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More Witches, Monsters, Beasties: A Day at the National Gallery with the London Drawing Group

By Minjie Su

This article, as a sequel to my previous piece, is a result of a one-day workshop (with the same title) led by the London Drawing Group (LDG) at the National Gallery, London. In the few hours of the day, we have examined 11 paintings that are inspired by Greco-Roman myths and medieval lore. This article focuses on the remaining of those. As we have already examined the monsters and their banes, this week’s centre will shift to witches and femme fatale.

The LDG is a collective of three female artists based in London. In addition to their professional practice, they offer workshops, art classes, and drawing tours across London and around.

1. The Argonauts in Colchis (1487)
Bartolomeo di Giovanni (active 1488 – ca. 1500)
Tempera and oil on wood
Room 58

The Argonauts in Colchis (1487)

Drawing from the celebrated epic Argonautica, Bartolomeo’s masterpiece tells the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Challenged by his uncle Pelias, the powerful-thirsty king of Thessaly, Jason gathered a group of heroes and promised to bring back the Golden Fleece from Colchis in exchange for the Thessalian throne, which is rightfully his to claim. Although the central scene of the painting is the Argonauts being welcomed in Colchis, Bartolomeo, being a master in narrative and exploration of space, tells the hero’s whole adventure in a series of mini-scenes surrounding the feast.

Anticlockwise, we see the Argonauts descending from the ship – Jason riding the horse, with Heracles walking beside him with his lionskin and club. Then we have Medea, the heroine and witch-to-be in the tale, falling love with the young hero in a rather Tristan-and-Iseult fashion: she was hit by Cupid’s arrow, so she may help Jason, who happens to be Aphrodite’s protégé. Jason’s three quests are laid out on the right, with Medea casting spells with a magic wand. In the far, upper right corner, the hero carries away his double trophy – the Golden Fleece and Medea.

The painting was commissioned as a celebratory piece for the wedding between Lorenzo Tornabuoni, a Florentine Banker’s son, and Giovanna degli Albizzi. The cheerful undertone of the painting is made clear by its vivid colour, heroic quests, and the happy ending the painter chose to depict. Yet it is hard to dismiss the tragedy to be followed: Medea, however merry and naïve at this point, will soon become the witch she is believed to be.

2. The Capture of the Golden Fleece (1742-43)
Jean-François Detroy (1675-1752)
Oil on canvas
Room 33

The Capture of the Golden Fleece (1742-43)

This is yet another depiction of the fleeting ‘happy ending’ of Medea, Jason, and the Golden Fleece. This painting, together with Jason Swearing Eternal Affection to Medea in the same room, belongs to a group of seven paintings collectively known as Sketches from the Story of Jason, inspired by Ovid’s retelling of Argonautica in Metamorphoses VII. Here, Medea, just as triumphant as her lover and saluted by the surrounding Achaeans, casts a longing yet modest look towards Jason, who is absorbed in glory.

The two paintings in the National Gallery, incidentally or not, perhaps are the two happiest moments of Medea’s life, though the Colchian princess’s emotion seems somehow ambiguous and hard to pin down in this particular painting. After all, this is the turning point of her life: she is about to outcast herself into a faraway, foreign land, at the cost of Absyrtus, her own brother, not to mention all the horrible murders she will commit in that land. This is, therefore, not only a moment of victory and love, but also a moment of sorrow and despair.

3. Landscape with the Expulsion of the Harpies (ca. 1590) and Landscape with a Scene of Enchantment (ca. 1590)
Paolo Fiammingo (ca. 1540-1596)
Oil on canvas
Gallery A: Paintings 1250-1600

Landscape with the Expulsion of the Harpies (ca. 1590)

Collectively known as Two Scenes from the Argonautica, the two paintings form a group. The first, The Expulsion of the Harpies, is taken from Apollonius of Rhodes’s Argonautica, book II, where the Argonauts bypass Thrace and encounter King Phineus. Punished by the gods, the poor blind man is tormented by the Harpies, a half-woman, half-bird mythical creature. Whenever Phineus is trying to eat, the Harpies will swoop down and snatch from the old king his food, a punishment very much in the same spirit of that of Tantalus. Pitying Phineus, Zetes and Calais, the winged sons of Boreas god of the North Wind, vowed to save him from the Harpies. The Harpies were chased by the Divine Twins far and wide, until they reached the Floating Islands. There, Iris, messenger to the gods, forbade the heroes to pursue any further, for the Harpies were the will of Zeus; but in exchange, she swore to leave Phineus at peace, thus lifting the curse off the old man.

Landscape with a Scene of Enchantment (ca. 1590)

The second painting, Landscape with a Scene of Enchantment, is more Odyssey than Argonautica, though it is loosely taken from the latter and the two stories are connected by the figure of Circe, Medea’s aunt and the archetypical witch. In Argonautica book IV, right after Medea’s elope, the couple were demanded to seek out Circe to cleanse Medea’s fratricide. Circe’s island, Aeaea, is an enchanted realm. When Odysseus arrives at Aeaea, Circe invites the sailors to a banquet only to turn them into swine. Here in the painting we see that the trap has already been set: the sailors, unaware of the impending danger, are merrymaking with Circe’s women – too merry, perhaps, for they hardly notice the hybrid nature of these women.

In the far-left top corner, one woman clearly has a toad for the head; and the one sitting by the table has a pig’s head, perhaps foreshadowing what will become of the sailors. The most distinguishable, however, is the pair in the foreground, that lie entwined in each other’s arms, locked in a kiss. The woman’s deceitful nature is made plain through her serpent-tail; looking directly towards outside the frame, she boldly invites the viewers to admire her strange, monstrous charm.

4. Penelope with the Suitors (ca. 1509)
Pintoricchio (active 1481; died 1513)
Fresco
Room 60

Penelope with the Suitors (ca. 1509)

Inspired by The Odyssey, this masterpiece illustrates Penelope working at her loom, surrounded by a group of flamboyantly attired suitors. Penelope has been ‘besieged’ by these dandies for ten years now; she barely managed to put them at bay by (un)weaving her father-in-law’s shroud. The fact that she is only tricking them is implied by the cat playing with the ball under the loom. In addition to lending the scene some humorous hue, the cat also raises an interesting question: who is the real trickster here? The suitors – like predators – probably believe they have Penelope, a seemingly helpless woman, within their power, yet it is the helpless woman who is in fact in power.

Besides, Penelope’s wait almost reaches its end. Odysseus, dressed in what may be seen as an elaborated version of a vagabond’s clothes, just enters the door; the bow and arrow hanging behind Penelope foreshows the husband’s bloody revenge.

In the background, Odysseus’s encounter with Circe the sorceress is delineated in a series of mini scenes. On the island, he is conversing with her – perhaps just having fended off her magic – and surrounded by his swine-companions; then he is seen tied to the mast, with sirens singing between the tides. Traditionally, the sirens tend to be presented as maidens with bodies of birds. They are always associated with death – perhaps having to do with their ability to fly, to cross borders. Initially, it is the words in their songs that are seductive, for their words are words of wisdom and prophecies. Later, however, they are gradually sexualised and, by the time of Isidore of Seville, become a metaphor for prostitutes.

5. Witches at Their Incantations (ca. 1646)
Salvator Rosa (1615-1673)
Oil on canvas
Room 32

Witches at Their Incantations (ca. 1646)

Dark, gloomy, powerful, Salvator Rosa’s painting vividly illustrates a sabbath of witches. In the foreground, an old woman is highlighted by the lighter colour of her flesh and hair; she is apparently working on some potions, with two naked women practising some other kind of magic (is it a voodoo doll that she is holding?) and two men gathering ingredients from the hanged corpse. Behind her, a young knight in his shining armour is made a fool of himself, obviously under some foul spell and being beaten by a groom.

How dare Salvator Rosa, you may ask, depict such an outrageous scene, especially considering that witch-hunt is peaked during the 17th century? These scenes, freshly out of the best-seller Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of the Witches’), are in fact intended as mockery than faithful depiction. Do you really believe, asks Salvator, that this is really what these women are doing in the shadow of the night? Is scapegoating your neighbour for your crop’s failure really that comforting?

You can follow Minjue Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

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