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Representations in Art

Orpheus and Eurydice in Art. Orpheus begins to appear in Greek art in the fifth century B.C. On a red-figure vase by the Orpheus painter (ca. 440 B.C., now in Berlin) he is shown playing the lyre to an audience of Thracians. The return of Eurydice to the Underworld was the subject of a relief (mentioned in Chapter 12 above), now lost but surviving in a Roman copy (now in Naples) made for the enclosure of the Altar of the Twelve Gods in the Agora at Athens in about 420 B.C. There are many vase paintings of the death of Orpheus, for example one by Hermonax (ca. 460 B.C., now in Paris) showing women attacking him with a rock and a pole. Finally, his oracular head is shown on a red-figure cup (ca. 400 B.C., now in Cambridge): the man consulting the oracle writes down Orpheus' words, while Apollo stands behind Orpheus.
The conquest of Hades by the music of Orpheus was used as an allegory of Christ’s victory over death in early Christian painting. In the catacomb of St. Calixtus in Rome (ca. 200 A.D.) is a painting of Christus-Orpheus playing the lyre. Perhaps also the power of Orpheus over animals has contributed to the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi.  The myth of Eurydice has been the inspiration of a huge number of works, of which three will be mentioned here. A painting by Poussin, Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice (1650, now in Paris), is based principally on Ovid. The death of Eurydice takes place in an exquisite landscape, where Orpheus plays his lyre in the foreground, and in the background smoke pours from the Roman Castel Sant’Angelo, a reference to the smoky torch of Hymen in Ovid’s narrative. Second, the designs by Isamu Noguchi for the ballet Orpheus (1948, with music by Stravinsky) express with great economy the power of music to make, as Noguchi has written, even "glowing rocks, like astral bodies, levitate." Third, Barbara Hepworth showed the power of music in her abstract sculpture of Orpheus (1956, versions in London, Detroit, and elsewhere), whose bronze form and taut strings recall the essential significance of the myth of Orpheus.

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