In yesterday’s article, I showed a selection of portraits of domestic pigs. Today’s sequel looks at these animals in narrative paintings.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero lands on the island of Aeaea, where the enchantress Circe lives. She invites his crew to dine with her, when she laces their food with a potion that turns them into pigs. With divine assistance from Athena, via Hermes the messenger, Odysseus forces Circe to turn his men back to humans, but they remain on her island for over a year.
Salomon de Bray makes the meeting of Odysseus and Circe appear intimate in his Odysseus and Circe from 1650-55. Odysseus is seated clutching a krater-like goblet into which a maid is pouring clear liquid from a bottle. The hero looks haggard, and decidedly unimpressed by Circe. Below his left arm, two pigs are eagerly drinking their fill of Circe’s concoction.
Matthijs Naiveu’s Circe and Odysseus from 1702 is set at a grand banquet inside Circe’s palace, with some groups of peculiar figures alluding to her role as a sorceress. For example, there’s a table just to the left of the couple at which a satyr and a demon are engaged in conversation. Circe has moved forward from her throne to embrace Odysseus, whose sword is pointing at her body to force her back. The goblet from which she has been trying to get him to drink is held by a maid at the far right. A couple of boars are feeding from fruit laid on the marble floor.
John William Waterhouse’s Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus from 1891 is perhaps the most complex painting showing this story. Circe sits on her throne, holding up a krater for Odysseus to drink, with her wand in the other hand. Seen in the large circular mirror behind the sorceress is Odysseus, preparing to draw his sword. On the left of the mirror is his ship, and scattered on the ground at her feet are the herbs and berries she used to prepare the concoction with which she transformed the crew. To the right, one of those pigs lies on the ground, behind a small incense burner.
Briton Rivière’s simpler painting of Circe and her Swine from before 1896 has been used as an illustration for several versions of the Odyssey, and unusually casts Circe as a magic swineherd, her wand resting behind her.
The parable of the prodigal son is perhaps the best-remembered of all the teaching of Christ recorded in the New Testament. Centred on the theme of redemption, it tells the story of a man who had two sons. The younger of them asks his father to give him his half of the estate, then goes off and squanders it until he is destitute, and forced to work as a swineherd. That son then returns to his father, who forgives him and welcomes him back with a celebratory meal. The older son is told that the return of a prodigal son should be welcomed as if he had come back from the dead.
Although this parable is generally depicted as the return of the prodigal son, in the welcome by his father, two masters chose instead to show the son at his nadir, working as a swineherd.
Peter Paul Rubens’ Prodigal Son from 1618 is a magnificent painting of the younger son as a swineherd, when he’s talking out his problems with a young woman co-worker, who is busy tipping swill into the pigs’ trough.
Gustave Moreau’s watercolour of The Prodigal Son (c 1882) is also unusual for its departure from his colourful ornate style. This shows the prodigal after famine has struck, and he has become destitute. It’s when he starts envying the pigs’ food that he realises that he must return to his family and face the consequences of his behaviour.
Although there are differences in the three accounts given in the New Testament, the Miracle of the Gaderene Swine or Exorcism of Legion tells of one (or two) men who were possessed by a demon named Legion. Jesus Christ exorcised that demon into a nearby herd of pigs, which then rushed down a steep bank to drown in the Sea of Galilee below.
The Miracle of the Gaderene Swine (1883) is one of Briton Rivière’s few Biblical paintings, and shows a huge herd of black pigs stampeding down a cliff towards their death.
Legend claims that, during his early period as a hermit, Saint Anthony was a swineherd. Another legend claims that he healed a pig, as a result of which he became the patron saint of domesticated animals. Yet another legend claims that a pig was responsible for him keeping to the appointed hours for prayer, and that led in turn to the contracted term tantony pig, which has come to mean the smallest pig of the litter.
Saint Anthony and His Pig from about 1898 shows Paul Ranson’s steady departure from his earlier Nabi style. It shows this association between Saint Anthony/Antony (the Great) and a pig, oddly combining visual reference to his more famous temptation, in the nude lying on the grass near him.
My final painting of a pig shows it in the strangest of all company, in Félicien Rops’ most famous painting of Pornocrates, or Woman with a Pig from 1878.
This shows a nearly-naked woman whose gloves and stockings only serve to eroticise her nakedness, being led by a pig tethered on a lead like a dog. She wears a blindfold and an exuberant black hat, all suggesting that she is a courtesan or prostitute. In the air are three winged amorini, and below is a frieze containing allegories of sculpture, music, poetry and painting.
Maybe the humble domestic pig is really a muse after all.