By Minjie Su
This article, as well as the one to follow next week, 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 five of those – all about monsters and (male) heroes; next week, I will bring you the remaining six, and the 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. Saint George and the Dragon (ca. 1470)
Paolo Uccello (ca. 1397 – 1475)
Oil on canvas
Being one of the most iconic image in England, there is no need to recount the tale of St. George and the dragon. The moment Paolo Uccello chooses to depict, however, is an interesting one, for it connects past, present, and the future of the narrative in one frozen moment: apparently, George has just wounded the dragon – his galloping horse shows that he only just arrived at the scene. The dragon’s ferocious complexion and the cave behind unleash the viewers’ imagination of how this great winged beast crept out of the darkness, ready to devour the princess, who has now already recomposed herself. The girdle around the dragon’s neck points to what happens next: the beast will be led back to the princess’s kingdom to convince her people to convert to Christianity. As the dragon – likened to the Devil in medieval bestiaries – is brought down, those who do not yet know God will be brought to grace.
Technique-wise, there are a few worth noting points regarding this painting. Born at the dawn of the Renaissance, Paolo Ucello’s art wonderfully adds a strong sense of perspective into the Gothic style, which is best demonstrated by the deep cave behind the dragon and the distant mountains on the horizon. This is quite revolutionary in his time and makes Paolo a pioneer in linear perspective in art.
2. The Fight between the Lapiths and the Centaurs (ca. 1500-15)
Piero di Cosimo (1462-1522)
Oil on wood
This unmissable masterpiece of Piero draws its inspiration from the Centauromachy (‘the Centaur War’) in Ovid’s Metamorphoses book XII. Despite its comical and entertaining effect, the painting tells a gruesome battle between two species and brings together two rape stories.
The fight is related right after the transformation of Caenis as confirmation of his heroism and ferocity. Caenis, a beautiful girl desired after by the gods, was once raped by Poseidon who, having his lust satisfied, promised to grant her anything. Caenis asked to become a man to be spared of any future sexual assault, so she became Caenus, an invulnerable warrior.
Now, king Pirithous of the Lapiths is to wed Hippodamia (‘tamer of horses’), Caenus’ sister. Naturally Caenus is invited, along with other famous Greek heroes such as Theseus. All fitting for a royal and glorious match, but Pirithous decides to invite the Centaurs as well. Half-man, half-horse, these creatures represent the very nature of wilderness and bestiality and, as barbarians, they cannot handle their liquor. One troublemaker, Eurythion by name, tries to rape the bride. This bold move excites the other Centaurs, and the Lapith wedding feast is turned into a Dothraki one.
At the core of the story lies the eternal struggle between nurture and nature, humanity and bestiality, ‘us’ and ‘other’. With the Centaurs killed and expulsed, it is nurture and civilisation that finally triumph, but is this really the message Piero di Cosmo wishes to convey to us? Despite all the chaos in the background, the central foreground is dominated not by the royal couple and their hero friends, but by a Centaur couple. These two are Hylonome and her lover Cyllarus. Cyllarus is just killed by the spear lying next to him, and Hylonome is giving him one last kiss before killing herself with the same spear. This heartrending scene seems to stand in defiance of the violence in the background and poses to us this question: how do we define monsters, really?
3. Perseus Turning Phineas and His Followers to Stone (early 1680)
Luca Giordano (1634-1705)
Oil on canvas
Here is yet another wedding that has gone wrong. Having rescued Andromeda, it is only natural that the young hero Perseus should marry the Aethiopian princess. Not everyone is happy, however; Phineas least of all, for Andromeda has already been promised to him. He leads a group of warriors, rashes into the wedding – apparently uninvited (unlike the Centaurs) – and tries to kill Perseus. Perseus, in his splendid blue-and-gold dress, saves the day and his bride by turning Phineas and all his followers into stone using Medusa’s head.
With all its richness in colour and wonderful composition, the highlight of this painting is the fading colour of Phineas and his mates. As the warm colour of the human flesh gradually gives way to the lifeless, pale shades of grey, the viewers know for sure that the villains in the scene are just being turned into stone this very moment. Another interesting feature is the grouping of the three male figures on the left – very much reminding one of the more conventional motif of the three graces. Reading through Perseus’s tale, the figure three appears repetitively: the three Graeae, the three Hesperides, the three Gorgons…yet all groups of three women.
It is also worthwhile to point out the figure of Andromeda, who wears a golden crown and is just about to flee from the door. We cannot see her face, but the poor girl is apparently traumatised – again.
4. Angelica Saved by Ruggiero (ca. 1819-39)
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
Oil on canvas
Despite its similarity to Perseus rescuing Andromeda, this scene is in fact taken from Orlando furioso, Ludovico Ariosto’s 16th-century Italian epic. Compared to the Perseus myth, Orlando furioso is more of a medieval chivalric romance in character. Ruggiero, the knight in the golden armour, is born from a Christian father and a Saracen mother. As a child, he is prophesied to be one of the two fates: be a Christian, marry the girl-knight Bradamante but die shortly after the wedding; or be a Saracen and bring the downfall of the Frankish Empire. Eventually, after a series of quests and adventures (including saving Angelica from the sea-orc), he chooses the former and is murdered for betraying the Saracen cause.
In addition to the Perseus element, quite a few stories from Greek and other mythology can be recognised in Ruggiero: the two fates and the sequent hiding of the boy remind the readers of Achilles; the warrior-maid Bradamante seems to echo the Valkyrie Brynhildr, and Ruggiero’s temporary enchantment and captivity by the sorceress Alcina bring him closer not only to Sigurðr/Siegfried but also to Odysseus, whose story will appear in the second group of the paintings examined here.
5. Oedipus and the Sphinx (ca. 1826)
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
Oil on canvas
Depicting the famous scene from the Oedipus myth, Ingres’ 1826 painting is a rework of a painting on the same subject he created in 1808, now preserved in the Louvre. The central scene of both paintings is a young Oedipus, unaware of what horror awaits him in the future, explains the enigma of Sphinx. Although the figures are pretty much the same, the reworked piece apparently takes place at nightfall, with a much gloomier Thebes at the horizon, seemingly threatened by an impending storm. A streak of red can be discerned behind the mountain – but is it just the setting sun, or does it symbolise the blood Oedipus is about to bring to Thebes?
The imagine given in the 1826 painting is so much richer than the earlier one, which is clearly a contrast between civilisation – represented by the peaceful Thebes bathed in sunlight – and the barbaric – represented by the hybrid, animalistic body of the Sphinx. There is, however, one thing in the 1808 painting that is missing in the reworked version, and it is worth noting. This is the figure between Oedipus and Thebes. The general interpretation is that he is Oedipus’s companion, fleeing in terror towards the city.
Yet the man’s features bear rather too much resemblance to Oedipus’s, and he dresses pretty much the same – would it be too bold, then, to imagine him as a doppelganger to and an older version of Oedipus? His terror, perhaps, heralds Oedipus’s fate ahead.
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