a series of impossible tasks, one of which is to venture into Hades. She is one of the relatively few characters in Greek mythology to make it back alive from the place of the dead. Charon was the pilot who ushered the dead across the river Styx and into Hades.

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Charon and Psyche by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

This next painting is a personification, another example of allegorical art.

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Night by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

Here is Venus, another mythological subject…

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Venus Rising From the Sea by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

… and, from Greek mythology, a depiction of Andromeda, the maiden who was rescued by the demigod Perseus from the sea serpent Cetus when she was chained to a rock.

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Andromeda by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

I will end my discussion of this artist with his portrayal (on two panels) of an event from the New Testament: that of the angel appearing to Mary.

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The Anunciation by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope


John Roddam Spencer Stanhope is considered by some to be a “second wave Pre-Raphaelite”. He was influenced by Edward Burne-Jones, and he was a close friend of Dante Gabrielle Rossetti. He was also uncle to Evelyn De Morgan, whom I have featured previously in this category.

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Love and the Maiden by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

Let’s jump right in. This above painting is another example of allegorical art in which Love has been personified in a mythological way. Shown below is a photograph of the artist next to a portrait painted by his niece, Evelyn De Morgan.


Stanhope was evidently willing to explore themes from Greco Roman Mythology to Christianity. The following painting (for which I did not find a title) apparently depicts the quote from Luke 2: 24 (“Why seek you the living among the dead?”) in which an angel proclaims the resurrection of Christ to the women who have visited his empty tomb on the third day.

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Here is a portrayal of an angel expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden:

Stanhope, John Roddam Spencer, 1829-1908; The Expulsion from Eden
Stanhope, John Roddam Spencer; The Expulsion from Eden; Walker Art Gallery;

I will show one more. This is taken from the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, another wacked-out lovers’ tragedy from Roman mythology. Guess what? They both die.

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Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

I will feature some more paintings from this artist next week.

Allegorical Art

 Before I start, allow me to thank Art Bacchant for the post  which alerted me to the existence of this artist. The painting below, titled Sense of Sight, by Annie Swynnerton,  is what initially attracted my attention. Its composition and use of color are compelling, as are the eyes and facial expression of the main figure.

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Sense of Sight by Anna Louisa Swynnerton

Anna Louisa Swynnerton (1844 – 1933) was known for her allegorical paintings.

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Study of angels, Anna Louisa Swynnerton

The work of Edward Burne-Jones was one of her major influences.  Here are some photographs of the artist herself:


Cupid and Psyche have been painted by various artists, including Burne-Jones. A version from Swynnerton is shown below. Again, I am impressed by the expressions on the faces. Perhaps more than the other paintings I have included, it reminds me of the work of Edward Burne-Jones, especially the style of his Perseus cycle featured in another post under this category.

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Cupid and Psyche by Anna Louisa Swynnerton

I’ll end with Oceanid, a painting of a lake nymph who was the daughter of Okeanos and Tethys. Notice how the water surrounding her sparkles in its transparency. This painting is a good example of the artist’s use of vibrant color.

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Oceanid by Anna Louisa Swynnerton

I am struck by how all of the above works seem to vibrate with life in one way or another.

Mythological Model – Julia vs. Maria

I wasn’t originally going to do this post, but I’ve had an interesting and enjoyable exchange with a gentleman named Erick Verran. He suggested to me that the model for the Perseus cycle (more specifically The Baleful Head) by Edward Burne-Jones could have been Julia Stephen, another Pre-Raphaelite model, rather than Maria Zambaco. This intrigued me, so I looked up information about Julia and was immediately struck by the similarities between her and the figures in the paintings.



Furthermore, searches for both women turn up  some of the same paintings. As yet another added item of interest, Julia Stephen was the mother of Virginia Woolf.  So what is the identity of the model in the Perseus cycle? Rather than an art scholar, I’m a biology professor messing around in my spare time, so I was reduced to analyzing profiles of chins and noses, which led me to favor, albeit irresolutely, Maria. This effort was complicated by my inability to find any photographs of Maria Zambaco, and Erick graciously sent me the following from a biography of Edward BurneJones titled The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2012) by Fiona MacCarthy.


Notice the caption (click on the image). It states that these photographs are of a young Maria Zambaco and goes on to imply that her portrayals by Edward Burne-Jones apparently involve a certain amount fanciful embellishment. These certainly seem inconsistent also with appraisals by various of her contemporaries in which she is described as strikingly beautiful. They also appear inconsistent with portraits of her by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (shown in previous posts in this series). By comparison her features seem rounded and less angular. Please don’t judge me as a chauvinist. I understand that standards of beauty are debatable and overly narrow, but the paintings of Maria Zambaco and the aforementioned appraisals seem to fall within stereotypes of beauty for both that era and the present.

Then I was reminded of something I ran across by accident on the internet: photos of Jennifer Connelly at different ages in her career. I selected a couple of examples for this post.



Notice that her face becomes noticeably leaner as she ages. The difference is even more pronounced in earlier photos. Keep in mind also that the photographs of Maria were from a time period when styles of technique and clothing could obscure the perception of feminine features. Of course, this does not change the fact that the photographs of Julia are rather striking. This leaves me with a problem of identification which is complicated by two factors: the tendency of an artist to make alterations to suit his subject matter and my continued inability to find photographs of Maria from the appropriate time period.

Finally, I did some cross-checking of dates and found that Julia was married in 1867 (one year after Edward and Maria met) and that the Perseus cycle was painted later during a time when Burne-Jones was almost exclusively using Maria as a model. By now, you are probably realizing that this is a rambling approach that proves nothing. In my exchanges with Erick, I had the nagging sense that I was out of my depth. Perhaps out of ignorance, I am still inclined to think that Maria was the model for the Perseus cycle and the series about Saint George and the Dragon (for which Julia is also sometimes credited as Sabra), but this is based on internet searches rather than real scholarship.

Sabra being led to the sacrifice
Sabra being led to the sacrifice
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones

I will happily stand corrected if I have run afoul of a more definite identification.

Mythology On Canvas: Mythological Model (5)

Since this post is something of an epitaph for Maria Zambaco, I think it  more appropriate to leave her clothed and to make some attempt at examining her as a real woman rather than any of the mythological figures (save one) for which she was posed. With one exception, I believe that the images of her that I am using this week are study sketches (and one painting) executed by Edward Burne-Jones, the artist  for whose paintings she gathered the most attention and controversy.


I see her life as something of a multiple choice question. Was she:

a) a victim of exploitation?

b) an accomplice in her own exploitation?

c) both of the above?

d) none of the above?

I cannot assign a correct answer to this question with any confidence. In matters of artistic taste, nude portraits are often considered acceptable, but not all people would agree on this. Maria was herself an artist and a fairly accomplished one. She was also headstrong and wealthy, so it is difficult to imagine her being forced into much of anything against her will.  However,  being willing need not be exclusive of being exploited. I would hope that her true personality would be closer to the impressions I gather from the following portrait: intelligence, pensiveness, dignity.

Portrait of a Lady by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Portrait of a Lady by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

On the one hand, her decisions and strong will would indicate that she was not a victim of exploitation. On the other, certain behaviors and events in her life might be considered symptomatic of someone who was. Her attempt to involve Burne-Jones in a suicide pact after he backed out of a decision to leave his wife does not strike me as the expression of a self-assured and independent spirit. Representations of her body were also displayed very publicly.


I question the assumption that women truly empower themselves within a male-dominated system by taking ownership of sexualized stereotypes and roles assigned to them by that system.

Sabra tied to the pole as the maidens depart
Sabra tied to the pole as the maidens depart

In looking at various aspects of her personality as described by other commentators, I cannot say that I understand who this striking woman truly was. She remains, for me, an enigma. Maria, may you rest in peace.


Mythology on Canvas: Mythological Model (4)

This week’s offering is the Perseus series painted by Edward Burne-Jones and featuring Maria Zambaco as model. In the first painting, Perseus receives his call from the goddess, Athena. It looks as if Maria was used as the face model for both characters.

The Call of Perseus by Edward Burne-Jones
The Call of Perseus by Edward Burne-Jones

Her apparent profile (as Perseus) is seen again in the next painting…

Perseus and the Graiae by Edward Burne-Jones
Perseus and the Graiae by Edward Burne-Jones

… and again in the next. Her face also appears on at least two (possibly all three) of the Hesperides (sea nymphs), for which she surely was used as the body model as well.

Perseus and the Sea Nymphs by Edward Burne-Jones
Perseus and the Sea Nymphs by Edward Burne-Jones

 She seems also to have been a model for the Gorgon, Medusa, shown atypically without snakes in her hair. This approach of making a hideous figure hauntingly or morbidly beautiful adds poignancy to the next two paintings.

The Finding of Medusa by Edward Burne-Jones
The Finding of Medusa by Edward Burne-Jones


The Death of Medusa by Edward Burne-Jones
The Death of Medusa by Edward Burne-Jones

Maria is obviously Andromeda in the next sequence, in which Perseus finds her and rescues her from the sea serpent, Cetus.

The Rock of Doom by Edward Burn-Jones
The Rock of Doom by Edward Burn-Jones


The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones
The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones

Finally, we come to the last painting in the series. Andromeda is shown gazing at the head of Medusa reflected in a basin of water.

The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones

I covered this series in multiple posts earlier in my series, Mythology On Canvas. This was necessary because I gave more of the background for the actual myth, but I thought it would be good to visit this topic once again by showing all of the paintings together.

Next week: one more post on Maria Zambaco before changing topics.

Mythology on Canvas: Mythological Model (3)

It is difficult to see Maria Zambaco as a victim of exploitation when one gets a hint of how headstrong she seems to have been. That combined with her wealth and her skill as an artist push me toward believing that her life may have been more about psychology and morals than it was about sociology and the treatment of women. That she fit in with the trends of the times, however, seems rather obvious to me.

Venus Epithalamia by Edward Burne-Jones
Venus Epithalamia by Edward Burne-Jones

The willful participation of women in a system that limits the roles and portrayals of women becomes more nuanced when it is done to increase their individual power. Or is it really power if it plays to male fantasies? And what about the rest of women who must deal with the fallout of disagreeable male attitudes that have been catered to and encouraged?

This week, I will present a series of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones with Maria as the featured model. This particular series is referred to as the Pygmalion cycle. Click on the image to enlarge the pictures of all four paintings.


This is yet another adaptation of a story from The Metamorphoses by Ovid. As is typically the case with Roman mythology, it is based on an earlier tale from Greek mythology. A sculptor falls in love with the statue he has created, and Venus, the goddess of love, brings the sculpture in question to life for him. Maria appears to be the model for each of the characters in these paintings: Pygmalion, Venus, and the statue/woman.

I have thought about how many of my gender may have a good bit of Pygmalion in them. A man may fall in love, not with a woman as she really is, but as he has imagined her. His imaginative fantasies use her as a blank canvas or un-carved block of marble on which he can create a person who doesn’t really exist. The obvious shame of this is that the poor woman must often deal with the fallout of such false expectations, but I see as the greatest shame the fact that a man fails to experience and appreciate the many dimensions or facets that a real woman can give to a relationship. I say this as a married man whose wife of 37 years never ceases to surprise and amaze him.

Next week: another series of paintings featuring Maria.

Mythology On Canvas: Mythological Model (2)

The early Pre-Raphaelites allegedly had a fancy for using working class women as models and taking them on as their mistresses. I find myself asking “why this socio-economic group?” Perhaps it had to do with economic vulnerability and the likelihood of compliance. Edward Burne-Jones came along a bit later and continued this dubious tradition with one notable exception. Maria Zambaco was wealthy as well as artistically trained. Although she is featured in numerous paintings, I have been unable to find an actual photograph of her which shows her with any clarity. I’m always interested in seeing the reality behind fanciful imagery when actual people are involved.


The above photograph was claimed by one source on the internet to be of Maria, but the name at the bottom doesn’t look right. I believe it is actually that of one of her cousins.

Burne-Jones is said to have been in a loveless (at least physically) marriage with his wife, Georgia Burne-Jones. She had experienced difficulty in the birth of their most recent child, and they had ceased having physical relations. When Edward was commissioned by Zambaco’s mother to paint her daughter, he very well could have been susceptible to having the affair which lasted at least until 1869. He has been described as both indecisive as well as oddly possessive of the women (including relatives) in his life.

He idealized his mistress (some of his descriptive quotes of their relationship in mythological terms struck me as inanely disturbing), and he made plans to leave his wife. The affair was discovered, causing a scandal, and he backed out. Maria attempted to get him to agree to a joint suicide pact by taking laudanum. When this was unsuccessful, she threatened to jump into Regents Canal, and his efforts to restrain her resulted in such an hysterical scene that the police were called.

There is speculation that the affair did not end there, that Zambaco futilely tried to start up a relationship with Auguste Rodin in Paris, and/or that Burne-Jones made some pointless attempts at resuming the affair. At any rate, he continued to use her as a model, but the nature of the characters she portrayed changed. In the following painting, she appears as the temptress, Nimue. On closer observation, what look like snakes can be seen in her hair.

The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne-Jones

Now contrast that role with her character in the next painting from the Perseus series (done earlier). Here, she is gazing on a reflection of the head of Medusa which is held by Perseus. Oddly enough, the profiles of the two figures are similar, which makes me think that she might have been a model for both of them.

The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones
The Baleful Head by Edward Burne-Jones

So she seems to have morphed from rescued innocent in the above painting (which was completed before the affair ended) to the semblance of a treacherously attractive Gorgon in the previous painting, which is one of the last in which she modeled for this artist. Similarly psychological underpinnings have been attributed to the next painting, also one of the last in which Maria Zambaco sat for Edward Burne-Jones.

The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones
The Tree of Forgiveness by Edward Burne-Jones

In this visual re-telling of Phyllis and Demophoon from The Metamorphoses by Ovid, the man appears to be recoiling from the aggressively amorous woman as she emerges from a tree. That particular element of revulsion is not part of the account I read of this story, and significance has been attached to it by some observers.

All of this brings me to these photographs of the grave of Maria Zambaco in London’s West Norwood Cemetery, where she was buried under her original family name. For me, these pictures serve as a grim reminder of where all carnal passion ultimately ends.



In future posts, I will re-cap some of the paintings in which she is cast as various characters from mythology.

Mythology on Canvas: Mythological Model (1)

Maria Zambaco is one of the most (perhaps the most) recognizable models of the Pre-Raphaelites. She sat for some portraits by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, one of the founding Pre-Raphaelite painters. An example is shown below.


Here is another striking image in black and white by the same artist:

Portrait of a Lady by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
Portrait of a Lady by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

But her more famous exposure (no pun intended) was in a number of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones. In these, she was portrayed as a number of different characters from mythology in various states of dress. In the following examples, I am reminded of the similarity between the legends of Perseus slaying Cetus and Saint George slaying the dragon.

The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones
The Doom Fulfilled by Edward Burne-Jones
Saint George slaying the dragon after untying Sabra
Saint George slaying the dragon after untying Sabra

Born Maria Terpsithea Cassavetti on April 29, 1843, in London, she was the daughter of a wealthy Anglo-Hellenic merchant. She studied art, including a stint as a student of Auguste Rodin in Paris.  In the 1880s, she even worked as a sculptor, contributing some medallions to the British Museum, some of which are shown below.



But she is better known for her modeling. With dark red hair and very pale skin, this statuesque woman evidently had a very striking appearance.

Headstrong and independent she married Dr. Demetrius Zambaco and bore him two children, but the marriage was troubled and did not last. She moved back in with her mother in 1866, and it was her mother who commissioned Edward Burne-Jones to paint her as both cupid and psyche during that same year.

Cupid and Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones.
Cupid and Psyche by Edward Burne-Jones.

Although the artist would make several versions of this painting with Maria as a model, the above painting (as nearly as I can tell) is the commission that introduced him to her. And that started all the trouble…

(to be continued)