I’ve been struggling with the flu for well over a week, in spite of my first ever flu shot, I succumbed sometime during my recent trip back East. I find the flu to be a memento mori ( although it could be argued that everything is a memento mori to me). I wallowed lavishly in misery. But for the last few days I have been able to pull myself off the fainting couch and put the finishing touches on a painting I have been working on for the past few months, Persephone.
oil on canvas
24 by 36 inches
As is so often the case, my inspiration for the painting was yet another literature course, this time, World Mythology. We were focusing upon the Greeks, with a translation of the Homeric Hymns (c.600 B.C.E.) by Andrew Lang, link to text HERE. The opening passage was so beautiful, particularly as read by my professor, that I knew a painting was to be found amidst the flowery prose:
“Of fair-tressed Demeter, Demeter holy Goddess, I begin to sing: of her and her slim-ankled daughter whom Hades snatched away, the gift of wide-beholding Zeus, but Demeter knew it not, she that bears the Seasons, the giver of goodly crops. For her daughter was playing with the deep-bosomed maidens of Oceanus, and was gathering flowers—roses, and crocuses, and fair violets in the soft meadow, and lilies, and hyacinths, and the narcissus which the earth brought forth as a snare to the fair-faced maiden, by the counsel of Zeus and to pleasure the Lord with many guests. Wondrously bloomed the flower, a marvel for all to see, whether deathless gods or deathly men. From its root grew forth a hundred blossoms, and with its fragrant odour the wide heaven above and the whole earth laughed, and the salt wave of the sea. Then the maiden marvelled, and stretched forth both her hands to seize the fair plaything, but the wide-wayed earth gaped in the Nysian plain, and up rushed the Prince, the host of many guests, the many-named son of Cronos, with his immortal horses. Maugre her will he seized her, and drave her off weeping in his golden chariot, but she shrilled aloud, calling on Father Cronides, the highest of gods and the best.”
I was also inspired by the type of synoptic composition that the Roman’s excelled in, found often on sarcophagi relief carvings, and silver work; where the narrative just tumbles forth every which way, paying little heed to logical time sequence or proportion. I love the puzzle of guessing what the hell is going on . This detail from a Roman beaker (1-100 A.D.), recently on view at the Getty Villa in Malibu is typical of the sort of compositional puzzle I am speaking of.
I set aside for myself the task to include as much of what I loved about the Hymn to Demeter into a relatively small canvas, playing upon the logic defying compositions of our dear Romans.
First off, there is “slim-ankled” Persephone , “deep bosomed, low slung hips”, such sexy play of words. Everytime I read the Greeks ( I just finished the Iliad) I am reminded of their absolute love of fleshiness. I wanted to capture that with Persephone.
detail of Persephone
A character I found curious was that of Hekate, she of the “shining head-tire”, who witnessed the soon-to-be abduction (once again, logical narrative sequence be damned); she and Phoebus Apollo are the only two to see what the hell went on , and the mad with terror Demeter turns to the “daughter of Persaeus”.
I love the passage of Hekate, serene and separate from the madness of lust, “thinking delicate thoughts”.
Hekate “thinking delicate thoughts”
Demeter, in her afore mentioned terror is described as having “tore the wimple about her ambrosial hair, and cast a dark veil about her shoulders”. I admire how that description alludes to her complete withdrawal from god and man and how in time, Mother Earth herself will suffer the consequence.
An interest of mine is how the Greeks, and later Blake , would anthropomorphize natural elements such as mountains, streams, clouds, turning them into sentient beings. I wanted to play with that as well. This mountain shudders as to what will come.
Another mountain harbors the “deep-bosomed” playmates of Persephone , who cowardly run off, abandoning our heroine.
The text describes how Hades, Lord with Many Guests ( yet no bride) seduces the “fair-faced maiden”. As Persephone gathers flowers, Hades seduces her with the floral mother load of all flowers, for there “wondrously bloomed the FLOWER, a marvel for all to see, wether deathless gods or deathly men”.
A handsome youth should sufficiently beguile dear Persephone.
Of “deathless gods”, many feature in this tale of sacrifice, redemption and rebirth, yet Prince Helios, the glorious Phoebus Apollo is always a delight to render.
As is the Father of Gods, the supreme Son of Kronus. Homer in the Iliad repeatedly reminds the reader how shifty this great god is , that only a fool would rely upon the Dark-browed god’s word. Persephone soon learns this harsh lesson when her cries for salvation fall upon her father’s deaf ears. He too busy collecting accolades from man:
” But he far off sat apart from the gods in his temple haunted by prayers, receiving goodly victims from mortal men”.
Frankly, Zeus just reminds me of any number of sexy, cocky Italian guys I have known in my day!
But I suppose in many ways this painting focuses not on Persephone but on Hades (first image). In some ways it turned out somehow “redeeming” the rape into an act of rectifying desperate loneliness. When the three great brothers were dividing the Universe, Hades certainly received the short straw. Zeus in his hubris received the heavens and earth, Poseidon the azure sea, but poor Hades, the dank Underworld-and without a bride. Apollo himself tells the bereaved Demeter, that although he shares her sorrow for her loss, she should see the sacrifice in a brighter light, that Hades is a god worthy of Her divine daughter:
“But, Goddess, do thou cease from thy long lamenting. It behoves not thee thus vainly to cherish anger unassuaged. No unseemly lord for thy daughter among the Immortals is Aidoneus, the lord of many, thine own brother and of one seed with thee, and for his honour he won, since when was made the threefold division, to be lord among those with whom he dwells.”
That may very well be posturing , defensive, patriarchal bullshit, but still, worth considering lonely Hades position.
But for now, I am finished with the Hymn to Demeter.
Be well, Lg