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.
This next painting is a personification, another example of allegorical art.
Here is Venus, another mythological subject…
… 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.
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.
In an earlier post from this category of Mythological Beasts and Spirits, I mentioned that the Lindorm was sometimes described as a sea serpent, sometimes not. Sea serpents appear in multiple myths and legends. The Midgard Serpent in Norse mythology might be regarded as a sea serpent since Thor went fishing for it in one account within TheProse Edda. This concept for a monster is evidently very resonant in the human mind, and I wanted to develop it for my fabricated myth, The Fear of a Farmer.
The following image is apparently taken from a book, and its caption indicates that this sketch by W. D. Munro was of an alleged sea serpent that washed ashore in Hungary Bay, Bermuda, in 1860. From the appearance of the creature, it is obviously an oarfish.
The following illustration is by Tamplier Painter and takes an approach common to modern fantasy art: the employment of frills and fins. The profile of the head resembles that of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Older illustrations often did little more than depict sea serpents as over-sized snakes with minimal embellishment.
For the picture at the top of this post, I chose to use a similar approach by eliminating fins and other appendages. That made coming up with an interesting head shape important. You’ll be the judge as to whether or not I succeeded. I combined the features of a T. rex (mainly the line of the upper jaw), an alligator (eyes, snout, and hinge of lower jaw), certain snakes ( body and enlarged ear opening), and some lizards (dewlap or throat pouch). To these, I added a bulging pate and rather prominent ridges above the eyes, ears, and nostrils. I’m a biologist as well as a monster aficionado from way back, so this was a fun project for my inner ten-year-old. Below is the initial profile of the head on which I have based all of my other drawings of the sea serpent in my story.
I’ll end this with a painting by Edward Burne-Jones depicting a story from Greek mythology. It shows Perseus rescuing Andromeda from Cetus, the sea serpent to which she was being sacrificed… by her parents!
Next week, I will cover one more creature whose description defies illustration. Nonetheless, that has not dissuaded some artists (or me) from trying.
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.
Her apparent profile (as Perseus) is seen again in the next painting…
… 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.
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.
Maria is obviously Andromeda in the next sequence, in which Perseus finds her and rescues her from the sea serpent, Cetus.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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…
The legend of Saint George and the Dragon is said to have been brought to Europe from the Middle East by the crusaders. Whether intentionally or not, it bears some rather obvious parallels to the myth of Perseus slaying Cetus to rescue Andromeda. For this reason, I have chosen to show one last set of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones.
For those of you unfamiliar with the legend, it takes place in a region of Libya, where a dragon was plaguing the kingdom. The citizenry were sacrificing their daughters to the dragon by lottery, and the lot eventually fell on the king’s daughter (Sabra in some accounts). Saint George happens upon her while she is tied to a pole or tree, waits until the dragon appears, and eventually slays it. Here, then, in pictures is the story:
I have refrained from commentary on individual paintings. Readers can parse out the elements of drama and irony for themselves. Simply looking at the pictures and captions is a bit like reading a comic book.
Next week: the beginning of a collection of paintings from our last artist.
The Perseus Series by Edward Burne-Jones (continued):
When her mother inappropriately (according to the convoluted etiquette of the gods) boasts of Andromeda’s beauty, this offends Poseidon. He inundates the coast of Aeithiopia (a fanciful Ethiopia) and sends the sea serpent, Cetus, to plague that country. The citizenry and rulers (i.e. her parents!) settle upon the “obvious” solution of offering Andromeda as a sacrifice to Cetus. Enter Perseus to rescue the naked (of course) maiden while she is chained to a rock at water’s edge.
He kills the sea serpent and frees Andromeda. In the following picture, The Doom Fulfilled, the action to the right is contrasted with the relaxed, almost reposeful stance of Andromeda.
All works out well in the end, and Perseus marries Andromeda. In The Baleful Head (the last painting of the series), we see a scene from the nineteenth century poem which I mentioned in Part 8. I now know that it is titled The Doom of King Acrisius and was written by William Morris (Thank you, Nevil Warbrook.). Perseus is showing Andromeda the head of Medusa by its reflection in what appears to be a bird bath or outdoor wash basin. Note that this time the hair of the Gorgon is shown as consisting of snakes.
The Perseus Series by Edward Burne-Jones (continued):
Once equipped, Perseus sets out to find Medusa. He must use the polished shield given him by Athena in order to view Medusa safely since her reflection cannot turn him to stone. In The Finding of Medusa (shown above), he appears to be holding a mirror in his left hand. The sack for carrying her head is draped over his left forearm. Medusa (standing) is shown with her two Gorgon sisters, who are immortal and cannot be killed.
Once he has beheaded Medusa, Perseus must escape the remaining two Gorgons. He is aided in the effort by the helm of darkness given him by Hades. It seems that the artist chose not to depict the hair of Medusa or her sisters as snakes in these paintings. As such, he presents ugliness as more beautiful. This nuance, however, does not eliminate the sinister aspect of the three Gorgons. Whether the artist intended it or not, I personally see an additional element of implied tragedy. After all, Perseus is essentially killing Medusa and bereaving her sisters on a dare.
The Perseus Series by Edward Burne-Jones (continued from last week):
To fulfill his promise, Perseus must seek the Hesperides (called sea nymphs in this series of paintings) for help, but he does not know where to find them. He must ask the Graiae (“gray ones” or “gray witches”) for information as to their whereabouts. Since they are sisters of Medusa, they are unlikely to help him willingly.
The three Graiae have only one eye between them and must share in its use. Perseus steals the eye as they are passing it among themselves and holds it at ransom until they give him the desired information.
He then goes to the Hesperides (sea nymphs), who give him a sack for safely transporting the head of Medusa. He also receives such tools as a polished shield from the goddess Athena (evidently shown out of sequence with a mirror in the first painting, The Call of Perseus, shown last week) winged sandals from Hermes, a helm of darkness from Hades, and a sword from Zeus. In the above picture, all of these events are consolidated as the conferring of the gifts by the sea nymphs, who are identified by virtue of being shown standing on a puddle.
For the next several posts, I will comment on the Perseus series by Edward Burne-Jones . These paintings are based not strictly on the story from ancient Greek mythology but also on a rather florid nineteenth century poem whose title and author at present escape my memory. Take, for example, the first painting in the series: The call of Perseus.
In looking up the details of the legend, I could find no mention of what this picture depicts, so I am assuming this scene came from the poem. The actual background is that the demigod Perseus was the son of Zeus and a mortal named Danae. Later on in the story, Perseus shields his mother from an amorous king under whose hospitality they are living. In an effort to disgrace Perseus, this king creates an occasion for various men to give him horses as gifts. Perseus (“of course, of course” for those who might recognize this phrase) has no horse but offers to fulfill any wish that the king might lay upon him. He is assigned the seemingly impossible task of bringing back the head of Medusa, a Gorgon with snakes for hair. Upon the mere sight of her, onlookers turn to stone.
Heroes in mythology interact with a variety of constituents. They are cursed or favored by the gods. Sometimes they are sired or born by them. Romantic liaisons have been described between gods and mortals. A hero may be called upon to do battle with (or enlist the help of) some kind of fantastic beast, and it is not unusual for this to be in response to the wrath of (or a commission from) the gods. Men of ancient valor have also been portrayed as lovers, assailants, or rescuers of beautiful maidens.
This brings us to the “AND” in the title for today’s blog. Myths feature heroes, gods, monsters, and (perhaps tellingly) helpless and often scantily clad women. As an example, try finding a portrait of Andromeda in which she is not wearing nothing or next to nothing. Then, of course, there are the chains. All of this is in accordance with the written account of her rescue from the sea serpent by Perseus, and it may be argued that this reflects historical and cultural attitudes toward women and their roles in society.
New mythologies can be of social benefit by fashioning noble and honorable niches for female characters. Regardless of what the reader might think of the movie Avatar (directed by James Cameron), it does contain some of the characteristics of a modern myth: a spiritual element, a hero, an invading army, monsters, and a love interest. Neytiri (as played by Zoe Saldana) is in some ways stereotypical, but she is far from weak. Okay, she is scantily clad.
In the stories I write, I try to portray women and girls as having more strength and depth, and I am currently attempting to develop plot lines for future works in which they assume more central and heroic roles. I owe that much to my wife and my daughters.