Wedding Paintings 1: Classics

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Feast of Peleus (1872-81), oil on canvas, 36.9 x 109.9 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

This is the time of year – in the northern hemisphere at least – for weddings. Although few of us, I hope, get married every Spring, there’s usually a friend or two or relatives who generously invite us to share their festivities. Not this year, I’m afraid, depending on restrictions where you are. So I thought it might be fun to see how others have celebrated weddings in paintings. Because there are so many fine paintings showing the happy event, this has, like the Best Man’s speech, gone on a bit longer than intended. So this weekend we run on to Monday to cover three different types of wedding.

Today I cover three famous weddings from classical mythology; tomorrow I look at other wedding narratives, starting with the wedding at Cana; I finish on Monday with a series of more private weddings around Europe from 1500-1884.

Hippodame and Pirithous

Of the three great mythical weddings, the first in chronological order was that of Hippodame and Pirithous, which brought an end to the dominance of centaurs on earth, the Centauromachy. This was celebrated in prominent places: the subsequent battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs was shown in sculpture on the temple of Zeus at Olympia, and on the Parthenon at Athens. It was Ovid, though, who chose to tell this story in the context of the Trojan War.

When Pirithous married Hippodame, the couple invited centaurs to the feast. Unfortunately, passions of the centaur Eurytus became inflamed by drink and lust for the bride, and he carried off Hippodame by her hair. The other centaurs followed suit by each seizing a woman of their choice, turning the wedding feast into utter chaos, like a city being sacked.

Theseus castigated Eurytus and rescued the bride, so the centaur attacked him. Theseus responded by throwing a huge wine krater at Eurytus, killing him. The centaurs then started throwing goblets and crockery, and the battle escalated from there.

Piero di Cosimo (1462–1522), The Fight between Lapiths and Centaurs (1500-15), oil on wood, 71 x 260 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Piero di Cosimo’s The Fight between Lapiths and Centaurs (1500-15) is my favourite among the earlier paintings of the ultimate wedding feast gone wrong.

In the centre foreground, Hylonome embraces and kisses the dying Cyllarus, a huge arrow-like spear resting underneath them. Immediately behind them, on the large carpets laid out for the wedding feast, centaurs are still abducting women. All around are scenes of pitched and bloody battles, with eyes being gouged out, Lapiths and Centaurs wielding clubs and other weapons at one another. This is definitely a wedding to remember, if you survived it.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Rape of Hippodame (sketch) (c 1637-38), oil on panel, 26 × 40 cm, Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten van België / Musées Royaux des Beaux Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

Towards the end of his life, Peter Paul Rubens painted this brilliant oil sketch of The Rape of Hippodame (c 1637-38). At the right, Eurytus is trying to carry off Hippodame, the bride, with Theseus just about to rescue her from the centaur’s back. At the left, Lapiths are attacking with their weapons, and behind them another centaur is trying to abduct a woman.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Rape of Hippodame (Lapiths and Centaurs) (1636-38), oil on canvas, 182 × 290 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

That became the finished painting, The Rape of Hippodame (Lapiths and Centaurs) (1636-38), which remains faithful to Rubens’ sketch and its composition. Facial expressions, particularly that of the Lapith at the left bearing a sword, are particularly powerful.

The next wedding to be grateful you missed was that between the great hero Perseus and the princess whom he rescued from Cetus the sea monster.

Andromeda and Perseus

Andromeda’s parents were so delighted at their daughter’s rescue that she, who had already been promised in marriage to Phineus, was quickly married instead to Perseus. At the wedding feast, Phineus and his friends were understandably rather miffed, and a violent quarrel broke out between them and Perseus. As happens at the most memorable of weddings, this turned seriously nasty when weapons came out and bodies started to fall. The solution for Perseus was to brandish the head of Medusa and turn Phineus and his friends into cold statuary.

Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) and Domenichino (Domenico Zampieri) (1581-1641), Perseus and Phineas (1604-06), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Farnese, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

Annibale Carracci and Domenichino combined their talents in painting this fresco of Perseus and Phineas (1604-06) in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. As Perseus stands in the centre brandishing the Gorgon’s face towards his attackers, Andromeda and her parents shelter behind, shielding their eyes for safety.

Luca Giordano (1632–1705), Perseus Turning Phineus and his Followers to Stone (c 1683), oil on canvas, 285 x 366 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1983), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

In Giordano’s Perseus Turning Phineus and his Followers to Stone from about 1683, the process of petrification is made less obvious, but the carnage and mayhem better-developed.

Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734), Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa (c 1705-10), oil on canvas, 64.1 × 77.2 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum.

Ricci’s Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa from about 1705-10 also shows the final moments of the battle, as Phineus cowers next to two of his henchmen who have almost completed the process of changing into stone.

Jean-Marc Nattier (1685–1766), Perseus, Under the Protection of Minerva, Turns Phineus to Stone by Brandishing the Head of Medusa (date not known), oil on canvas, 113.5 × 146 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tours, Tours, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Suprisingly, none of those paintings made any reference to the goddess Minerva’s protection of Perseus, which is clearly expressed in Jean-Marc Nattier’s undated painting of Perseus, Under the Protection of Minerva, Turns Phineus to Stone by Brandishing the Head of Medusa. The goddess, Perseus’ half-sister, is sat on a cloud to the right of and behind the hero. She wears her distinctive helmet, grips her spear, and her left hand holds the Aegis, providing narrative closure.

Perseus points his weapons away from himself and Minerva, and is looking up towards the goddess. In the foreground, one of Phineus’ party seems to be sorting through the silverware, perhaps intending to make off with it.

The happy couple picked themselves up from the bodies, statues and debris, and moved on. Perseus gave thanks to Minerva for her support and the loan of her shield, by the votive offering of Medusa’s head, which Minerva had set into her shield, turning it into the Aegis.

The third great wedding of classical myth didn’t end in mayhem or petrification, but the greatest war and disaster of ancient times.

Thetis and Peleus

The wedding of Thetis, sea nymph and spinster of this parish, and Peleus, king of Phthia and bachelor of that parish, was celebrated with a great feast on Mount Pelion attended by most of the gods. The happy couple were given many gifts by the gods, but one, Eris the goddess of discord, had not been invited. As an act of spite at her exclusion, she threw a golden apple ‘of discord’ into the middle of the goddesses, to be given as a reward to ‘the fairest’.

Paintings of the wedding are lavish, filled with figures, and have a high flesh content. Among my favourites are the following five.

Cornelis van Haarlem (1562–1638), The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (1593), oil on canvas, 246 x 419 cm, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Cornelis van Haarlem’s The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis from 1593 segregates the deities into a separate feast in a sacred grove on the left. There is, as yet, no sign of discord among them, nor of any golden apple. Some of the gods are still among the other guests in the foreground, including Pan (near his pipes, at the left) and Mercury, with his winged hat and caduceus at the right. They seem to be having a good time.

Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638), The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (date not known), oil on copper, 36.5 x 42 cm, The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Joachim Wtewael’s undated painting of The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis is great fun, with its aerial band, and numerous glimpses of deities behaving badly. I think that I can also spot Eris, about to sow her apple of discord into their midst: she is in mid-air to the left of centre, the apple held out in her right hand.

Hendrick van Balen (1573–1632) and Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), The Wedding of Thetis and Peleus (c 1630), oil, dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Image by Pascal3012, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hendrick van Balen and Jan Brueghel the Elder combined their skills to paint The Wedding of Thetis and Peleus together in about 1630. Here it’s the innumerable putti who seem to be running riot, and there is no sign of Eris or her golden apple, as far as I can see.

Of course, the most famous painting of this event doesn’t show the wedding at all, only the introduction of the golden apple to the feast of the gods.

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), The Golden Apple of Discord (1633), oil on canvas, 181 × 288 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

This is Jacob Jordaens’ The Golden Apple of Discord from 1633, based on a brilliant oil sketch by Rubens. The facially discordant Eris, seen in midair behind the deities, has just made her gift of the golden apple, which is at the centre of the grasping hands, above the table.

At the left, Minerva (Pallas Athene) reaches forward for it. In front of her, Venus, her son Cupid at her knee, points to herself as the goddess most deserving of the apple. On the other side of the table, Juno reaches her hand out for it too. This sets up the Judgement of Paris, and the rest is legendary.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Feast of Peleus (1872-81), oil on canvas, 36.9 x 109.9 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

For once it’s the most modern version, painted by Edward Burne-Jones as The Feast of Peleus in 1872-81, which sticks most closely to the story. In a composition based on classical representations of the Last Supper, he brings Eris in at the far right, her golden apple still concealed. Every head has turned towards her, apart from that of the centaur behind her right wing. Even the three Fates, in the left foreground, have paused momentarily in their work.

Burne-Jones has gone further than simply composing this as a Last Supper, and the figure of Jupiter in the centre, holding a thunderbolt, is overtly Christ-like. I suspect that must have resulted in quite a storm at the time.

This wedding banquet set up the beauty contest between Juno, Venus and Minerva in the Judgement of Paris. Venus won following her bribe, in which she promised Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, who happened at the time to be married to King Menelaus of Sparta. After Paris abducted Helen to Troy, the Greeks united to wage war against Troy, eventually capturing and destroying the city.

Beware of golden apples at weddings.