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Representations in Art

Artistic Depictions of Hades. Hades is shown on Greek vases robed, sometimes with Persephone, sometimes as the observer of actions in his realm. He is not included in the assemblies of the Olympians or in group scenes. On a red-figure vase by the Orestes painter (ca. 450 B.C., now in Athens), he stands opposite Demeter, holding a cornucopia, while she holds a staff and a plough. The cornucopia indicates that Hades, too, is associated with the fertility of the earth, whose riches are reflected in his Roman names, Pluto ("wealth," the Greek ploutos) and Dis (Dives, "rich"). On a terra-cotta plaque of about the same time (ca. 460 B.C., now in Reggio, Calabria) from Locri, in southern Italy, Hades and Persephone sit on thrones side by side: he holds ears of grain, a sprig of parsley, and a bowl, while she holds a cock (another cock is underneath her throne), and they face an incense-burner with a tiny cock on top. This is perhaps the best surviving representation of Hades and Persephone as rulers of the world of the dead. Hades sits alone on his throne in a south Italian vase (late fourth century B.C., now in Ruvo, Apulia), supervising the binding of Theseus and Pirithoüs by a Fury, while Persephone stands over them holding two torches.

The Abduction of Persephone in Art and Literature. The only myth in which Hades initiates action is the abduction of Persephone. It is shown in a fresco from a tomb at Vergina (ca. 340 B.C.), where the head of Hades is especially fine, with its grim expression and snakelike locks of hair. A sarcophagus relief of about 120 A.D. (now in the Palazzo Rospigliosi in Rome) gives a lively narrative of the abduction and Athena’s efforts to prevent it. In postclassical art, a fine example is the painting by Rubens (1638, now in Madrid) with its preparatory oil-sketch (now in Bayonne, France), which partly derive from drawings that Rubens made of the Rospigliosi sarcophagus. Athena's part in the myth is also narrated by the poet Claudian (ca. 395 A.D.) in Book 2 of his epic De raptu Proserpinae. In Ovid’s version (Metamorphoses 5. 346-571) Aphrodite orders Cupid to shoot an arrow into Hades as he surveys Sicily. The nymph Cyane tried to prevent the abduction, for which she was turned into a fountain.
Hawthorne retold the myth of the abduction of Persephone in "The Pomegranate Seeds," one of his Tanglewood Tales (1851), an interesting effort to avoid the violence of the original myth in narrating the story for children.

Ancient Artistic Depictions of Hades’ Realm. Hades, meaning the house or realm of Hades, originally was a featureless place, as in Homer (see above), but descriptions become more precise with the insights of philosophers and poets and the doctrines of mystery religions, as we have seen. Before the fourth century B.C., Greek and south Italian vase paintings show the ferryman, Charon, as in a white-ground vase (ca. 440 B.C., now in Munich), with Hermes escorting a dead woman to a boat poled by Charon; they show the hound, Cerberus, especially in connection with the twelfth labor of Heracles. One of the most imaginative paintings of Cerberus is also one of the earliest, a Laconian vase (ca. 560 B.C., in a private collection): it shows the hound with rows of serpents attached to its body and heads; an Athenian black-figure vase (ca. 520, now in Rome) shows Heracles, followed by Athena, approaching Cerberus as white-haired Hades, holding his staff, looks back next to Persephone, seated on her throne. Most commonly, artists chose scenes of punishment—on a red-figure vase (ca. 450, now in London) Hermes and Ares bring Ixion before Hera, as Athena holds the wheel on which he will be tied; on a south Italian vase (ca. 430, now in Munich) Hermes escorts Cerberus and Heracles (who is threatened by Hecate), while on one side a Fury whips Sisyphus (who is straining against the rock), and on the other Tantalus reaches up for the food he cannot touch. In the center of the painting Hades is seated on his throne and Persephone stands in a small shrine. Around them are mythical figures associated with the Underworld, including Orpheus and Megara with her children (see Chapter 22), for whose murder Heracles performed the labors culminating in the abduction of Cerberus. 

Postclassical Artistic Depictions of Hades’ Realm. Dante and Spenser are the most classical in their descriptions. Milton and other poets include many classical details, but their Hell owes as much to the Judeo-Christian tradition as to the classical Hades (see above). This is even more true of postclassical artistic representations of Hell, most commonly in scenes of the Last Judgment—even those by the most classically inspired artists (for example, Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel frescoes, Rubens in the Last Judgment now in Munich). Sometimes the landscape dominates over the classical details, for example, in the beautiful and mysterious landscape by Joachim Patinir, Landcape with the Stygian Lake (1524, now in Madrid). Here the Elysian Fields are on the left, and Charon takes a tiny soul over the Styx to the flames and smoke of Tartarus, guarded by Cerberus. The landscape also is dominant in J. M. W. Turner’s several paintings derived from Book 6 of the Aeneid, for example, Aeneas and the Sibyl, Lake Avernus (1798) and The Golden Bough (1834, both in London), in which the Sibyl holds the golden bough that will allow Aeneas to enter the Underworld.

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