Chapter 19 Commentary: Representations in Art

Representations in Art

Leda and the Swan.

 This is the subject of innumerable paintings, of which that by Leonardo da Vinci (ca. 1510), now lost, is best known from several copies. The union of human and bird has fascinated artists in all ages, and recently (1959–63) Reuben Nakian explored the psychological potentialities of the legend in several media.

The Dioscuri

. The quarrel of Idas and Lynceus with the Dioscuri has attracted artists, for example, Peter Paul Rubens, 

The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus

 (ca. 1616, now in Munich).

The Judgment of Paris and Oenone

. The judgment of Paris has also fascinated artists, drawn to it by the possibilities of three nude female figures posing in a pastoral landscape before a judge. Exceptional versions are those by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1530 and repeated many times), who interprets the story satirically (as did Lucian in his 

Dialogues of the Gods 20

(mid-2nd century A.D.), and by Peter Paul Rubens (1600 and 1607), who uniquely unites the beauty of the goddesses with the drama of the judgment and the consequences of the choice made by Paris.


 Ovid (


 5) makes Oenone wife of Paris and portrays her loneliness when he deserts her for Helen. So also does Tennyson in his poem 


 (1832), and the sculptress Harriet Hosmer, in her marble 




. In all ages Achilles has been the paradigm of physical excellence, courage, and intense passions, a hero necessary to his community yet impossible for it to contain. His life is portrayed in a cycle of eight tapestries and their preparatory oil-sketches (now in Rotterdam) by Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1632). His discovery on Scyros was narrated by Statius (ca. 90 A.D.) in his unfinished epic 


 and has been the subject of many paintings, for example, 

Achilles and the Daughters of Lycomedes

 by Poussin (1650, now in Boston). His anger at the use of his name to entice Iphigenia to come to Aulis is the subject of J.-L. David’s 

The Wrath of Achilles

 (1819), and J.-A.-D. Ingres painted 

The Envoys of Agamemnon Sent to Achilles to Urge Him to Fight



. Sophocles, in his tragedy 


 (409 B.C.) portrays the suffering of Philoctetes and his departure from Lemnos. He makes Odysseus cynical and deceptive, and Neoptolemus honorable. The theme of the hero whose skills are essential to the community, while he himself is intolerable, is the subject of the essay by Edmund Wilson, 

The Wound and the Bow



. Telephus was the subject of lost tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides, whose play (ca. 440 B.C.) scandalized the Athenians by its sordid realism. As founding ancestor of the Mysians and their chief city, Pergamum, Telephus was honored in the reliefs of the Altar of Zeus at Pergamum (ca. 185 B.C., now in Berlin).

The Iliad.



 is unique as the fundamental literary work of all Greek and Roman literature, and it is impossible to summarize the infinite number works of literature, art, and music that interpret its episodes. Its portrayal of the all-too-human weaknesses of the Olympian gods and its presentation of passionate emotions (especially anger and grief) led Plato to exclude it from the educational curriculum of his ideal state. In recent years its primary role in Western literature has been the target of social and political criticism, a sign of the continuing significance of the poem (for supporters and critics alike) in education.

While the 


 refers to events (especially the fall of Troy) outside the frame of its narrative, most of the Trojan War was narrated in a series of epics, now lost, known from summaries given by Proclus (of uncertain date, perhaps 5th century A.D.). The 


, despite its concentration on a very short period in the ten-year war, became the dominant survivor of the epic tradition because of its unmatched poetical power, its portrayal of the Olympian gods and their interaction with mortals, and above all, its representation of the full range of human nobility and meanness, seen in the words and actions of the Greek and Trojan heroes, of whom Achilles is supreme.

The interaction of the Olympian gods with each other and with mortals in the 


 is the canonical and fundamental version, important in that it is one that was accepted in all of Greece, as opposed to local legends and cults or works concerned with a particular legend (e.g., tragedies). The scene, for example, between Zeus and Thetis is most memorably portrayed by J. A. D. Ingres in his huge work 

Jupiter and Thetis

 (1811, now in Aix-en-Provence). The gods of later epics are variations on the Homeric gods, even where there are fundamental changes, as with Jupiter in the 


 of Vergil (see Chapter 26). In art and music, similarly, the Homeric gods are the foundation of subsequent interpretations.

The meeting of Hector and Andromache focuses the narrative on the city and its families that must suffer if Hector fails. It was a popular subject for illustrations of the 


 in the eighteenth century (especially in Pope’s translation), which were used as models for amateur artists to copy in America and elsewhere. Among modern representations, the painting by G. de Chirico (1917, now in Milan) is austere and disturbing.

The decorations on the shield of Achilles portray the life of human communities away from the battlefield (although it includes some scenes of ambush and siege). Efforts have been made to recreate the shield (the most successful by John Flaxman, 1817), but the description is poetic, and its details cannot be translated satisfactorily into another medium.

The Fall of Troy

. This was the subject of a lost epic, 

Iliou Persis

 ("the sack of Ilium"), and episodes were the subjects of several tragedies. Of these, the 

Trojan Women

 of Euripides (415 B.C.) is especially moving. It focuses on the sufferings of Hecabe and Andromache, as well as the fates of Cassandra, and Polyxena, and of the child Astyanax. It looks forward to the sufferings also of the victors during and after their return home, and ends as the survivors leave Troy to go into slavery. The 


 of Seneca (mid-first century A.D.) conflates elements from the 

Trojan Women

 with the 


 of Euripides. By far the most detailed surviving account of the fall is the narrative of Aeneas in Book 2 of Vergil’s 


 (see Chapter 26). The lost epic, 


 (possibly 8th century B.C.) included the deaths of Penthesilea, Memnon, and Achilles.

The Ajax of Sophocles.

 This play (written ca. 455 B.C.) focuses on the shame, death, and posthumous honors of Ajax. Rhetorically brilliant is the debate between Odysseus and Ajax over the armor of Achilles in Ovid’s 


 (13. 1–398).

The Trojan Horse and Laocoön

. The Trojan horse is a proverbial metaphor for treachery by an insider, and it has frequently been portrayed in art (e.g., by G. D. Tiepolo the Younger in two paintings of its building and its entry into the city (1773)

The episode of Laocoön is told by Vergil in 


 (2. 199–231). It is the subject of one of the most famous of all ancient marble statues, made perhaps in the mid-first century A.D. as a copy of an original made two centuries earlier at Pergamum. It was rediscovered at Rome in 1506 and is now in the Vatican. It was also the origin of 


 (1766), the immensely influential essay by G. E. Lessing, subtitled "On the Limits of Painting and Poetry." In contrast to the statue’s portrayal of the dramatic torments of Laocoön and his sons, entwined by the huge serpents, the painting by El Greco (ca. 1610, now in Washington, D.C.) focuses less on the serpents and sets the heroic victims against the landscape of the city (in this case, Toledo).


. The 


 of Euripides (424 B.C.) focuses on the deaths of Polydorus, Polyxena (the sacrifice of Polyxena is a central motif), and the revenge of Hecabe, which she justifies to the Greek victors.


. The escape of Aeneas, carrying his father (holding the household gods of Troy) and leading his son, is symbolic of the present bearing the burden of the past and making possible the renewal of the future. It appears as an episode in Raphael’s fresco 

The Fire in the Borgo

 (in the Raphael Stanze in the Vatican, 1514) and is the subject of the marble group 

Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius

, by G. L. Bernini (1618, in the Borghese Palace at Rome).

Meleager and the Calydonian Boar Hunt.

 The myth of Meleager is told to Achilles by Phoenix in Book 9 of the 


 as a parable of the virtues of relenting from one’s anger. Homer mentions the boar, but not the hunt, which is narrated by Ovid in Book 8 of the 


. The hunt is shown on the François Vase (ca. 575 B.C.), where many heroes are named (Meleager and Peleus together in the front rank), along with Atalanta. The Calydonian boar hunt became an adventure that included the noblest Greek heroes, as with the Trojan War and the Argonauts. The theme of the monstrous boar appears also in Book 1 of Herodotus in his narrative of the destiny of Croesus, king of Lydia (see Chapter 6). Atalanta and Meleager are shown in many paintings of hunting scenes (e.g., Rubens, ca. 1618, now in Vienna).