The Story in Paintings: Andromeda rescued 1

Giuseppe Cesari (1568–1640), Perseus and Andromeda (1592), oil on slate, 70.5 × 54.9 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

To my surprise, one story which keeps recurring in my forays into narrative paintings is that of the rescue of Andromeda by Perseus. This is told in several sources, most notably Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and has been painted by dozens of well-known artists over the last couple of millenia.

The Story

I have detailed the full story here. Considering just the episode involving Andromeda, it reduces to the following summary:

  • Andromeda is the beautiful daughter of the King and Queen of Aethiopia;
  • Her mother, Cassiopeia, considers her so beautiful that she boasts that Andromeda is more beautiful than the Nereids;
  • This boast offends Poseidon, who sends Cetus, a sea monster, to ravage the coast as punishment;
  • The king is told by an oracle that the only way to be rid of Cetus is to sacrifice Andromeda to it;
  • Her father therefore has Andromeda stripped and chained to a rock on the coast, to await Cetus;
  • Perseus is returning on his winged sandals after he has beheaded Medusa;
  • Perseus sees Andromeda as he is flying past, so stops;
  • Perseus frees Andromeda, but keeps her there to lure Cetus to him, and dons Hades’ helmet to make him invisible;
  • When Cetus turns up to devour Andromeda, Perseus kills the sea monster;
  • In return for rescuing her, Perseus wins the hand of Andromeda in marriage.

During the Middle Ages, this became modified to tell that Perseus was riding Pegasus, the winged horse, rather than flying with his winged sandals. This was expressed fully in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Genealogia deorum gentilium libri, which first appeared in 1360, and was revised continuously until the author’s death in 1374.


Any painting of Andromeda alone fails any reasonable test for narrative, as it depicts but a single event and moment in time. Strangely there is a substantial minority of paintings which show Andromeda naked (or nearly so) and chained to a rock. Although a plausible excuse for showing an extremely beautiful female nude, there are inevitable overtones of rape fantasy (which are strong enough when the whole story is told faithfully). I will therefore not consider those non-narrative paintings any further.

Whether the artist is conforming to the Aristotelian structure of beginning, middle, and end, or the quest for peripateia, a complete depiction of the narrative will need to include references to Andromeda as a sacrifice to Cetus (past, or beginning), Perseus’ arrival (the pregnant moment, or middle), and the killing of Cetus (the better future, or end). However, I also include those paintings in which Cetus is either absent or very hard to discern.

The main decision for any painter trying to tell this story is thus choosing the exact moment to show. Strictly speaking, according to the text, Cetus did not appear until after Perseus had arrived and freed Andromeda, and at that time he was invisible because he was wearing Hades’ helmet. The best solutions are therefore going to vary somewhat from the text, in order to generate strong visual narrative.

This article considers the paintings in which Cetus is missing, and those timed to show an event before Perseus kills Cetus. The next article will look at those timed after Cetus’ death.

Cetus Absent or Hidden

Unknown, Perseus Freeing Andromeda (c 50-75 CE), height 122 cm, Casa dei Dioscuri (VI, 9, 6), Pompeii, moved to Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples. By WolfgangRieger, via Wikimedia Commons.

The anonymous Pompeiian wall-painting Perseus Freeing Andromeda (c 50-75 CE) shows a close-up of the couple. Andromeda is still chained to the rock by her left wrist, and is partially clad rather than naked. Perseus has Medusa’s head tucked behind him, the face shown for ease of recognition. He is wearing his winged sandals, and carrying his sword in his left hand. There is no sign of Cetus, and the viewer is expected to complete the remainder of the story in the absence of any further cues or clues as to its outcome.

Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), Perseus and Andromeda (1570-2), oil on slate, 117 x 100 cm, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

One and a half millenia later, Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) painted his Perseus and Andromeda (1570-2) on slate. The same central motif, that of Perseus releasing Andromeda from her bonds, is at its centre. Andromeda is naked, and looks weakly disgruntled rather than relieved in any way. Perseus has a complete set of equipment, including his winged footwear, the head of Medusa (left outside its bag), and an unusually winged helmet, which is clearly not making him invisible.

In the far distance on the left, it is possible that Vasari has shown Cetus, but that is not established clearly. Also at the left is a horse, possibly intended to be Pegasus, but left deliberately ambiguous. The waters around are embellished with distracting nymphs and swimmers, and various activities are taking place on the coast behind. There is no indication of the menace posed by Cetus, nor of its threat to Andromeda.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Perseus and Andromeda (1639-40), oil on canvas, 265 × 160 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) painted several different versions of this story. His Perseus and Andromeda (1639-40) shows the same moment as the paintings above, of Perseus freeing Andromeda. Andromeda is naked, but tied with rope rather than chains, and has an odd non-committal smile, as if she is just realising that she will have to hang around for Cetus to turn up.

Perseus wears a fetching suit of armour without any winged sandals, and Pegasus is seen in the distance, down on the beach. Hades’ helmet, which will shortly render Perseus invisible, has been placed on the rock ledge, at the bottom left hand corner of the painting.

Rubens does manage a useful reference to the future, though, with a pair of matchmaking putti above the couple to indicate the eventual outcome. If Cetus is shown, it is far down on the beach, and hardly an imminent danger.

Cetus Alive

Given the importance of Cetus to the story, it is not surprising that most who have painted it have included the monster within their motif. An earlier Roman version from Boscotrecase, near the coast at Pompeii, dates from soon after 11 BCE, and puts the story into a larger landscape, much in the way that later landscape painters such as Poussin were to do.

Unknown, Perseus and Andromeda (soon after 11 BCE), from Boscotrecase, Italy, moved to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. By Yann Forget, via Wikimedia Commons.

Andromeda is shown in the centre, on a small pedestal in the rock. Below it and to the left, the gaping mouth of Cetus is shown, as Perseus flies down from the left to rescue Andromeda, kill the sea-monster Cetus, and later marry Andromeda in reward, as shown on the right side of the painting. As with many later paintings, this sophisticated image shows a composite of at least two episodes in the story, and contains two separate versions of both Perseus and Andromeda.

Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521), Andromeda freed by Perseus (c 1510-15), oil on panel, 70 x 123 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521) also shows multiple events within his large Andromeda freed by Perseus (c 1510-15). Centred on the great bulk of Cetus, Perseus stands on its back and is about to hack at its neck with his sword. At the upper right, Perseus is shown a few moments earlier, as he was flying past in his winged sandals. To the left of Cetus, Andromeda is still secured to the rock by a prominent red fabric binding (not chains), and is bare only to her waist.

In the foreground in front of Cetus are Andromeda’s parents, the King and Queen, still stricken in grief. Near them is a group of courtiers with ornate head-dress. But in the right foreground is a celebratory party already in full swing, complete with musicians and dancers, to feast their delivery from the attacks by Cetus.

Continuous (or composite) narrative is even more extensive here, with different passages showing quite different events, in no particular narrative sequence.

Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) (1490–1576), Perseus and Andromeda (1553-9), oil on canvas, 179 × 197 cm, The Wallace Collection, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Not known for his narrative paintings, Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) (1490–1576) manages to combine an unusually-posed nude study of Andromeda, with both Perseus and Cetus, in his Perseus and Andromeda (1553-9). Andromeda is still in her chains, gazing at Perseus as he appears to tumble from the sky, ready to hack at the sea monster. Cetus obligingly opens it vast maw, ready to swallow him whole, although it is in fact much further away.

Titian leaves the story open, though, and gives no clue as to its outcome, a curious lack of resolution.

Giuseppe Cesari (1568–1640), Perseus and Andromeda (1592), oil on slate, 70.5 × 54.9 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

It is perhaps Giuseppe Cesari (1568–1640) who realises the best account, in his Perseus and Andromeda (1592). Andromeda is naked, chained, and looks anxiously towards Perseus, as Cetus announces its intent to devour her. Perseus is astride a wingless Pegasus, sword in hand, the other holding the ghastly head of Medusa.

Look also at Cesari’s background, which shows the coastal ruins which have resulted from Cetus’ previous attacks. Although there are no solid clues as to the eventual outcome, this account is well-developed and almost complete. Its composition is also precursor to those of Leighton and Ingres three centuries into the future.

Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638), Perseus Releases Andromeda (1611), oil on canvas, 180 × 150 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638) uses the same elements in his Perseus Releases Andromeda (1611). Andromeda lacks the fearful facial expression, but her hands suggest emotional tension. Cetus appears slightly less prepared for a drop-in snack, and Perseus’ mount is now tan rather than white, and still wingless.

The coastal scene behind this action does not appear to have suffered any attacks from the monster, though. He fills the area around Andromeda’s feet with a rich variety of shells, whose relevance is unclear, a human skull, skeleton, and some bones. These would imply that the site was used for previous sacrifices, something which goes beyond the original story.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Perseus and Andromeda (1870), oil on panel, 20 x 25.4 cm, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), in his Perseus and Andromeda (1870), provides another variation of the three elements set out so well by Cesari. He puts the shackled Andromeda, almost naked, in the foreground, with Cetus looking surprised at the imminent arrival from the sky of Perseus. He is not astride Pegasus, but wears his winged sandals, and flourishes the polished shield still bearing an image of Medusa’s head.

Andromeda’s facial expression is odd: her eyes appear closed, as if in sleep, perhaps already resigned to her fate?

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), Perseus and Andromeda (1891), oil on canvas, 235 × 129.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Last in this section is Frederic, Lord Leighton‘s (1830–1896) Perseus and Andromeda (1891). This shows the ‘invisible’ Perseus astride Pegasus shooting arrows into Cetus, while the monster surrounds Andromeda. Cetus is shown as a fairly conventional fire-breathing dragon, complete with stereotypical wings and a long tail. Andromeda is not naked, but some modesty is preserved by draping a white robe around her waist.

The next article will complete my account, starting with paintings in which Cetus is shown as being killed by Perseus.