This is the second in a series of three articles looking at a selection of paintings of fearsome beasts from myth and legend. In the first, I looked at dragons. Today I broaden that to include monsters more generally, and tomorrow consider the horrors of the sea, orcs and sea monsters.
One of the most monstrous of all the classical fiends was the Sphinx which guarded the entrance to the Greek city of Thebes. In asking a riddle to determine whether to let people into the city its behaviour might have seemed fairly innocuous, except that those who got the answer wrong were strangled. One version of this riddle is the question “Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed?” Oedipus solved this in his answer of humans, who crawl when a baby, walk on two feet as an adult, then walk with a stick when old. Several fine paintings show Oedipus giving his answer to the Sphinx’s riddle.
Ingres painted this just two years after he had arrived in Rome as the recipient of the Prix de Rome, working in a studio in the grounds of the Villa Medici. When sent back to Paris, it was criticised over its treatment of light, and lack of idealisation in the figures. In 1825, Ingres decided to develop it into a more narrative work, which he completed in 1827. This time it was well received.
His reworking enlarged the canvas, adding human remains at the lower left, and the contrasting background to the right. He skilfully shows the bare minimum of the Sphinx needed to identify the monster.
Ingres’ work was a clear influence over the later painting of the same scene by Gustave Moreau, in his Oedipus and the Sphinx (1864), which appears to be based on a mirror image of the Ingres. However Moreau lost the facial expressions, particularly that of the Sphinx, and this painting was highly successful at the Salon.
The Minotaur, part human and part bull, the product of a bestial relationship with Queen Pasiphae, features in the myth of Theseus, father of Athens. The early city had to keep shipping out its young men and women to satisfy the appetite of the Minotaur, who was confined within a labyrinth designed by the master artificer Daedalus. Theseus joined a group of young Greeks so that he could enter the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur.
George Frederic Watts was apparently driven to paint The Minotaur (1885) as a response to a series of articles in the press revealing the industry of child prostitution in late Victorian Britain; those articles referred to the myth of the Minotaur, so early one morning he painted this image of human bestiality and lust. His Minotaur has crushed a small bird in its left hand, and gazes out to sea, awaiting the next shipment of young men and virgin women from Greece.
Cerberus is the horrifying three-headed canine monster shown in Blake’s late illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, painted between 1824–27. This refers to Dante’s Inferno, canto 6 verses 12-24, where Dante and Virgil enter the Third Circle, in which gluttons are punished. Blake is true to his source, except that he adds a cave to signify the weight of the material world.
Cerberus is a good example of the redeployment of pre-Christian mythology into Christian beliefs: it was originally the guardian of the Underworld, and prevented those within from escaping back to the earthly world. It even features in the twelve labours of Heracles (Hercules), in which he captured Cerberus. Dante – with Virgil’s explicit involvement – incorporates it into his Christian concepts of the afterlife.
Other classical monsters were less well-known. In this painting from 1876, Gustave Moreau refers to one of the twelve labours imposed on Heracles/Hercules, specifically that of hunting the Hydra in the marshes of Lernea, near Argos, and destroying it. The Hydra was a poisonous monster with the body of a dog and multiple serpent heads, whose breath alone was capable of killing.
Although he doesn’t show its dog-like body here, Moreau shows its heads according to the letter of the original story, with the marshes seen behind. Heracles is shown confronting the Hydra, with a charnelhouse of remains of previous victims at its base.
This painting has also engendered long-standing controversy over its possible political connotations. It was suggested at the time that the Hydra represented the forces of anarchy behind the insurgency of the Paris Commune in 1871. Others prefer instead that the Hydra represents Bismarck and the German princes behind the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. There don’t appear to be any good cues to either.
The original Python is another classical monster. Following the flood myth which left only Deucalion and Pyrrha as survivors, Ovid tells us that all non-human life was restored by spontaneous production from the fermenting mud left by the flood, under the rays of the sun, providing the combination of the ancient elements of heat and moisture in combination.
One of the creatures so created was the huge and monstrous serpent Python, which brought fear to mankind. As a conclusion to his story of the flood, Ovid writes that the god Apollo “destroyed the monster with a myriad darts” from his bow. To celebrate the death of Python, Apollo instituted the Pythian games.
One of the most spectacular paintings of any Ovidian story is Eugène Delacroix’s huge mural of Apollo Vanquishing the Python (1850-51) in the Louvre. Apollo is seen in the centre, in his sun chariot, with another arrow poised in his bow ready to strike Python, at the bottom of the image.
No doubt influenced by that, Gustave Moreau’s Apollo Vanquishing the Serpent Python (1885) is more modest in scale and ambition. Curiously, Apollo is shown holding his bow in his right hand so that it barely looks like a bow at all, but Moreau seems to have used a visual pun and also made it bear a flag, reminiscent of the figure of Marianne in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830).
The Christian canon of monsters is also rich and varied, its foundation based largely on the strange genius of Hieronymus Bosch, most of whose paintings include a whole menagerie of invented monsters. Here I show just one fine example, from his Hermit Saints triptych of around 1495-1505.
In the left panel, Saint Anthony leans on a stick, held in his left hand, while pouring water from a jug held low with his right hand; he may be drawing water from a well. The devotional area in front of him has a thin voile curtain hanging from the branch of a dead tree, behind which is a nude woman. A devil is on the branch.
In the foreground, there is a collection of bizarre objects, mainly portmanteau creatures, such as a head on a pair of shoes, with a nesting owl on top of it. There is also a wizened gnome-like man stood reading a book on a stone slab, and a fish with arms which appears to be pouring itself a glass of drink from a jug.
The foreground of that panel features a complete zoo of weird beasts, mainly assembled using a mixture of parts of real creatures. At its centre, for example, is a bird with human legs, a peacock-like posterior, and the bill of a spoonbill. None of these is exactly a fearsome monster, but as chimeras or portmanteaux they are unnatural and internally disturbing.
Very slightly later than Bosch, Matthias Grünewald’s diptych of the Visit of St Anthony to St Paul and Temptation of St Anthony (c 1515) features a right panel which is packed with all manner of extraordinary beasts and monsters.
Among the Renaissance epics, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is particularly rich in monsters, of which I show just one example from Gustave Doré’s wonderful illustrations.
In Canto 15, the knight Astolfo finds his path obstructed by a group of monsters, which he has to negotiate.