Weekend Reading: Tapestries and Rabbit Holes

This week I’ve been falling – quite enjoyably, I admit – down an ekphrasis rabbit hole.

Those of you who’ve known me for a while will know that for me, literature and art inevitably go together. I struggle to understand the one without the other. More specifically, when I read something I like to be able to see it in my head, and when I draw something I like to base it on something I’ve read. Maybe it’s something to do with how my brain works, or maybe it comes from my undergraduate and MA days, when I was working as a painter to finance my study of Classics.

Whatever the case, I’ve always joined the two. That was how my PhD topic came about; I was looking for descriptive details to help me design a ‘Romans vs Britons’ chess set, and Tacitus made me cross by letting me down!

Recently I’ve started to find this tendency resurfacing at inconvenient times – probably because I took up drawing in lockdown, so now I’m back to seeing narratives as sequences of drawable images again (alternatively, it may be a sign of impeding insanity…).

This week, for instance, I’ve been marking Myth assignments, in which one of the assignment tasks was to compare an illustration of the myth of Arachne to Ovid’s story in Book 6 of the Metamorphoses. I always love this comparison task, but this year has been even better because I love the story of Arachne too.

But this is where the art/text issues kicked in. One of the most striking things about Ovid’s story is the detail with which he describes the tapestries woven by both the goddess Minerva and the mortal girl Arachne, as they compete to see who is best at weaving (spoiler alert: this doesn’t end well for Arachne)…

Minerva depicts the hill of Mars, and the court of the Aeropagus, in Cecrops’s Athens, and the old dispute between Neptune and herself, as to who had the right to the city and its name. There the twelve gods sit in great majesty, on their high thrones, with Jupiter in the middle. She weaves the gods with their familiar attributes. The image of Jupiter is a royal one. There she portrays the Ocean god, standing and striking the rough stone, with his long trident, and seawater flowing from the centre of the shattered rock, a token of his claim to the city. She gives herself a shield, a sharp pointed spear, and a helmet for her head, while the aegis protects her breast. She shows an olive-tree with pale trunk, thick with fruit, born from the earth at a blow from her spear, the gods marvelling: and Victory crowns the work.

Then she adds four scenes of contest in the four corners, each with miniature figures, in their own clear colours, so that her rival might learn, from the examples quoted, what prize she might expect, for her outrageous daring. One corner shows Thracian Mount Rhodope and Mount Haemus, now icy peaks, once mortal beings who ascribed the names of the highest gods to themselves. A second corner shows the miserable fate of the queen of the Pygmies: how Juno, having overcome her in a contest, ordered her to become a crane and make war on her own people. Also she pictures Antigone, whom Queen Juno turned into a bird for having dared to compete with Jupiter’s great consort: neither her father Laomedon, nor her city Ilium were of any use to her, but taking wing as a white stork she applauds herself with clattering beak. The only corner left shows Cinyras, bereaved: and he is seen weeping as he clasps the stone steps of the temple that were once his daughters’ limbs. Minerva surrounded the outer edges with the olive wreaths of peace (this was the last part) and so ended her work with emblems of her own tree.

Arachne depicts Europa deceived by the form of the bull: you would have thought it a real bull and real waves. She is seen looking back to the shore she has left, and calling to her companions, displaying fear at the touch of the surging water, and drawing up her shrinking feet. Also Arachne showed Asterie, held by the eagle, struggling, and Leda lying beneath the swan’s wings. She added Jupiter who, hidden in the form of a satyr, filled Antiope, daughter of Nycteus with twin offspring; who, as Amphitryon, was charmed by you, Alcmena, of Tiryns; by Danaë, as a golden shower; by Aegina, daughter of Asopus, as a flame; by Mnemosyne, as a shepherd; by Proserpine, Ceres’s daughter, as a spotted snake.

She wove you, Neptune, also, changed to a fierce bull for Canace, Aeolus’s daughter. In Enipeus’s form you begot the Aloidae, and deceived Theophane as a ram. The golden-haired, gentlest, mother of the cornfields, knew you as a horse. The snake-haired mother of the winged horse, knew you as a winged bird. Melantho knew you as a dolphin. She gave all these their own aspects, and the aspects of the place. Here is Phoebus like a countryman, and she shows him now with the wings of a hawk, and now in a lion’s skin, and how as a shepherd he tricked Isse, Macareus’s daughter. She showed how Bacchus ensnared Erigone with delusive grapes, and how Saturn as the double of a horse begot Chiron. The outer edge of the web, surrounded by a narrow border, had flowers interwoven with entangled ivy.

Translation adapted from A.S. Kline.

Minerva depicts the gods in all their majesty – and authority – and naturally gives herself a starring role. Arachne, on the other hand, keeps herself out of it, but her tapestry highlights the misery, deception and betrayal suffered by mortals at the hand of gods. It’s a Gods Behaving Badly tapestry. Minerva, unsurprisingly, does not approve, and Arachne ends up transformed into a spider.

I love this passage because of the detail. We even get to hear what’s in each of the borders. This is all just… so very drawable…

So as I was marking assignments, my fingers were starting to itch for a pencil. But I figured that this had all the hallmarks of a Big Project – and I very definitely don’t have time to take on a Big Project right now.

The next best thing was to look around for some existing art which does what I want to do: represent each of the tapestries in all their glorious detail. I looked… and looked… and looked… and asked people on Twitter… and looked…

There are a couple of versions of Minerva’s tapestry, which is perhaps unsurprising, because its structure is much more clearly described and easy to imagine. But Arachne’s? I’m still struggling. A few artists have ventured to paint a partial tapestry (usually with only one or two episodes from the many which Ovid lists), but I haven’t yet found any artistic representations of the whole thing. Which is baffling because it’s just so tempting…!

However, my search was not exhaustive (as mentioned before, I don’t have the time for a Big Project!) – so if you come across a painting or tapestry I don’t know about, I would REALLY appreciate it if you would let me know (through the Contact form or in the Comments, if you don’t have my email address). Somebody please tell me that I’m not the only person in the world who’s ever been desperate to paint these two tapestries…!

The Triumph of Minerva by Giovanni da Udine, one of the very few versions I’ve found of Minerva’s tapestry.

This week’s links from around the Classical Internet


Greek bull unearthed after rain – BBC

Time Team for a new generation – The Telegraph

Comfort Classics

Jeroen W.P. Wijnendaele: Ammianus Marcellinus

Liv Mariah Yarrow: image databases

There were some outstanding memes flying around on the Ideas of March, particularly from Classical Studies Memes for Hellenistic Teens!

Comment and opinion

Killing Caesar – Classics for All

Classics in conversation – Retrospect Journal

Staying healthy in ancient Rome – History Extra

The Decline and Fall of the Latin Neuter – Danny Bate

Agave in lockdown – Institute of Classical Studies

Hieroglyphic Luwian in Fallout 4Consulting Philologist

Rewriting the history of beer – Hyperallergic

How are you feeling? – Classics at the Intersections

Catching up with Classicists – The University of Winnipeg

We’re all political animals – Antigone

On remembering to forget – Antigone

Awakening Indo-European Philology – Antigone

Creusa’s farewell – Antigone

The Eleusinian procession – Antigone

Podcasts, video and other media

Imperial transgressions (Mary Beard lecture) – UC Berkeley Classics

Cleopatra (with the Partial Historians) – Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby!

Decemvirs in the Senate – The Partial Historians

7 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: Tapestries and Rabbit Holes

  1. Not paint the two tapestries but I’d love to do a cross stitch version! I loved the comparison part of that TMA but the 2nd part of it was not nice at all and I had to get an extension to finish the horrid thing off!


  2. Never seems a good idea to outdo a god I always feel.

    As an aside I found a thesis on Ethos: Conspicuous by its absence? : perception and visual description in the historical works of Tacitus. However, it is not available on Ethos. I have to go to Newcastle Library – it has to be worth reading.


  3. A rabbit hole we all fall down… I think we all ‘see’ narrative to varying extents and none of this struck me as even slightly mad! I recently returned from seclusion to give a paper this week on another ecphrasis (Catullus 64) so found this very interesting reading, certainly in terms of similarity and difference. Wish I could help with visual representations!


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