Hunt or Be Hunted

Diana the Huntress of Versailles

Diana the Huntress of Versailles

Power is all about the game. In love, this game becomes a hunt, with most traditional stories depicting a male hunter chasing after the woman, his “prize.” But mythological goddesses are some of the most powerful women around, and they often don’t wait to be chased. Take the goddess Diana, for instance. Known for her beauty and skill as a huntress, the goddess of the moon was a uniquely powerful female figure among the repertoire of characters from history, mythology, and religion that constituted the Western artistic canon. For this reason she was adopted as a namesake by several powerful noblewomen, most notably Diane de Poitiers, who wielded formidable influence in the French court.

One of the most famous anecdotes of the life of Diana is her encounter with Actaeon, who saw her bathing naked with her nymphs while he was riding with his hunting party. When Diana discovered him, she became enraged and transformed him into a stag, and he was chased down and devoured by his own hounds.

This story has been represented in many ways over the centuries for decoration, education, and (mostly) delectation. As times have changed, so have artistic perspectives. How can an artist capture the power of a huntress? Continue reading

A Dutch Cleopatra

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as Antony and Cleopatra, from the film Cleopatra (photo courtesy of Fox entertainment)

Remember when I mentioned that the same story can be presented in many different ways based on the artist’s formal and narrative choices? Well let’s take a look at this unusual example…

Antony and Cleopatra were two great historical figures from Classical antiquity, and their legendary love story has inspired countless paintings, poems, and films. Over the centuries, their story has adopted many symbolic meanings as both a scandalous, immoral love affair and a passionate, poetic expression of devoted love (think of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Richard Burton’s classic yet controversial rendition of Cleopatra…).But various elements of their story have also been transformed in surprising pictorial representations such as Jan de Bray’s portrait historié, the Banquet of Antony and Cleopatra, in which the painter presents a portrait of his parents in the guise of Antony and Cleopatra surrounded by their family. Continue reading

“Divine” Royalty and Symbolic Propaganda

The gods and goddesses of Classical mythology had as many vices as they had virtues, but their most important attribute was their divine power over nature and over man. As such, their symbols and narratives became essential components of the artistic representation of Europe’s most powerful noblemen, especially since kings were believed to retain a divine right to rule over their people.

One of the most ambitious projects of political propaganda was commissioned by Marie de Medici in 1622 from Peter Paul Rubens, Europe’s greatest court painter and a talented diplomat. Continue reading

“Flying Too Close to the Sun”

This post will focus on content, and how a single story can be transformed by different artistic visions, making us think twice about its ultimate meaning. Without further ado…

Ambition can fuel our greatest achievements, but it can also lead to our untimely demise. The tragedy of hubris is best captured by the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, commonly known as the Fall of Icarus. Daedalus, a brilliant Athenian craftsman, designed a giant Labyrynth for King Minos of Crete to trap the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster. However, after various intrigues, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the labyrinth. In order to escape, Daedalus put together giant wings of bird feathers held together by wax so that they could fly away from Crete over the sea. Before departing, he warned his son not to fly too low, for the sea could dampen the wings and make the heavy, or too high, for the sun could melt the wax on the wings. Continue reading