Now most commonly associated with the world’s largest online retailer, or its largest river, in classical mythology the Amazons were a tribe of women warriors. Coming from somewhere far to the east, or possibly north-east, of Greece, there are many accounts of their origins and practices. These generally agree that they were fierce warriors, usually fighting on horseback, who at some time in the past waged war against Greece in an event dubbed the Amazonomachy, in which they were defeated. This weekend I look at paintings of those Amazons, starting today with that war.
In Greek mythology and legend, there were three celebrated wars apart from that against Troy: the Titanomachy fought between precursor Titans and their successor Olympian gods, the Amazonomachy fought between Greeks and Amazons, and the Centauromachy between Greeks and Centaurs.
Unfortunately, there’s confusion as to just what the Amazonomachy was. Some associate it with the ninth labour of Heracles, others with the battle between the Greeks and Amazon forces led by Penthesilea during the Trojan War, and others with the Attic War resulting in Theseus abducting Hippolyta as his wife. I’ll consider those in tomorrow’s article, but today look at a more general war resulting in the deaths of many Amazons when they were defeated by a substantial Greek army, possibly long before the war against Troy. A reasonably popular theme in painting, even to the present, its most practised exponent was Peter Paul Rubens, who is attributed two paintings on this theme.
It’s thought that Rubens’ first version of The Battle of the Amazons may have involved Jan Brueghel the Elder in the painting of its landscape, and could date from as early as 1598. It’s clearly one of Rubens’ early works, and may have been the first in the long-running collaboration between the two artists, which later included their spectacular allegories of the senses.
Rubens gives us a large-scale battle, with the slaughter of many of the Amazons, whose naked bodies fill the foreground. Behind those are Greek men, mainly on horseback, and serried ranks of pikes and massed foot-soldiers. The landscape is suitably dark and menacing, with the implication of distant smoke and destruction.
About twenty years later, Rubens’ second Battle of the Amazons from about 1619 is completely different. We see but a small engagement within the whole battle, here taking place on a bridge over a river. The more formal tiered structure of his earlier composition has gone, as horses and people engage in an all-out mêlée.
Some of the figures are manifestly female: Rubens helps us a little with a colour code in which Amazons tend to wear red; a few are naked, and many, particularly those in the lower left, are dead. This more realistic and harsher view of battle had been influenced by his twenty years experience of life as a diplomat in a war-torn Europe.
After Rubens’ two versions, probably some time slightly later in the seventeenth century, Claude Deruet painted his version of The Battle Between the Amazons and the Greeks. Rubens’ bridge has grown considerably in length and height, and now crosses a major river. Fighting on that bridge has intensified, with both people and horses in all senses and orientations, some overflowing the edge of the bridge.
For a couple of centuries, the sight of Amazons being killed fell into disfavour, and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that this theme was revived.
Like Rubens before, Anselm Feuerbach painted two versions of The Battle of the Amazons, of which this is the second from 1873. Its composition is original, and not derived from either of Rubens’ works. Feuerbach divides the battlefield up into a series of four small skirmishes, arranged and lit around a central foreground mortuary, in which dead and dying Amazons lie naked. Dominating the whole scene is an Amazon on a black horse, which is rearing angrily over the battlefield.
After Feuerbach, another great German history painter made a series of works showing Amazons in battle: Franz von Stuck, who painted at least three different takes on the Amazonomachy. This Wounded Amazon from 1903 shows a close-up of a near-naked Amazon warrior sheltering behind her shield, as she bleeds from a wound just below the right breast.
Von Stuck seems to have confounded his wars here, and according to the background is showing us a view from a battle between Amazons and Centaurs. Another of his paintings of Amazons at war had the misfortune of becoming a favourite of the Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels.
Common to several of these paintings is the use of the motif to show female nudes, which seems peculiarly inappropriate given the death and mutilation taking place in the rest of the painting. In the late nineteenth century, sex and death were becoming increasingly associated in images of the femme fatale, most notably that of Salome, another of von Stuck’s favourite themes.
In theory, the portrayal of women as fierce warriors could have been an opportunity to express their power, and to address the imbalance between the genders. As John Man points out, that doesn’t appear to have been the case, either in literary retelling of these myths, or in their paintings. Indeed, myth maintains that the Greek men beat the Amazon women, and drove them out.
Tomorrow we’ll see if individual Queens of the Amazons fared any better.
Man, John (2017) Amazons, The Real Warrior Women of the Ancient World, Bantam Press. ISBN 978 0 593 07759 7.