In the previous article, I showed examples of paintings of this classical myth in which Cetus, the sea monster, was absent or still alive. I come now to consider those in which Cetus is shown to be dead, or well on its way to death.
Cetus Dead or Doomed
Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) had earlier given a fuller account of the story in his Perseus and Andromeda (c 1622) (see his later painting shown in the previous article). Andromeda is almost naked, and now fully unchained, on the left. Perseus is clearly in the process of claiming her hand as his reward, for which he is being crowned with laurels, as the victor. He wears his winged sandals, and holds the polished shield which still reflects Medusa’s face and snake hair.
One of several putti (essential for the forthcoming marriage) holds Hades’ helmet, and much of the right of the painting is taken up by the winged Pegasus, covering both versions of the myth. At the lower edge is the dead Cetus, its fearsome mouth wide open.
Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–1779) includes the same elements in his Perseus and Andromeda (1773-6), but set very differently. Here Andromeda is more fully dressed than Perseus, although it is the latter who is centre stage. Mengs covers both versions of the myth by giving Perseus winged sandals and Pegasus, and Medusa’s head is safely stowed in his scarlet bag. A winged putto, looking quite serious, is skipping off to the right, and at their feet rests the great snout of the dead Cetus, to which Perseus’ right index finger points.
I fancy that Mengs has timed this a little too late in the narrative, though, when it has already resolved its greatest tensions.
Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) has caught the height of peripateia and action in his Perseus Killing the Dragon (1910), as Perseus is killing Cetus. He then appears to use it to make a parody of the story, and narrative painting as a genre.
Andromeda, long freed from her chains, squats, her back towards the action, at the far left. Her face shows a grimace of slightly anxious disgust towards the monster. Perseus is also completely naked, with no sign of winged sandals, helmet of Hades, or a bag containing Medusa’s head. He is braced in a diagonal, his arms reaching up to exert maximum thrust through the shaft of a spear which impales Cetus through the head. The monster is shown as an alligator, its fangs bared from an open mouth.
Cetus Absent then Alive
Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) painted his Perseus and Andromeda (1876) as a preparatory study for two of the paintings in his great and unfinished series telling the whole myth of Perseus. Reverting to the continuous narrative more typical of the Renaissance, he composited two separate events within the story into the single canvas. The left half shows Perseus, just arrived at the rock to which Andromeda is chained; the right shows him doing battle with Cetus.
The eighth painting in Burne-Jones’ Perseus series, The Rock of Doom (1884-5), shows Perseus discovering Andromeda chained to the rock awaiting her fate in the maw of Cetus. His face looks hesitant and uncertain here, and he has removed Hades’ helmet to make himself visible to Andromeda. Medusa’s head is safely stowed in the kibisis on his left arm, and Burne-Jones is faithful to the original Greek myth in having Perseus arrive on his winged sandals, not Pegasus.
For her part, Andromeda is naked, and looking coy and afraid, her face downcast. She is still chained to the rock, awaiting rescue. In the background, Burne-Jones shows what is presumably the capital of Aethiopia, or may have accepted Strabo’s attribution to Jaffa.
There are some minor discrepancies between the forms of the rocks and chain shown in the ninth painting, The Doom Fulfilled (1888), and those in the previous work in the series, although Burne-Jones maintains continuity in the figures. Keeping Andromeda unchained in situ, Perseus dons the helmet of Hades to become invisible again, and Cetus appears, ready to devour the woman.
Perseus is here swathed in Cetus’ coils (whose form resembles an ornate capital letter), brandishing his sword and ready to slaughter the monster and bring its terror to an end. The background view of a city has been obscured by a rock wall, and this small inlet is now enclosed by a low causeway of flat-topped rocks, not unlike those of the Giant’s Causeway in the north of the Irish Sea.
Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is an epic poem containing, among others, the tale of the knight Roger or Ruggiero, which is uncannily similar to the story of Perseus and Andromeda, although removed from the greater narrative of Perseus. I therefore include some example paintings of this version of what must be a common myth, for comparison.
One day, when out riding near the coast of Brittany, on his hippogriff (half horse, half eagle, so not too different from Pegasus), Roger finds Angelica chained to a rock on the Isle of Tears. He discovers that she was abducted and stripped by barbarians, who left her there as a sacrifice to a sea monster. As Roger approaches to free her, the monster appears from the sea, and Roger kills it by driving his lance in between its eyes. He then rides off with the rescued Angelica.
Ingres shows the story largely according to the original text, with Angelica’s head cast back almost unnaturally in her pleading look towards Roger. She appears to have a goitre, something which did not escape the critics of the day. Even so, the painting was purchased for King Louis XVIII and was installed in the Palace of Versailles from 1820.
In his first painting of the scene, Böcklin provides us with a composite image of the story. Angelica is bound to a tree, around which the fearsome sea monster is already coiled. Roger approaches from behind, riding a conventional horse, his lance ready to kill the unsuspecting monster. Nowhere does Böcklin show the sea, or show this as being particularly coastal.
Böcklin shows the story at a momentary pause in the action, just before Angelica can plead with the knight to save her life, before the monster sees Roger approaching, and before Roger can try to kill the monster. Angelica’s face seems almost emotionless, Roger’s is concealed, and the monster hardly looks menacing. There is almost no body language either. Böcklin has come close to painting a pre-action group portrait, rather than the vigorous account of a knightly rescue.
Six years later, Böcklin revisited the story, although unfortunately this painting appears to have gone missing at present. He has jumped forward to the moment after the climax of the action, and the monster’s blood is still pouring from its severed neck. Roger, his face concealed, is draping a robe over Angelica’s naked body. She stands, still transfixed by the fear which has now been resolved, her face showing the imminent relief of stress by tears. Her hands are held up in helplessness and surrender to events, and her knees slightly flexed in fear.
And there are more
Tales of rescue of a damsel in distress by a knight in shining armour are stereotypes of the fictional ‘age of chivalry’ which became such alluring motifs for the romantic, and Pre-Raphaelite, artists. Here are a couple as examples.
William Etty (1787–1849) painted his Britomart Redeems Faire Amoret in 1833, and may have induced John Millais (1829–1896) to attempt his one and only female nude, in his The Knight Errant (1870). In the latter case, the story of being stripped, tied up, and abused had left its classical roots, and mere robbers were to blame. The beautiful and naked victim still had to be rescued by a gallant knight, though.
Although I have a deep discomfort at the persistence and popularity of this group of myths and legends, and their underlying misogyny, they have become important narratives for artists. They have generally been tackled well as stories, and resulted in some superb paintings. If you are wondering where are the versions by women artists, perhaps the best response is that the likes of Artemisia Gentileschi and Angelica Kauffman were rightly far too busy working on their next versions of Judith and Holofernes or Ariadne on Naxos to have time to fuel such male fantasies. The Andromeda myth, and its many variants and relatives, have flourished only because they have been told and painted by men for men.
What we have seen in this succession of great paintings does, I believe, confirm the doctrine proposed by Aristotle, formalised by Alberti, and scrutinised by Lessing. Depicting the moment of peripeteia, with its cues and clues to the past, and its links to the future, is the most successful.
In the case of Andromeda’s rescue by Perseus, the pregnant moment is when Perseus is getting the better of Cetus. This ensures that Andromeda’s previous exposure as a sacrificial victim is clear, that the ‘new knowledge’ of Perseus has changed her fortune, and that the instant of Cetus’ death changes her fortune for the better.
This and related ‘knight in shining armour’ narratives are not complex by any means, but have frequently been addressed using continuous narrative to composite two or more events into a single image, or by series of paintings. Indeed one of the most successful accounts, that from Boscotrecase, Italy, is one of the earliest and most sophisticated narrative paintings, and uses continuous narrative to great effect.