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Representations in Art

The Early Kings of Athens. Snakes symbolize chthonic cults. Therefore the autochthonous kings are partly in the form of snakes. Rubens shows Erichthonius with snakes for legs in his painting The Discovery of the Infant Erichthonius (1616, now in Vaduz). An Athenian red-figure vase (ca. 400 B.C., now in Richmond, Virginia) shows Gaia giving the baby to Athena. In this painting Hermes, Hephaestus, Zeus, and Hera look on, and Athena’s owl and the figure of Nike hover above.
The kings Erichthonius, Erechtheus, and Aegeus are all forms of Poseidon who were eventually subordinated to Athena. The struggle between Athena and Poseidon was the subject of the sculptures of the west pediment of the Parthenon (see Chapter 8). The sacrifice of the daughter of Erechtheus was the central event in Euripides’ tragedy Erechtheus (of which only fragments survive).

The Daughters of Cecrops. The names of the daughters of Cecrops mean "Bright" (Aglauros), "Dew" (Herse), and "All-dewy" (Pandrosos), showing that they were fertility divinities originally. The Cave of Aglauros was a large fissure deep in the north side of the Acropolis, and at its bottom was a spring of water. The young girls who were Athena’s servants and carried sacred objects to the sanctuary of Aphrodite below the Acropolis, as part of the ritual of the Arrephoria, went by way of an ancient stairway cut into the cave.

Cephalus and Procris. Ovid’s narrative in Book 8 of the Metamorphoses is a romantic tale of the love of Cephalus and Procris and her tragic death. It has many folktale motifs: a mortal loved by a goddess, the magic hound and javelin, mistaken identities, tragic death. Poussin’s beautiful painting Aurora and Cephalus (ca. 1630, now in London) shows the young mortal rejecting the advances of Aurora (Eos) as he gazes at a portrait of Procris.

Philomela and Procne. Ovid narrates the myth of Procne in Book 6 of the Metamorphoses. Rubens’ painting The Banquet of Tereus (1638, now in Madrid) dramatically portrays the moment when Procne shows Tereus the head of Itys. Many poets have focused on the tragedy of Philomela and have used the nightingale’s song as a symbol of grief. T. S. Eliot includes a painting of the metamorphosis of Philomela in his satirical description of the room in "A Game of Chess," Part 2 of The Waste Land (1922).

Ion. Ion is the eponym of the four Ionic tribes of the early Athenian political organization. In his drama Ion, Euripides is critical of Apollo’s violation of Creusa (see Chapter 11).

Theseus. In the temple of Hephaestus at Athens (originally called the “Theseum,” ca. 445 B. C.) Heracles and Theseus were honored together. Eight of the eighteen metopes showed the deeds of Theseus, the frieze showed his battles (precisely which ones is not certain), and the west pediment showed the battle between the Lapiths and the Centaurs on the mountain (not the battle at the wedding feast).
From ca. 470 B.C. is a red-figure vase painting by the Sabouroff painter of Theseus lifting the rock to find the objects left by Aegeus. Around this time, also, the cycle of the deeds of Theseus (that is, the six labors he performed on his journey from Troezen to Athens) was often represented on circular cups (kylikes) and vases. More than twenty survive of this type, which is well represented by one in the British Museum (ca. 475 B.C.). In the center Theseus drags the dead Minotaur out of the Labyrinth: around are the six deeds, which are also painted on the outside of the kylix. The Sow of Crommyon is shown rather than Periphetes, who does not enter the cycle until after 475. A beautiful red-figure painting by Onesimus (ca. 500 B.C.) shows the boyish Theseus under the sea (he is supported by the hands of a tiny Triton) being given Amphitrite’s wreath, just as Bacchylides relates the story. Between the boy and the goddess stands Athena.

The Slaying of the Minotaur. The slaying of the Minotaur is shown on the circular vase paintings, mentioned above, of the labors. On a black-figure vase (about 540 B.C., now in London), Theseus is shown as an older and bearded man plunging his sword into the Minotaur as two women and two men look on. Theseus has not had the popularity of Heracles in postclassical art, but the Minotaur of G. F. Watts (1885, now in London) evokes both the pathos and the grotesqueness of the monster. Picasso was fascinated by the Minotaur, which occurs repeatedly in his work. Representative is the drawing of Death of a Monster (in a private collection in London), done in 1937, eight months after the atrocity of the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish civil war. As the monster dies, pierced by an arrow, he sees himself in a mirror held up by a sea-goddess, perhaps Amphitrite.

Theseus, Ariadne, and Dionysus. On the François Vase (ca. 575 B.C.), Theseus and the fourteen Athenian girls and boys whom he had rescued perform the Crane Dance at Delos in front of Ariadne. In other versions he leaves her on Naxos before going to Delos. The desertion of Ariadne on Naxos is the subject of a huge number of paintings and musical works. For the red-figure vase by the Syleus painter (ca. 470 B.C.) and for Titian’s painting of Bacchus and Ariadne, see Chapter 13. A fine painting is that by John Vanderlyn, Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos (1814, now in Philadelphia), in which the sleeping Ariadne dominates the foreground and Theseus is setting sail in the background.

Battle between the Greeks and Amazons. Battles between Greeks and Amazons are very common in Greek and in postclassical art, but it is not always clear whether the battles of Heracles or Theseus are being portrayed. From the west pediment of the temple of Apollo at Eretria, in Euboea, a group survives of Theseus carrying Antiope into his chariot (ca. 500 B.C., now in Chalkis, Euboea), and battles with the Amazons (Amazonomachies) were shown on the shield of Athena in the Parthenon (see Chapter 8), on the throne of the statue of Zeus at Olympia (see Chapter 5), on paintings (now lost) in the Stoa Poikile and in the sanctuary of Theseus at Athens, and (possibly) on the frieze of the temple of Hephaestus at Athens. Battles with Amazons were still being carved on sarcophagus reliefs under the Roman Empire, for example, one showing Trojan War heroes fighting the Amazons (ca. 180 A.D., now in Paris). From postclassical art a painting by Rubens, Battle of the Amazons (1615, now in Munich), continues the tradition: here the battle is being fought on a bridge and Theseus is prominent at the center.

Theseus and Pirithoüs. Theseus is a central figure in the battle with the Centaurs at the wedding feast of Pirithoüs. The battle was painted on the François Vase (ca. 575 B.C.), on which Theseus is named. He wields an ax on a red-figure vase (ca. 450, now in New York), and the battle was the subject of the metopes on the Parthenon and on the reliefs on the sandals of the statue of Athena Parthenos (see Chapter 8), and on the west pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia (see Chapters 5 and 11). Ovid’s narrative in Book 12 of the Metamorphoses is the most complete (and ingenious), and it was illustrated in a vigorous oil-sketch by Rubens for The Abduction of Hippodamia (1636, now in Brussels). The abduction of Helen is (probably) the subject of a red-figure vase painting by Euthymides (ca. 510, now in Munich), and Theseus’ grandsons, Demophon and Acamas, are shown rescuing their grandmother, Aethra, from Troy in a red-figure vase painting by Myson (ca. 500 B.C., now in London). The imprisonment of Pirithoüs by Hades is shown in a number of Underworld scenes (see Chapter 15), and it is used as an image of inexorable death in Horace’s poem celebrating the coming of Spring (Odes 4.7), with its sensitive adaptation by A.E. Housman, “Diffugere Nives” (published in More Poems, 1936).

Daedalus and Icarus. The Cretan myths were summarized by Vergil in Book 6 of the Aeneid (6. 14–33), in a passage describing how Daedalus decorated the doors of the temple of Apollo at Cumae. The Minotaur has been discussed above, and the myth of Phaedra has been discussed in Chapter 10. The fall of Icarus was shown on a red-figure vase (ca. 470, now in New York), and Daedalus is shown making the wings and fitting them on Icarus in Roman marble reliefs of the second century A.D. (now in Rome). The fall of Icarus appears in two extant paintings from Pompeii (mid-first century A.D.), and it was narrated in Book 8 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Derived from Ovid’s narrative is by far the most impressive representation of the myth, the painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder entitled The Fall of Icarus (1569, now in Brussels), which is the subject of W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1944). Vergil evokes the tragedy of the loss of a son when he describes how Daedalus was unable to finish this part of his story on the doors of the temple of Apollo at Cumae (see above).

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