A life of Perseus in paintings 2

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.

In the first of this pair of articles looking at paintings of the life of the classical hero Perseus, I traced his mythical life from conception to his arrival at the rock to which Andromeda was chained, as she waited to be eaten alive by the sea monster Cetus.

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

Titian’s Perseus and Andromeda (1553-59) shows the height of the action, remaining largely faithful to Ovid’s account. All three actors are present, with Andromeda still shackled and Perseus attacking Cetus from the air using a sword with a curved blade.

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 text, but his additional attention to the details of Perseus and Cetus bring this to life.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Perseus Series: The Doom Fulfilled (1888), oil on canvas, 155 × 140.5 cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart. Wikimedia Commons.

In the ninth painting in Burne-Jones’ series, The Doom Fulfilled (1888), Perseus is swathed in Cetus’ coils with their almost calligraphic form, brandishing his sword and ready to slaughter the monster and bring its terror to an end.

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.

In the early twentieth century, the former Nabi artist Félix Edouard Vallotton painted a series of narrative works, including his Perseus Killing the Dragon, from 1910, a thoroughly contemporary interpretation which is exceptionally free with Ovid’s account.

As with most classical myths, several variants of the story have developed over time. All painted accounts that I have seen follow the action-packed version in which Perseus slays Cetus with his sword, but some literary versions report that the sea monster was turned to stone by Medusa’s face, which would have made far duller paintings.

A more recent variant has the hero flying to Andromeda’s aid not with his winged sandals, but on the back of the winged horse Pegasus.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Perseus and Andromeda (c 1622), oil on canvas, 99.5 x 139 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

By the time that Rubens came to paint Perseus and Andromeda in about 1622, the newer revised version including Pegasus seems to have become popular. Andromeda is at the left, unchained from her rock where she had been placed as a delightful morsel for Cetus, which has just been killed by Perseus and now lies at the lower edge with its fearsome mouth wide open. Perseus is in the process of claiming Andromeda’s hand as his reward, for which he is being crowned with laurels. Although he clearly flew in on Pegasus, he is still wearing his winged sandals, and holds the polished shield which reflects Medusa’s face and snake hair.

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.

By using multiplex narrative technique, Piero di Cosimo shows most of the story 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 curved 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 red fabric bindings (not chains), and is bare only to her waist.

In the foreground in front of Cetus are Andromeda’s parents stricken in grief. Near them is a group of courtiers with ornate head-dress. But in the right foreground the wedding party is already in full swing, complete with musicians and dancers.

Perseus’ reward for rescuing Andromeda and saving the kingdom of Ethiopia was naturally the hand of the princess in marriage. There was only one obstacle, that she was already promised to Phineus, who was clearly no match when it came to killing sea monsters. Whether or not Phineus was invited, he and his friends turned up at the wedding of Andromeda and Perseus, and trouble soon broke out. When the weapons came out, the punch-up became lethal, and Perseus decided it was time to show the unwelcome guests Medusa’s face.

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.

Sebastiano Ricci’s Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa (c 1705-10) 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. Although not shown here, Athena herself turned up to make sure that no one got the better of Perseus.

Burne-Jones worked on many sketches and preliminary designs for his series, among which were gouache and gold layouts to show how his paintings would fit into their carved surrounds in his patron Balfour’s Music Room.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), Atlas Turned to Stone; The Rock of Doom and the Doom Fulfilled; The Court of Phineas; The Baleful Head (designs for The Story of Perseus) (1875-76), gouache, gold paint, graphite and chalk on paper, 36.7 x 148.7 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

This design shows an outline of the whole series, which had originally been intended to include Phineus and the wedding. The scenes shown are, from the left, Atlas Turned to Stone, The Rock of Doom and the Doom Fulfilled, The Court of Phineas, and The Baleful Head, shown below.

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), The Perseus Series: The Baleful Head (1886-7), oil on canvas, 155 × 130 cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Stuttgart. Wikimedia Commons.

The tenth and final painting in the series, The Baleful Head (1885), shows Perseus and Andromeda, their right hands clenching one another’s wrists, looking at the image of Medusa’s face reflected in the surface of a well. This is set in a peaceful garden, with a fruit-laden apple tree behind, and flowers springing up from the grass beneath them.

Literary accounts take the couple on to live at Tiryns in Argos, from where Heracles/Hercules later undertook his Twelve Labours. They had seven sons and two daughters, and among their descendants were Heracles, Castor and Pollux, Clytemnestra, and the Achaemenid Persians.

When Perseus returned to Seriphos, he discovered Polydectes was still trying to seduce his mother Danaë. Perseus therefore turned him to stone with Medusa’s face, and made Dictys king and his mother’s consort. His mission accomplished, Perseus returned the weapon and equipment loaned by the gods, and gave Athena the head of Medusa, which she then set in her shield as the Gorgoneion, or Aegis.

There was still one loose end to be tied, though: the prediction that Perseus would kill his father Acrisius. Various accounts are given of this, but consensus is that Perseus threw a quoit or discus which unintentionally struck Acrisius and killed him. Thereafter, he ruled a kingdom until he and Andromeda died. They were both catasterised, he into the constellation Perseus, she into that of Andromeda.