How can you read a painting which refers to myth or literary narrative without being familiar with the story or book? Over the last four years or so I have collected thousands of images of paintings and set them in summaries of the texts to which they refer. Read side by side, they bring new meaning to those paintings.
Here’s a list of the literary works which are available here, together with links to the main or introductory article for each series. If you’re looking for long reads with wonderful paintings and illustrations, these should be just the job.
Of all the classics, Ovid’s Metamorphoses are probably the most widely painted. Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas works through them all, including some of the finest European paintings, and a rich array of myths, many of which are now obscure. The whole series consists of 85 parts.
Ovid also collected fictional letters from classical heroines, in his Heroides. They contain tales of tragedy and triumph, and some deep insights into the human condition. Ovid’s ‘Heroides’ is far shorter, in only 19 episodes.
My third collection covers Plutarch’s extensive series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans. Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ consists of 30 articles.
Moving on to the Renaissance, I have covered four of the key literary works by Dante, Boccaccio, Tasso and Ariosto.
Dante’s Divine Comedy, including Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, was the last work left incomplete when William Blake died. His illustrations and many other paintings are included in The Divine Comedy in 32 articles.
Boccaccio’s Decameron is a collection of a hundred stories, most of which have been left unpainted. Those for which there are paintings are retold in The Decameron over the course of eleven articles.
Largely forgotten today, Torquato Tasso’s epic poem about the First Crusade was very popular through the nineteenth century, and an important influence on many painters, notably Nicolas Poussin. Jerusalem Delivered provides a summary with many fine paintings over 14 episodes.
I have recently completed more than six months of work summarising Ariosto’s swashbuckling epic Orlando Furioso, and show some of the many paintings and illustrations which have been made of its twisting plot. The first half is here, and the second is here. Its more detailed account occupies a total of 31 episodes, with never a dull moment.
I have also covered two of the early classics of English literature.
John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an epic poem in English which reworks the traditional Biblical narrative in the course of twelve books. It contains fine language and a nuanced revision which is well worth reading, and seeing its illustrations and paintings. Its contents and summary, with the cream of the paintings, is here.
Over the course of more than six months, I summarised Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, an unusual mixture of allegory and narrative, which is written in quite archaic English, and is thus less generally accessible. Its contents and summaries, including some of the finest of its paintings, are covered in two articles: the first half is here, and this article completes it.
The last of these series is more modern, and just as famous: Goethe’s Faust, which is covered in a total of nine articles from here.
I hope you enjoy these as much as I enjoyed compiling and writing them.