From Wonder Woman to the world’s largest Internet-based retailer, the influence of the mythical Amazons is probably greater today than in classical times. To celebrate the publication of John Man’s new book on the Amazons, this article and the next look at their portrayal in paintings.
In classical mythology, the Amazons were a tribe or people consisting of women warriors. Coming from somewhere out to the east, or possibly north-east, of Greece, there are many different accounts of their origins and practices. All seem agreed, though, that they were fierce warriors, usually fighting on horseback, who at some time in the past waged war against Greece – an event known as the Amazonomachy – and were defeated. This first article looks at paintings of that war.
In Greek mythology and legend, there are three celebrated wars (apart from Troy): the Titanomachy, which was fought between the earlier Titans and their successor Olympian gods, the Amazonomachy, fought between the Greeks and the Amazons, and the Centauromachy, between the Greeks and the Centaurs.
Unfortunately, there is confusion between different writers as to exactly what the Amazonomachy was. Some associate it with the ninth labour of Heracles, others with the battle between the Greeks and Amazon forces led by Penthesilea during the Trojan War, and others with the Attic War which resulted in Theseus abducting Hippolyta as his wife.
I will consider those in the next article, and here will look at a more general war which resulted in the deaths of many Amazons when they were defeated by a substantial Greek army, possibly long before the war against Troy. A reasonably popular theme in painting, right up to the present day, its most practised exponent was Peter Paul Rubens, who is attributed with two paintings of the subject.
It is thought that Rubens’ first version of The Battle of the Amazons may have involved Jan Brueghel the Elder in the painting of the landscape, and could date from as early as 1598. It is clearly one of Rubens’ early works, and may have been the first in the long-running collaboration between the artists, which later included their spectacular allegories of the senses.
Rubens gives us a large-scale battle, with the slaughter of many of the Amazons, whose naked bodies fill the foreground. Behind those are Greek men, mainly on horseback, and then serried ranks of pikes and the massed foot-soldiers. The landscape is suitably dark and menacing, with the implication of distant smoke and destruction.
About twenty years later, Rubens’ second The Battle of the Amazons (c 1619) is completely different. We see but a small engagement within the whole battle, here taking place on a bridge over a river. The tiered structure of his earlier painting is lost, as horses and people engage in what can only be described as an all-out mêlée.
Some of the figures are manifestly female – Rubens assists us a little with a colour code in which Amazons tend to wear red – a few are naked, and many, particularly those in the lower left, are dead. This more realistic and harsher view of war was no doubt influenced by twenty years experience of life in a war-torn Europe.
After Rubens’ two versions, probably some time slightly later in the seventeenth century, Claude Deruet painted his version of The Battle Between the Amazons and the Greeks. Rubens’ bridge has grown considerably in length and height, and now crosses a major river. The fighting on that bridge has intensified, with both people and horses in all senses and orientations, some overflowing over the edge of the bridge.
For a couple of centuries, the sight of Amazons being killed fell into disfavour, and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that significant numbers of new paintings were made.
Like Rubens before him, Anselm Feuerbach painted two versions of The Battle of the Amazons, of which this is the second, from 1873. Its composition is original, and not derived from either painting by Rubens. Feuerbach divides the battlefield up into a series of four small skirmishes, arranged and lit around a central foreground mortuary, in which dead and dying Amazons lie naked.
Dominating the whole scene is an Amazon on a black horse, which is rearing angrily over the battlefield.
After Feuerbach, another great German history painter made a series of works showing Amazons in battle: Franz von Stuck, who painted at least three different motifs of the Amazonomachy. This, Wounded Amazon from 1903, shows a close-up of a near-naked Amazon warrior sheltering behind her shield, as she bleeds from a wound just below the right breast.
Von Stuck, though, seems to have mixed his wars here, and according to the background is showing us a view from a war between the Amazons and Centaurs. Another of his paintings of Amazons at war had the misfortune of being a favourite of the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels.
Common to several of these paintings is the use of the motif to show female nudes, which seems peculiarly inappropriate given the death and mutilation taking place in the rest of the painting. In the late nineteenth century, sex and death were becoming associated in images of the femme fatale, most notably that of Salome – another favourite theme of von Stuck, and of Lovis Corinth, who does not appear to have painted Amazons, though.
In theory, the depiction of women as fierce warriors could have been an opportunity to express the power of women, and to redress the imbalance between the genders. As John Man points out, that does not appear to have been the case, either in the narratives of the original myths, or in the painted depictions of them. Indeed, the Greek men beat the Amazon women, and drove them out of Greece.
Man, John (2017) Amazons, The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World, Bantam Press. ISBN 978 0 593 07759 7.