Many religions have both god(s) and goddess(es), the most prominent exceptions being those which originated in the Middle East: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the male-dominated societies in which they developed, this is perhaps only to be expected, but ancient Mediterranean cultures were noted for their rich and often powerful female deities.
Graeco-Roman religions featured several prominent goddesses, who have been popular subjects for more modern paintings.
Diana the Huntress, here painted by Arturo Michelena in 1896, was strong, fleet of foot and a ruthless huntress who was quite happy to kill the children of Niobe with her arrows, and to see Actaeon transformed into a stag and torn to shreds by his own hunting dogs.
Minerva is easily recognised in this painting of her and the Muses by Jacques Stella in about 1640-45. She’s the warrior with a battle helmet, spear and her famous shield bearing the image of Medusa, a woman whose mere look turns people to stone.
Rubens’ elaborate painting of Juno and Argus from about 1611 shows Jupiter/Zeus’s half-sister and wife picking the eyes from Argus’ severed head to put on the plumage of her favourite peacocks. She was ruthless towards the many mortal women raped or seduced by her errant husband.
Instead, the Judaeo-Christian tradition starts with the Fall of Man as a result of the temptation of the first woman, Eve, who is perhaps the antithesis of a goddess.
The cherubic head in Rubens’ painting of The Fall of Man, based loosely on Titian’s original, is that of the Devil in the guise of an anthropomorphic serpent, who hands Eve the apple which brought about expulsion from God’s Garden of Eden.
William Blake’s exuberant and draconian serpent has caught Eve in its calligraphic coils, in his glue tempera painting on copper of Eve Tempted by the Serpent (1799-1800). This relies not only of the biblical narrative from Genesis chapter 3, but also Milton’s elaboration in his epic Paradise Lost. Eve is to blame for what happened both to her and to Adam.
But Blake’s earlier Satan Exulting over Eve from about 1795 depicts Satan separately from the serpent and makes the important point that it was the masculine Devil who tempted Eve in the first place, so attributing Original Sin not to the first woman but the fallen male angel.
Thereafter, the Judaeo-Christian beliefs underlying most European painting associated snakes with the Fall of Man, Eve, and the Devil himself. They also became associated with the woman who you do and don’t want to know, the femme fatale.
Piero di Cosimo’s well-known portrait of a woman claimed to be Simonetta Vespucci from 1490, that’s more than half a millenium ago, is one of the earliest to explore the theme of the femme fatale. Simonetta was reputed to have been the most beautiful woman in the whole of northern Italy, and was a favourite at the court of the de’ Medicis. In 1475, Giuliano de’ Medici entered a jousting tournament bearing a banner on which Botticelli had painted an image of Simonetta as Pallas Athene. But she died the following year of tuberculosis, at the age of only twenty-two.
The melanistic adder wrapped around her necklace may be a reference to the suicide of Cleopatra, and marks her out as a femme fatale.
It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that visual artists really developed the theme of the femme fatale, though.
Along with other artists such as Gustave Moreau and Lovis Corinth, Franz von Stuck returned repeatedly to the theme of the femme fatale. Here she is, in a painting from about 1893, as Sin. Coiled between her legs with its head resting on her right shoulder is the largest serpent you could ever imagine.
John Collier’s painting of Lilith from 1892 invokes an even older piece of mythology which probably dates back to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the early civilisations of Mesopotamia. A sexually wanton daemon of the night, she has been claimed to be Adam’s original wife, and created from the same clay as he was. Although not involved in the Original Sin, she is associated with a serpent which appears to be related to that shown by von Stuck.
If the Christian faith lacks any goddess, and has rules which forbid their addition to its Holy Trinity, might its woman saints substitute?
Some, like Joan of Arc, shown here in a section from Jules Eugène Lenepveu’s spectacular murals in the Panthéon in Paris, appear to parallel classical goddesses like Minerva. But a great many paintings of Joan, and other women saints, undermine this warrior image; for Joan, she was really a young shepherdess who was driven to lead the French against the English by her visions.
Perhaps the strongest contender is the mother of Christ, the Virgin Mary, who has a very special role in the Catholic Church in particular. Although many of the paintings of her follow popular conventions, as with Miguel Cabrera’s The Divine Shepherdess from about 1760, there are some more unusual images. Despite the teaching that the Lord’s my shepherd, for some the Virgin Mary was their shepherdess.
In the next and concluding article, I’ll look at some images of the Virgin Mary which may surprise, as they show her vanquishing Original Sin, which might appear quite heretical.