Friday, February 12, 2010

Beautiful, Naked and Chained to a Rock

Take the portrayal in art of an ever-popular myth. It has three essential ingredients: a swooning heroine, beautiful, naked and chained to a rock; a dashing hero, suitably armed and equipped by the gods; and a terrifying sea monster whose approach churns the sea to fury. Now, you might think that to do this myth any sort of justice these three elements should not be reduced any further, but in practice the hero and the monster sometimes are relegated to an insignificant background position, or even dispensed with altogether (as in the version by Edward John Poynter, below); the naked heroine, never.

First, the myth (I'll try to be brief). Perseus was the son of the mortal woman Danae and mighty Zeus (a cracking story in itself, which I'll save for another time). Equipped with a glinting shield (on loan from the goddess Minerva) and winged sandals (on loan from the god Mercury), and fresh from his conquest of the gorgon (she whose hideous gaze turns those who meet it to stone, even as the severed head which our hero carries - for his own safety - in a pouch), Perseus is flying (courtesy of those winged sandals) over Ethiopia when he spies a beautiful (aren't they all?) maiden, naked (of course), and bound to a rock by the shore. She is (she shyly explains) Andromeda, daughter of Cepheus (the king) and Cassiopeia (the queen).

Andromeda's mother's vanity prompted her to boast that she was more beautiful than Poseidon's sea nymphs (Gustave Doré's painting, above). Bad idea. Slighted, Poseidon sends a grotesque monster to ravage the coast, whose reign of terror can only be placated by the king and queen including their daughter on the atrocious monster's menu. Swift as thought, Perseus wings over to the anguished royal parents. Apparently not above driving a good bargain under pressure (even as the frightful monster bears down upon the rock), our hero offers to dispatch the monster in return for the maiden's hand. The deal is done and dusted, as (after a suitably heroic struggle) is the monster also. Happy parents. Hand in marriage. All's well that ends well.

Unsurprisingly, artists have found this heady mix of heroic derring-do, female nakedness and fanciful monster irresistible. And with the heroine's nudity safely placed within an allowable classical context, it was all brakes off for the portrayal of this myth through several durable centuries of art history. But consider the versions above (and there are many, many more), painted by *six different artists over some two centuries. Whether by Rubens, Titian, or others, it's difficult not to notice, not so much the individuality of these interpretations of the myth, but just how samey they are, with the main difference seeming to be whether Andromeda is swooning to the right or to the left. And another element has crept in. Perseus is sometimes depicted astride the winged horse Pegasus, which actually belongs in another myth, and whose rider was the hero Bellerophon (who dispatched that clumsy-to-imagine monster, the Chimera). It seems that myths, once they become entangled with each other, are difficult to unravel. Even in filmed versions (Clash of the Titans), Perseus now rides Pegasus.

The painting within this style and time frame (16th-18th centuries) which to me offers something more than the others of its kind is by Joachim Wtewael (above). The eye moves comfortably in a clockwise direction around Wtewael's composition, and he includes enough background detail of buildings and helpless citizenry to make us aware of the scope of human life and society that has fallen within range of the monster's ravages. And what a monster. Gone are the unconvincing rubber-toothed curiosities of the artist's contemporaries. Wtewael's monster is so imaginative in its colorful and decorative detail that we find ourselves almost regretting that this splendid beast must meet its end. The foreground as well is strewn with an acutely observed still life of sea shells and human bones. And Wtewael at last provides us with an Andromeda worth saving. By golly, if I wasn't such a coward I'd consider rescuing this particular Andromeda myself.

Painted a century before Wtewael's version, the narrative painting of Piero di Cosimo (above) is a world away in style, and stays remarkably close to the original myth. At first sight, di Cosimo's painting might seem somewhat over-full and confusing. But in an age before the graphic novel, the artist includes different scenes from the myth in this one image. Things become more comprehensible when viewed as their separate elements (below).

Perseus (1) flies to the rescue, and does battle with the monster (2) as the bound Andromeda (3) recoils in anguish. On the shore, King Cepheus (4) and his court and consort (5) avert their eyes in dread, anxiously awaiting the outcome of the contest. The day is won, as Perseus and the rescued princess rejoin the king (6), amid general rejoicing, waving of fronds, and playing of various exotic musical instruments. di Cosimo's painting is full of lively and colorful detail, from the carefully detailed costumes to the curious cloud-veiled peak in the distance, which perhaps signifies Olympus, the abode of the gods.

Journeying forward to the 19th century, Gustave Doré (who portrayed the sea nymphs above) offers us a wonderfully sensual Andromeda, frantically retreating (as much, at least, as her bonds will permit) from the advancing monster's slathering jaws (above). As well she might, because our hero is nowhere in sight. And with the gape-jawed monster this close to the frantic heroine, he'd better hustle before the monster rewrites the myth. Doré here uses the cool grey of the dark rock face and the backdrop of even-darker sky to brilliant effect, making the pale and naked heroine seem all the more vulnerable.

Painted 22 years after Doré's version, Frederic, Lord Leighton's portrayal of the myth (above) certainly utilises his flair for the drama of the moment, but - presumably unintentionally - radically alters the myth's emotional landscape. Here, uniquely, the monster is not only not in the sea, but by its stance seems actually to be offering protection to the cowering Andromeda, shielding her (or so it seems) with its wing from the hero's onslaught while taking the hit from Perseus' arrow.

A sea monster with wings? What was the artist thinking? Well, for me it's forgiveable, because Leighton's monster was among the first to be painted after the discovery and naming of dinosaurs, and that sense of dinosaurian conviction is tangible in the monster's believable anatomy. For his artist predecessors, such gigantic reptiles were firmly in the realms of myth. For Leighton, living in the last half of the 19th century, they suddenly were a long-vanished but very real part of our world's distant past, and with the naming of dinosaur fossils and their first life reconstructions, the monsters of myth had become several shades less fantastic.

You can see my own version of Andromeda at: Andromeda and the Monster

Artist: Edward John Poynter
Work: Andromeda, 1869
Medium: Oils
Location: Private collection

Artist: Gustave Doré
Work: Oceanides (Naïads of the Sea), c.1860-69
Medium: Oils
Location: Private collection

Artist: Joachim Wtewael
Work: Perseus rescuing Andromeda, 1611
Medium: Oils
Location: Musée du Louvre, Paris

Artist: Piero di Cosimo
Work: Perseus frees Andromeda, c.1510
Medium: Oils
Location: Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Artist: Gustave Doré
Work: Andromeda, 1869
Medium: Oils
Location: Private collection

Artist: Frederic, Lord Leighton
Work: Perseus and Andromeda, 1891
Medium; Oils
Location: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Source: Bulfinch's Mythology, by Thomas Bulfinch. Abridged edition, Dell Publishing, 1967

*Top row, left to right: François Lemoyne, c.1510. Carle van Loo, c.1735-40. Peter Paul Rubens, c.1639-40. Bottom row, left to right: Carlo Sarecini, c.1610. Guiseppe Cesari (Cavaliere d'Arpino), 1602. Vecellio Tiziano (Titian), c.1553-59.

Digitally restored scans and analysis graphics by Hawkwood.


  1. I cloud lose myself in the details entirely, your storytelling is so tempting.

    The heroin feels so close to the viewer that creates an intimate feeling, sort of communication that involves us, like saying, come closer and I shall tell you a secret.

    And tender meets mighty, I am not surprised to see the infatuation, the sensuality there (dare say s/m appetizer:)).

    I particularly like the Lord Leighton's version, there is something about it that makes me feel for the monster, and it almost steels the hero’s role dominating like that over the martyr position of the beauty in his protection.

    Masterfully enlightening piece, indeed.

  2. Thank you for your appreciative comment, Lolita. You raise an interesting point. That the heroine is almost always portrayed close to the viewer is also a kind of invitation for the viewer to be her rescuer. It heightens our sense of involvement with the action which the artists here portray.


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