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.
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.
Here is a portrayal of an angel expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden:
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.
I will feature some more paintings from this artist next week.
In his book, The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton makes the statement that although philosophers examine patterns when analyzing reality, Christianity is a story. I will add that so are all of the major myths from various cultures. Later in that same book, there is perhaps the most interesting and unique discussion about comparative religion which I have ever read. Whether you believe them or not, Christianity, Judaism, Greek mythology, Roman mythology, and Norse mythology (not to mention too many additional myths and religions to include in this post) are stories, and they address a fundamental need of the human condition. I remember being a college student in the 1970s. It was a time when these things could be discussed more freely than they are today. People weren’t nearly as prickly when challenged by ideas with which they disagreed.
Returning back to my opening statement, the recognition and analysis of patterns is extremely useful to the understanding of how nature works. My formal training in molecular biology taught me to do just that. Without the context of a story, however, patterns become disembodied, bland, and hollow. A widespread problem in modern society is the awareness that our weeks are like sentences which lack punctuation, especially that period or exclamation point at the end. Too often, it seems that nothing significant happens, something that adds definition to our existence. This extends into the fear that our lives have no story line and no underlying theme. Social approval only goes so far in filling this need. We long, often while resisting it, for a sense of belonging to something greater than individuals or groups.
I’ve often wondered if this at least partly underlies our cultural fascination with fantasy, science fiction, or even horror. Especially in the case of the latter, do we jangle our nerves so that we will at least feel something? Lest you think I’m being overly critical, please understand that I love various literary and cinematic works of fantasy, science fiction, and mythology. The exercise of our imaginations can be extremely beneficial when it encourages us to conceive better things.
May I suggest also taking a look at the hard stuff? Read the great works of epic and mythical poetry, including The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, and The Poetic Edda. While you’re at it, you could certainly do a lot worse than reading works like, Confessions and The City of God by Augustine, The Bible, and the works of Plato and Aristotle. You won’t understand or agree with everything you read. I certainly didn’t, but I learned not only something of their content but also the pleasure of engaging in deep thinking. The driving can be difficult, but the ride is worth it.
We are by nature rebellious, so let’s rebel and begin to fill the hollow universe that has been left to us by materialistic thinking. I must add one more thing before closing. Learning is not enough by itself. Our lives become better stories when we apply what we learn by doing something, by adding quality to ourselves and our communities.
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.
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.
There is a recurring theme in multiple mythologies. It is that of a man endowed with incredible strength. I’m sorry, ladies, but this concept emerged from male-dominated societies. I’m not talking about what should be – just what was. The nature of the strong man is varied. To explain this, let us examine some examples (sorry for the bizarre alliteration…).
This is his name in Greek mythology (Hercules in Roman mythology; you may have gathered by now that the Romans were borrowers). He is a demigod, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene. His prowess is therefore in between that of a god and a man. Below, he is shown as a child strangling a serpent that was sent to kill him.
But he got bigger…
and did stuff…
… sometimes very bad stuff, sometimes heroic stuff, sometimes a bit of both. He has been shamelessly ripped off by Marvel Comics…
and by DC Comics.
Just when I thought I was researching a fairly safe topic, I found out that things turned ugly in the DC Universe in the 1980s when he was portrayed as subduing and raping Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, the mother of Wonder Woman. In this story, the Amazons in general were drugged and sexually assaulted by his men during a banquet of friendship (an attempt at peacemaking) hosted by the gracious Amazons after they had foiled a first attempt at conquest.
I found this out when I was looking for images to include in this post. I stumbled across a rather offensive and salacious illustration which I decided not to use. Why not? Because it’s my site, and I don’t want to. It was glossed-over, sugar-coated violence against women. Such subject matter began to be covered for purposes of realism, but the imagery and plot are unrealistic treatments. The ugly simply isn’t ugly enough. I have issued this warning before about comics and animation being used in this way. This example underscores the concerns I raised in my post, Graphic Mythology: A False Feminism.
Anyway, I read a synopsis or two of the story and looked into its historical background. It was released during an allegedly feminist period in the development of the Wonder Woman series – ironically, a time when artist and writer George Perez was consulting with Gloria Steinem. The extended story line involves revenge, punishment imposed by the gods, repentance, and forgiveness. That’s supposed to be a good turn of events, right? And then there was this…
Hippolyta has a brief romance with her reformed rapist. DC also did this in their critically acclaimed Watchmen in the sequence when Sally Jupiter willingly had a child by the Comedian some time after his unsuccessful attempt at assaulting her. My concern is that the above imagery and plot device (intentionally or not) reinforce the destructive falsehood that women actually like being sexually mistreated by men. Despite their sensationalism and controversy, these are examples of what has become a tired convention. Better stories are out there, waiting to be discovered/imagined.
The DC story I have been picking on from the Wonder Woman series is a very distorted version of the original myth concerning the ninth labor of Heracles in which he was told to take the belt of Hippolyte, which had been given to her by Ares, the god of war. Perhaps this is how the comic version got away with it. If you’ve read much about him, then you also know that Heracles was no Boy Scout.
Though western civilization is derived primarily from a combination of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman influences, the ancient Greeks clearly did not have politically correct morals and ethics when it came to the treatment of women. But I want to emphasize that we are not the ancient Greeks and that we should aspire to something better.