Characters in Painted Stories: 5 Voyage and Return, Orpheus and Eurydice

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice (c 1814), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In this series looking at how characters in stories are portrayed, in the context of Christopher Booker’s analysis of literary narratives into The Seven Basic Plots, I have reached the fourth of his plots: Voyage and Return.

In his introductory survey of this plot, Booker merely states that “there were well-known Greek, Roman, Norse and mediaeval versions”, citing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh as an example. He admits that this plot doesn’t appear to have become popular until after the Renaissance, though. The one example which comes within the European canon of narrative painting is the journey of Orpheus to the underworld, in which he reunites with his dead bride Eurydice. In this article, I therefore look at a selection of significant paintings which tell this story visually.

As with his other basic plots, Booker divides this into five phases:

  • Anticipation and ‘fall’ into the other world, in which the hero is in a state leaving them open to the new experience.
  • Dream or initial fascination, in which their initial exploration of the new world is fascinating or exhilarating.
  • Frustration, in which the hero become increasingly frustrated as an alarming shadow intrudes.
  • Nightmare, when the intruding shadow threatens the hero’s survival.
  • Thrilling escape and return, where they escape back to the normal world, and wonder whether it was all a dream.

The story known to most artists from the Renaissance onwards is that given by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, although that’s a reworking of an account first recorded by Virgil. Ovid links to this story through Hymen, the god of marriage, and the wedding of Eurydice to the outstanding musician and bard Orpheus. It was a wedding marred by tragedy: after the ceremony, as Eurydice was wandering in joy with Naiads in a meadow, she was bitten by a snake on her heel, and quickly died.

Orpheus was heart-broken, and mourned her so badly that he descended through the gate of Tartarus to Hades to try to get her released from death. He came across Persephone and her husband Hades, and pleaded his case before them. He said that, if he was unable to return with her to life on earth, then he too would stay in the Underworld with her.

He then played his lyre, making music so beautiful that those bound to eternal chores were forced to stop and listen: Tantalus, Ixion, the Danaids, even Sisyphus paused and sat on the rock which he was eternally trying to push uphill. The Fates themselves wept with emotion. Persephone summoned Eurydice, and let Orpheus take her back, on the strict understanding that at no time until he reached the earth above could he look back, or she would be taken back into the Underworld for ever.

The couple trekked up through the gloom, and were just reaching the brighter edge of the Underworld when Orpheus could resist no longer, and looked back to make sure that his wife was still coping with the ardours of their journey. The moment that he did, she faded away, back into Hades’ realm. As he tried to grasp her, his hands clutched at the empty air. She was gone.

Orpheus tried to persuade the ferryman to take him back across the River Styx into the Underworld, but was refused. For a week he sat there in his grief. He then spent three years avoiding women, in spite of their attraction to him, and brought shade to an exposed meadow with his singing. From there the legends of Orpheus proceed to his being torn apart by Bacchantes, and the discovery of his head.

Jacopo da Sellaio (1441/1442–1493), Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus (1475-80), oil on panel, 60 × 175 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

The earliest painting in the post-classical era which I have been able to trace is Mantegna’s ceiling fresco in the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, from 1468-74, but this superb panel by Jacopo da Sellaio, showing Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus dates from just after that, in 1475-80. This is one panel of a series, which is sadly now dispersed across continents.

It employs multiplex narrative to show the start of the story, with Orpheus left of centre, tending a flock of sheep, as his bride is bitten by the snake. At the far right, Orpheus, with the assistance of Aristaeus, puts the dead body of Eurydice in a rock tomb.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice (c 1650-53), oil on canvas, 149 x 225 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

One of Poussin’s most famous narrative works, Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice (c 1650-53) shows Orpheus, with his lyre at the right, and Eurydice standing in white, as a snake approaches from the left. Poussin had a thing about snakes, and painted other landscapes with snakes threatening people, and his enigmatic Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (c 1648). Here his normally peaceful rustic landscape is showing ominous signs of falling apart: the distant castle is on fire, with smoke billowing into the sky.

Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Eurydice and the Serpent (1915), pastel on paper, 24 x 31.7 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

In Eurydice and the Serpent, a pastel from 1915, Ker-Xavier Roussel also shows them a few moments before the bite, with the snake seen on the ground in front of her.

Ary Scheffer (1795–1858), Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice (c 1814), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Ary Scheffer’s moving painting of Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice was one of his early works made in about 1814. The snake is still visible at the far left, and Orpheus cradles the limp body of his new bride, and breaks down in grief. Scheffer’s handling of complex limb positions is masterful, with the symmetry of their right forearms, and the parallel of her left arm with his left leg. Orpheus’ lyre rests symbolically on the ground behind his left foot.

In Booker’s phases, these all take place prior to the first, of Anticipation. The second, a dream or initial fascination, doesn’t really apply to those visiting the Underworld, who skip straight on to the third, in which they become increasingly frustrated and threatened.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625), Orpheus in the Underworld (1594), oil on copper, 27 x 36 cm, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Brueghel the Elder’s Orpheus in the Underworld from 1594 shows Orpheus walking and holding his lyre, to the left of centre. He is approaching Hades and Persephone, who sit at the far left as king and queen of the Underworld.

Henri Regnault (1843–1871), Orpheus in the Underworld (1865), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle, Calais, France. By VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Henri Regnault’s Orpheus in the Underworld (1865) appears to have been based more on the popular opera by Offenbach, which was first performed in 1858. Orpheus is seen at the left, his lyre in his hand, singing to the dead. Behind him, at the left edge, are two of the heads of Cerberus, who guards the entrance to the Underworld, and sat on the double throne at the upper right are Persephone (who only spends half the year in the Underworld), and Hades himself.

The fourth or nightmare stage doesn’t apply to this particular story, and its plot moves straight on to the fifth phase, of thrilling escape and return.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Orpheus and Eurydice (1636-38), oil on canvas, 194 × 245 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens’ atmospheric painting of the flight of Orpheus and Eurydice (1636-38) was made during his later years of retirement, not long before his death. Orpheus, clutching his lyre, is leading Eurydice away from Hades and Persephone, as they start their journey back to life. Unusually, he opts for a real-world version of Cerberus at the bottom right corner.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (1861), oil on canvas, 44 x 54 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Corot’s Orpheus Leading Eurydice from the Underworld (1861) shows the couple as they near the light at the exit of the underworld. Orpheus is instantly recognisable by his lyre, held high in front of him, and both are clearly moving towards the right of the painting, the edge of the dark wood. Rather than use an abstract form to represent the underworld, Corot has used a wood, with a pool in the middle distance. Behind that are spirits of the dead, some still grieving their death.

Edward Poynter (1836–1919), Orpheus and Eurydice (1862), other details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Edward Poynter’s Orpheus and Eurydice (1862) takes the couple on an arduous journey, striding past snakes and along a dizzying path on the mountainside. While he looks straight ahead, she seems to be struggling to keep up.

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829–1908), Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx (1878), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope’s Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx (1878) takes the couple further still, onto the bank of the River Styx, where Orpheus is summoning Charon the boatman to take them back across the water. He clutches her closely and still looks straight ahead, the couple bound together by the black sash of the Underworld.

George Frederick Watts (1817-1904), Orpheus and Eurydice (date not known), oil on canvas, 56 x 76 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s hard to know whether George Frederick Watts’ undated painting of Orpheus and Eurydice shows Orpheus embracing the dead body of Eurydice immediately after she has been bitten by the snake, or (I think more probably) Orpheus clutching in vain at her spirit as it melts away back into the Underworld, after he has looked back.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), Orpheus at the Tomb of Eurydice (c 1891), oil on canvas, 178 x 128 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

The final painting in my series is Gustave Moreau’s Orpheus at the Tomb of Eurydice (c 1891), showing the bard, his ghostly lyre slung from the dead treestump behind him, lamenting the loss of Eurydice after his failed attempt to bring her back from the Underworld. Moreau painted this dark and funereal work to mark his own inconsolable grief at the death of his partner, Alexandrine Dureux.

Neither Ovid’s literary account nor major paintings of this story appear to fit well with Booker’s model plot. The emphasis in paintings is on the death of Eurydice, which precedes Booker’s first phase and sets it up, on the way in which Orpheus secured the arrangement by which Eurydice could be released from the underworld, and the couple’s return journey with its eventual failure and consequences. Thus Booker’s archetypal plot is perhaps more appropriate for recent literary narrative, which has seldom appeared on canvas.


Christopher Booker (2004) The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories, Continuum. ISBN 9 780 826 45209 2