Here be Orcs and Sea Monsters in paintings

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), Perseus and Andromeda (1891), oil on canvas, 235 × 129.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In the two previous articles in this series, I have shown selections of paintings first of dragons and then of other monsters more generally. While land travel was high risk and adventurous until well into the nineteenth century, taking to the sea in a boat or ship was really putting your life at risk. What if an orc or another sea monster were to see you as a passing canapé or snack? How many mariners and their passengers must have fallen prey and never returned from the sea.

Modern use of the term orc is coloured by its popularisation in the fantasy fiction of JRR Tolkien, and visualisation in semi-human form as a variant of goblin. Even the Wikipedia entry describes orcs as if this has always been the case, despite the term having been used extensively in English from the sixteenth century onwards for a range of sea monsters.

The most famous of these is Cetus, a sea monster created by the classical Greek god Poseidon in sheer spite at the claim that Andromeda, princess of Aethiopia, was more beautiful than any of his Nereids, thus requiring her to be fed to it to satisfy its appetite. As the heart of the myth of Perseus and Andromeda, Cetus appears in a great many paintings from classical times onwards. I show here just a small selection in which the monster is depicted.

Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521), Andromeda freed by Perseus (c 1510-15), oil on panel, 70 x 123 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Piero di Cosimo shows multiple events in his large Andromeda freed by Perseus (c 1510-15). Centred on the great bulk of Cetus, Perseus stands on its back and is about to hack at its neck with his sword. At the upper right, Perseus is shown a few moments earlier, as he was flying past in his winged sandals. To the left of Cetus, Andromeda is still secured to the rock by a prominent red fabric binding (not chains), and is bare only to her waist.

In the foreground in front of Cetus are Andromeda’s parents, the King and Queen, still stricken in grief. Near them is a group of courtiers with ornate head-dress. But in the right foreground is a celebratory party already in full swing, complete with musicians and dancers, to feast their delivery from the monster’s attack.

Titian (Tiziano Vecelli) (1490–1576), Perseus and Andromeda (1553-9), oil on canvas, 179 × 197 cm, The Wallace Collection, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Not known for his narrative paintings, Titian combines an unusually-posed nude study of Andromeda, with both Perseus and Cetus, in his Perseus and Andromeda (1553-9). Andromeda is still in her chains, gazing at Perseus as he appears to tumble from the sky, ready to hack at the sea monster. Cetus obligingly opens it vast maw, ready to swallow him whole, although it is in fact much further away.

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588), Perseus Rescuing Andromeda (1576-78), oil on canvas, 260 × 211 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Paolo Veronese’s Perseus Rescuing Andromeda followed soon afterwards, in 1576-78. His composition is similar to Titian’s, and equally faithful to the myth, but his additional attention to the details of Perseus and Cetus bring this to life, making it one of the finest depictions of this scene.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Perseus and Andromeda (1870), oil on panel, 20 x 25.4 cm, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau’s Perseus and Andromeda (1870) puts the shackled Andromeda, almost naked, in the foreground, with Cetus looking surprised at the imminent arrival from the sky of Perseus. The hero isn’t astride Pegasus, but wears the winged sandals, and flourishes his polished shield still bearing an image of Medusa’s head.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Perseus Series: The Doom Fulfilled (1888), bodycolour, 153.8 × 138.4 cm, Southampton City Art Gallery, Southampton, England. Wikimedia Commons.

I show two versions of Edward Burne-Jones’s painting in his Perseus Series, of The Doom Fulfilled (1888). The upper full-size watercolour study is now in Southampton, England, and below is his finished oil version in Stuttgart. Unlike most previous depictions, Burne-Jones opts for the almost calligraphic coils of a classical serpentine dragon.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Perseus Series: The Doom Fulfilled (1888), oil on canvas, 155 × 140.5 cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart. Wikimedia Commons.
Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830–1896), Perseus and Andromeda (1891), oil on canvas, 235 × 129.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

With the possible exception of Delacroix’s Python, Lord Leighton’s vision of Cetus in his Perseus and Andromeda from 1891 is the only fire-breathing monster which fits the modern concept of a ‘dragon’. Its body is carefully arched over Andromeda as if protecting its prey from another predator.

Félix Edouard Vallotton (1865-1925), Perseus Killing the Dragon (1910), oil on canvas, 160 x 233 cm, Musée d’art et d’histoire de Genève, Geneva. By Codex, via Wikimedia Commons.

Just over a century ago, Félix Vallotton painted one of the most unconventional images of Perseus Killing the Dragon (1910), which might even be a parody of the story, and of 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 the 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.

The myth of Perseus and Andromeda was used in turn by Ariosto for two subtly different and interlinked threads about sea monsters in his Orlando Furioso, published in 1516-32. English translations of this epic poem from 1591 are among the most obvious users of the word orc prior to the publication of Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit in 1937, a period of over three centuries.

Girolamo da Carpi (1501–1556) (attr), Ruggiero Saving Angelica (date not known), tempera on panel, dimensions not known, El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Girolamo da Carpi must have read Ariosto’s description of this scene soon after its publication, and committed to paint in his undated Ruggiero Saving Angelica. The heroic Ruggiero flies in on a hippogriff to rescue the heroine Angelica from this huge black orc.

Arnold Böcklin (1827–1901), Roger freeing Angelica (1873), tempera on panel, 46 × 37 cm, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

Arnold Böcklin’s orc, in his Roger freeing Angelica from 1873, is the most endearing of all the monsters I’ve come across, with what is almost a smile on its face. I’m sure that’s not how Ariosto envisaged this thrilling rescue.

Paul-Joseph Blanc (1846-1904), Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica (1876), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

When French Impressionists were making their impact on the art world, Paul-Joseph Blanc painted this very detailed Salon-pleaser of Ruggiero Rescuing Angelica (1876). If he had equipped Ruggiero with a kibisis containing the head of Medusa, and the orc had looked a little less feline, it could readily have passed for Perseus and Andromeda.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Ruggiero Fights the Sea Monster that Threatens Angelica (Canto 10:104) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Doré’s illustration engraved in about 1878 for his splendid edition of Orlando doesn’t stray from Ariosto’s words, and shows this dramatic climax to the thread very well.

The second attack by an orc involves a different pair, the Orlando of the the epic’s title and Olimpia, one of many damsels in distress. Ariosto here departs more from the classical myth, in an ingenious twist which requires Orlando to wedge the orc’s jaws open with an anchor so that he can inflict soft-tissue injuries to the inside of its mouth, and bring about its death.

Daniel Berger (1744-1824), Plate 4 for Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’ (1772), etching, 9.1 x 5.1 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

This is shown well in Daniel Berger’s etching for a 1772 illustrated edition.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Orlando Locks the Sea Monster’s Jaws With an Anchor, and Saves Olimpia (Canto 11:37) (c 1878), engraving, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Once again, it is the masterly illustration of Gustave Doré which tells this best, as the hero enters the orc’s mouth armed with the anchor, and the damsel Olimpia is tied naked to a waterside tree to await her death or rescue.

I have one final painting which links these wonderful sea monsters to a more modern era. This was painted by Evelyn De Morgan, who had extensive knowledge of classical myth but here creates an image which spans centuries: S.O.S., from about 1914-16, the first half of the Great War.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), S.O.S. (c 1914-16), oil on canvas, 74 × 47 cm, The De Morgan Centre, Guildford, Surrey, England. Wikimedia Commons.

A light-robed woman stands, her head thrown back and arms outstretched as if being crucified, on a rock in the sea. Her robes are irridescent, containing faint colours of the rainbow. Around her feet is a pantheon of vicious sea monsters, some winged, others snake-like, most toothed and predatory. Above her is a bright light, with coloured halos, against a sky studded with stars.

The well-known radio call to indicate distress, consisting originally of the Morse code letters S O S, was not introduced until 1908, replacing the earlier Morse letters CQD (which were still used by the Titanic in 1912). The distress here is both personal and global, at the horrors of the Great War. Both Evelyn and her husband William De Morgan were pacifists, and she expressed her views of the war in this and other paintings of this time. The figure doesn’t just represent the force of good, but that of redemption, from among the sea of monstrous war.

Once again, there’s more to the image of a monster than might first appear.