Art

A Friend, A Father, and a Queen

Google Alerts was quiet this week so rather than do nothing with my Facebook Alexander page (something I do too often) I decided to post three pictures from Pinterest. They appeared on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and judging by the number of ‘Likes’ that they received, they were all quite popular. Here are the ‘final’ scores (i.e. the scores as of 11:43am today when I am writing these words):

Monday Alexander and Hephaestion by Louis Gauffier – 65 Likes
Wednesday Alexander Threatened by his Father Donato Creti – 99 Likes
Friday Olympias, Queen of the Macedonians (Anon) – 35 Likes

The ‘final’ tally surprises me a little in that Alexander Threatened by his Father proved to be more popular than Alexander and Hephaestion. Hephaestion is a very popular figure with fans of Alexander so to see what is also a very touching scene between him and Alexander outstripped by the rather more violent and disturbing confrontation between Alexander and Philip II is unexpected. If you have a preference between the two why not leave a comment below to say why.

When I posted the pictures on Facebook, I did so without any text to explain them or the scenes that they are depicting. Rather than let them be, I shall do that now.
alexander-and-hephaestion
Alexander and Hephaestion by Louis Gauffier
This painting draws its inspiration from Chapter 39 of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. In it Plutarch describes how Alexander’s mother, Olympias, often wrote to her son telling him to not reward his ‘friends and bodyguards’ so well as it made them ‘the equals of kings’.

Alexander kept [Olympias’] letters to himself, with one exception, Hephaestion was in the habit of reading the king’s letters with him, and on this occasion his eyes fell on a letter which had been opened. The king did not prevent him from reading it, but took the ring from his own finger and pressed the seal to his lips, so much as to tell him to keep silence.

What we see in Plutarch and Gauffier’s painting is an intensely personal and political moment. It is personal for the obvious reason that Hephaestion is reading a letter written by Alexander’s mother and is political because of Olympias’ role as Queen Mother. It is intense because if Hephaestion had had a mind to he could easily have used the knowledge gained from reading Alexander’s letters against the king. Alexander would have known this. The fact that he still let Hephaestion read the letters, therefore, is indicative of the trust he had in him. Having said that, Alexander still makes Hephaestion kiss his ring. There was no need for him to do this but as close a friend as Hephaestion was, Alexander was still his king as well as friend, and it seems never forgot this.
alexander-threatened-by-his-father
We stay with Plutarch for Alexander Threatened by his Father by Donato Creti. In 337 BC, Philip married his seventh and last wife, Cleopatra. At the post-wedding party…

Cleopatra’s uncle Attalus, who had drunk too much at the banquet, called upon the Macedonians to pray to the gods that the union of Philip and Cleopatra might bring forth a legitimate heir to the throne. Alexander flew into a rage at these words, shouted at him, ‘Villain, do you take me for a bastard, then?’ and hurled a drinking cup at his head. At this Philip lurched to his feet, and drew his sword against his son, but unfortunately for them both he was so overcome with drink and with rage that he tripped and fell headlong. Alexander jeered at him and cried out, ‘Here is the man who was making ready to cross from Europe to Asia, and who cannot even cross from one couch to another without losing his balance.’ 

This incident takes place in Chapter 9. As for the painting, I really like Alexander’s red cloak. No doubt it represents the danger of the moment. But for Philip falling over, it might have represented blood shed as well. Speaking of blood shed, I wonder if that is Attalus lying on the floor in the foreground of the painting. If it is, his red cloak could represent the injury he sustained from Alexander’s cup striking him. In regards the event that the painting portrays, it was probably the most dangerous moment of Alexander’s youth. It tells us a lot about Alexander’s pride and fear and how quickly Macedonian parties could turn nasty.

olympiasOf course, this carved image of Olympias does not depict any scene from her known life. I am do not know much about sculptural conventions so I will quote the following from the Galerie Sismann website from where I took the picture,

This portrait of this woman outstands for its strong graphic character, the sophistication of the tinae and the ribbons in her hair, and the sensuality of the naked breasts.

To read the full text, click here. I have long thought that Olympias is a woman in need of rehabilitation as the image that the sources present of her is of a wholly ruthless, vindictive and wicked person. Well, she was certainly a fighter. In order to survive, she had to be. Evil, though? In his time, Alexander behaved worse than she ever did yet we still hold him in high regard. Why? Why not her? That’s a question for another day; going back to this sculpture, I appreciate it because in the dignity, sensuality and regal bearing that it gives Olympias, it cuts her a break far more than the sources (especially Plutarch who, in Chapter 9 of his Life of Alexander blames her for inciting her son against his father and therefore causing indirectly the near-fatal confrontation at the wedding party) ever do. Going back to the point about sensuality, I do like the way that Olympias’ left breast breaks through the frame barrier. It gives the image an extra dynamism.

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Of Lions and Men

It occurred to me the other day that images of Alexander most often show him in the guise of Heracles. Think of all those coins, for example, where he is wearing the same lion-cap that the mythical hero wore. Why is this, I wondered, when he drew his real inspiration from Achilles?

alexander_coin
The answer to this is perfectly obvious, which is probably why I missed it: Heracles was Alexander’s paternal ancestor, the god from whom the Argead dynasty claimed descent. Alexander may have liked Achilles more but for propaganda purposes he had to focus on Heracles. I am very grateful to my friend Jen for helping me see this.

This morning, another question occurred to me – did Alexander really wear a lion shaped helmet? One, that is, like Colin Farrell wears in Oliver Stone’s Alexander,

alexander_lion_helmet
Well, he is certainly portrayed wearing one on the Alexander sarcophagus,

alexander_sarcophagus
In his biography of Alexander, Robin Lane Fox notes the sarcophagus image and says ‘no doubt Alexander wore it in real life’. This wording suggests to me that we don’t know for sure that he did but (at least in RLF’s opinion) it is very likely.

One final question: What exactly is Alexander’s relationship to Achilles? I don’t mean in terms of his family, but rather, did he really see himself as a second or new Achilles or is that the invention of the ancient historians? Well, I don’t know for sure – none of us do – but as I write these words I feel that even if details were made up later on, if Olympias – Alexander’s mother and descendent of Achilles – had any influence on her son, she would have imbued him with a knowledge of, love for, and desire to emulate/beat the great hero of the Trojan War.

Credits
Jen’s Alexander blog
Silver tetradrachm: VRoma
Colin Farrell as Alexander: Aceshowbiz
Alexander Sarcophagus: SUNY Oneonta

Categories: Alexander in Film, Alexander Scholars, Art, By the Bye | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

The British Museum’s Alexander Bust: A Different Angle

In his Second Oration Concerning the Fortune or Virtue of Alexander the Great, Plutarch describes Alexander as having a ‘slightly bent’ neck (see here). What may have been a physical deformity became in Alexander’s own lifetime part of his iconography with his court artist Lysippus making no attempt to disguise it.

During the Hellenistic period, various kings imitated the crook, occasionally with a little too much effort, as Mithridates VI (135-63 BC) shows here.

Mithridates VI

There are numerous examples of Alexander with his neck ‘slightly bent’. Here is one:

Head of

One famous bust of Alexander, however, where he is not shown with a bent neck is the British Museum’s. This is how it is displayed to visitors:

IMG_2158

As you can see, his head is quite straight. But notice that his neck on your left is angled outwards. A week or two ago I noticed this and it got me wondering – is the British Museum displaying the bust as it was originally intended to appear or have they ‘straightened’ it?

I don’t know the answer to this question. One thing I am certain of, though, is that if the bust was attached to a body and Alexander’s head was conceived of as being, and carved, straight then the body would have to be angled, as if in motion. I’m sure of this because I have tried to replicate the position of the bust in my bathroom mirror and it can only be done by sloping one shoulder and raising the other, as if running.

Alexander’s head, however, does not look like the head of a man in a hurry. I suspect, therefore, that whoever carved this bust meant for his head to be angled as a result of his crooked neck. During a quiet moment at my office the other day, I used the Photos App on my mobile ‘phone to see if I could recreate the crook. Here’s a second version that I did on my tablet for this post:

FullSizeRender

I apologise for the close-up nature of the photograph – I could not get the iPad to save it in any other way. That aside, what do you think of the picture? When I first saw it on my mobile ‘phone, I thought it made Alexander look much more tender, almost feminine, than when his head was straight (or, dare I say, erect). I have to admit, though, I really like the bust this way. It is still familiar yet in a way completely new. The leonine toughness of Alexander remains yet the tilt makes him so much softer. I must be honest – this version of the bust makes me love Alexander in a way that I didn’t before.

I could be completely wrong about whether the bust was meant to tilt or not but if it was why would the British Museum show it straight? I wonder if it was indeed because whoever decided on its position wanted to emphasise the tougher Alexander over the gentler one. What do you think? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Photo Credits
Mithridates: Alchetron
Alexander (black and white): Emaze
British Museum Bust of Alexander: Wikipedia

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Ptolemy in Jerusalem and other works of art

ptolemy_fouquet
This painting is a mediaeval representation of Ptolemy I Soter taking Jerusalem in 320 B.C. It is by French artist Jean Fouquet (1420-82). I’m not aware that Ptolemy ever entered Jerusalem; still, it’s nice to see him portrayed here – looking very splendid in his gold armour and fine beard.
alexander_and_thais

In this picture we see Thaïs of Athens stand proudly in front of Alexander as she is given the torch that she will use to burn the royal palace in Persepolis. In a very short time the party that is raging all around her and Alexander will be replaced by fire – the scorch marks of which I believe are still visible today. I first saw this picture a few weeks ago; unfortunately, I can’t remember where or, for that matter, who the artist is. I found the picture again today on a blog titled The Honest Courtesan.

The above link takes you to a potted biography of Thaïs by The Honest Courtesan‘s writer, Maggie McNeill. As with all historical studies there are points one can dispute but it is a good précis. One thing it doesn’t mention, which I certainly would have, is Ptolemy’s discretion towards Thaïs, which is indicated by Arrian’s omission of her name in his account of the fire. Having said that, McNeill’s closing paragraph is excellently written and, interestingly, echoes the Venerable Bede’s statement about the bird who lies through the mead hall.
alexander_conca
This painting, by Sebastian Conca (16680-1764), is titled Alexander the Great in the Temple of Jerusalem. Ever since I saw it over at Alexander’s Army a while ago I’ve been meaning to write a post about it but couldn’t because I could find nothing out about Conca. As I look at the painting now I am just as struck as I was a few months ago by the twisting pillars. They remind me very much of the pillars in St Peter’s basilica that hold up the baldacchino.
stpeters_baldacchino

Note also St Peter’s arches which reappear in Conca’s painting. To the best of my knowledge, Alexander never visited Jerusalem or had any contact with the Jews. Why might Conca have decided to paint a fictional scene, then? To find the answer to that we would have to know for whom he painted this piece. Whoever it was, I wonder if he was not creating an allegorical scene – Alexander being his patron; the Temple the Catholic Church; Conca is directing his patron to God and obedience to the Church.

St Peter’s baldacchino was designed by Bernini. This painting, below, appears on Tumblr where I have seen it described as being a self-portrait of Bernini as Alexander the Great. I have looked around on other websites to see if I can find any proof that Bernini did indeed paint this work but without success. Do you know anything about it?

bernini_head

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Hermes Comes to Odysseus’ Help

Circe offers Odysseus her magic potion - J W Waterhouse (image from atrogallery on Tumblr)

Circe offers Odysseus her magic potion – J W Waterhouse (image from atrogallery on Tumblr)

….I left the ship and shore and took the path upward; but as I traversed those haunted glades, as I came close to Kirke’s house and neared the palace of the enchantress, I was met by golden-wanded Hermes; he seemed a youth in the lovely spring of life, with the first down upon his lip. He seized my hand and spoke thus to me: `Luckless man, why are you walking thus alone over these hills, in country you do not know? Your comrades are yonder in Kirke’s grounds; they are turned to swine, lodged and safely penned in the sites.

…..“Is your errand her to rescue them? I warn you, you will never return yourself, you will only be left with the others there. Yet no–I am ready to save you from all hazards, ready to keep you unscathed. Look. Here is a herb of magic virtue; take it and enter Kirke’s house with it; then the day of evil never will touch your head. I will tell you of all her witch’s arts. She will brew a potion for you, but with good things she will mingle drugs as well. Yet even so, she will not be able to enchant you; my gift of the magic herb will thwart her. I will tell you the rest, point by point.

…..“When Kirke strikes you with the long wand she has, draw the keen sword from beside your thigh, rush upon her and make as if to kill her. She will shrink, back, and then ask you to lie with her. At this you must let her have her way; she is a goddess; accept her bed, so that she may release your comrades and make you her cherished guest. But first, make her swear the great oath of the Blessed Ones [by the river Styx] to plot no mischief to you thenceforward– if not, while you lie naked there, she may rob you of courage and of manhood.’

…..“So spoke the Radiant One…”
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What happened next? Find out at Theoi Greek Mythology. Includes a storehouse of references to Circe in ancient Greek literature.
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Alexander in Memphis

Alexander at the Temple of Apis in Memphis (Andre Castaigne 1861-1929)

Alexander at the Temple of Apis in Memphis (Andre Castaigne 1861-1929). Picture: Wikipedia.

From Heliopolis, [Alexander] crossed the river to Memphis, where, among the other gods, he offered a special sacrifice to Apis and held Games with both athletic and literary contests.
(Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander)
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Alexander was deeply impressed by Egypt, and it is generally supposed that the potential strength of the country, which was greater than he expected, induced him to divide the control of it among a number of officers, as he judged it to be unsafe to put it all into the hands of one man.
(Arrian Ibid)

Ptolemy I Soter as Pharaoh (British Museum). Photo: Livius.org

Ptolemy I Soter as pharaoh (Photo: Livius.org)

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T E Lawrence: To “S.A.”

T E Lawrence (1888 - 1935)

T E Lawrence (1888 – 1935) (Wikipedia)

I loved you, so I drew these tides of men into my hands
and wrote my will across the sky in stars
To gain you Freedom, the seven-pillared worthy house,
that your eyes might be shining for me
When I came.
T. E. Lawrence Dedicatory poem to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922)

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Priam’s Supplication to Achilles

Priam begs Achilles to give him the body of his son, Hector (MFA)

Priam begs Achilles to give him the body of his son, Hector (MFA)

… Priam spoke to Achilles in supplication:
‘Remember your father, Achilles. He is an old man
like me, approaching the end of his life. Perhaps
he too is being worn down by enemy troops,
with no one there to protect him from chaos and ruin.
Yet he at least, since he knows that you are alive,
feels joy in his heart and, every day, can look forward
to seeing his child, whom he loves so dearly, come home.
My fate is less happy. I fathered the bravest men
in the land of Troy, yet not one remains alive.

Most of my sons have been killed in this wretched war.
The only one I could truly count on, the one
who guarded our city and all its people – you killed him
a few days ago as he fought to defend his country:
Hector. It is for his sake that I have come,
to beg you for his release. I have brought a large ransom.
Respect the gods now. Have pity on me; remember
your father. For I am more to be pitied than he is,
since I have endured what no mortal ever endured:
I have kissed the hands of the man who slaughtered my children.’
(Homer The Iliad Book XXIV L. 475-497 tr. by Stephen Mitchell)

The above picture comes from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. Drawn by an unidentified French artist in the nineteenth century it is by no means the best representation of Priam’s supplication to Achilles.
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I chose it, though, because unlike other images, it shows Hector’s body still tied to the cart that Achilles rode round Troy after killing his enemy, which brings to mind Alexander’s punishment of Betis after the siege of Gaza.

Betis was brought before the young king, who was elated with haughty satisfaction, although he generally admired courage even in an enemy. ‘You shall not have the death you wanted,’ he said. ‘Instead, you can expect to suffer whatever torment can be devised against a prisoner.’ Betis gave Alexander a look that was not just fearless, but downright defiant, and uttered not a word in reply to his threats. ‘Do you see his obstinate silence?’ said Alexander. ‘Has he knelt to me? Has he uttered one word of entreaty? But I shall overcome his silence: at the very least I shall punctuate it with groans.’ Alexander’s anger turned to fury, his recent successes already suggesting to his mind foreign modes of behaviour. Thongs were passed through Betis’ ankles while he still breathed, and he was tied to a chariot. Then Alexander’s horses dragged him around the city while the king gloated at having followed the example of his ancestor Achilles in punishing his enemy.
(Curtius The History of Alexander Book IV. 6. 26  – 29 tr. by John Yardley)

Achilles’ treatment of Hector’s body and Alexander of the still living Betis represent black moments in the men’s lives – the day when their desire for vengeance got the better of their reason and honour. The episodes end very differently. Achilles – albeit at the behest of the gods – eventually gives Hector’s body back to his father, Priam. Betis was duly executed and Alexander moved on to continue his conquest of the Persian empire. Except… in his notes to de Sélincourt’s translation of Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, J R Hamilton casts doubt on whether the incident actually happened. He does not, however, give a reason for this.

  • This post is a day late. Apologies!
  • The great actor Peter O’Toole, who died yesterday at the age of 81 played Priam in 2004 film TroyRequiem Aeternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat ei: Requiescat in pace. Amen.

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Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte…

Mount Ida (Psiloritis) in Crete. Credit: sacvoyage on Tumblr)

Mount Ida (Psiloritis) in Crete. Credit: sacvoyage on Tumblr)

See Soracte’s mighty peak stands deep in virgin snow
And soon the heavy-laden trees their white load will not know,
When the swiftly rushing rivers with the ice have ceased to flow.
Pile, O Thaliarchus, pile the good logs on the fire!
Fetch up some crusty four-year wine in cobwebbed Sabine jar!
Thus we’ll drive away Jack Frost, with his biting cold so dire!
Care-free, all other matters among the gods we’ll keep
They when they’ve checked the battling wind upon the boiling deep
Untossed about the cypress and the old ash tree may sleep.
Seek not to know what changes to-morrow may be found
But count as gain whatever lot the change of days brings round;
Spurn not, young friend, sweet love-making, nor yet the dances round,
While withered age is distant from thy youth frequent the plain,
The throned lawns, each fashionable haunt, a crowded lane,
And at the trysting hour, e’en night-fall, softly whispered love’s refrain.
Now doth a roguish laugh our hiding girl betray
From her dark cover, where love’s token, perforce, is snatched away,
And her ill-withstanding finger but feebly bids him nay.

(Horace Ode to Thaliarchus translated by Patrick Leigh Fermor)

 I’m still heart-deep in love with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s writing so to-day, instead of a work of art by a man, here is a work of art by nature. Mount Ida has been deliberately chosen. I shall let Leigh Fermor himself explain why. It is 1944. Leigh Fermor and his band of British soldiers and Cretan Resistance have successfully kidnapped the German General Heinrich Kreipe. The Nazis are in hot pursuit as the team make their escape over the Cretan mountain range…

During the lull in the pursuit, we woke up among the rocks just as a brilliant dawn was breaking over the crest of Mount Ida. We had been toiling over it, through snow and then rain, for the last two days. Looking across the valley at this flashing mountain-crest, the general murmured to himself:

Vides ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte…

It was one of the ones I knew! I continued from where he had broken off:

nec jam sustineant onus
Silvae laborantes, geluque
Flumina constiterint acuto,

and so on, through the remaining five stanzas to the end. The general’s blue eyes had swivelled away from the mountain-top to mine – and when I’d finished, after a long silence, he said: “Ach so, Herr Major!” It was very strange. As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.

(Patrick Leigh Fermor A Time of Gifts)

As the note below the photograph of Mount Ida (which today is called Psiloritis) says, the photograph comes from a Tumblr blog called Sacvoyage. I heartily recommend it to you as it includes some beautiful pictures of Greece. Also, Leigh Fermor’s translation of Horace’s Ode comes from Artemis Cooper’s biography of him (Patrick Leigh Fermor An Adventure, John Murray, 2013). Finally, here is a video of Leigh Fermor et al meeting Kreipe again many years after the war.

Categories: Art, Echoes of Alexander, Poetry | Tags: , | 1 Comment

The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini

The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini (1621-2). Detail.

The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini (1621-2). Detail.

Prosperina was playing in [a] glade
With her companions.
Brilliant as butterflies
They flitted hither and thither excitedly
Among lilies and violets. She was heaping
The fold of her dress with the flowers,
Hurrying to pick more, to gather most,
Piling more than any of her friends into baskets.
There the Lord of Hell suddenly saw her.
In the sweep of a single glance
He fell in love
And snatched her away –
Love pauses for nothing.
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Terrified, she screamed for her mother,
And screamed to her friends. But louder
And again and again to her mother.
She ripped her frock from her throat downwards –
So all her cherished flowers scattered in a shower.
(The Rape of Proserpina from The Tales of Ovid tr. by Ted Hughes)

The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini (1621-2)

The Rape of Proserpina by Bernini (1621-2)

St Peter’s Basilica contains some of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring statues in Christendom – chief among them Michelangelo’s Pietà. However, when I visited the basilica a few years ago, it was another statue that really took my breath away. Actually, it wasn’t so much the statue as the decoration. Was it a cloud? A billowing cloak? Unfortunately, I can’t remember but the marble had been fashioned so realistically it really looked like someone was in the middle of airing the material. Even now, I am in awe of how someone was able to achieve such a dynamic and realistic effect.
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The same feeling comes upon me each time that I look at the above detail from Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina. I am sure that if Proserpina and Pluto were painted I would have trouble working out whether they were marble or models. It’s all so excitingly, poignantly, disturbingly lifelike.
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The tale of Pluto’s abduction of Ceres’ daughter Proserpina is an account of how spring/summer turns to winter and back again. ‘Rape’ here is used in its older sense of meaning ‘to abduct’ (cf. The Rape of the Sabine Women). Ted Hughes’s poem is concise and unsparing but if I could change one thing about it I would remove the word ‘Hell’ as a descriptor of Pluto/Hades it gives the wrong impression of what kind of god he was.

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