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…!
This week’s links from around the Classical Internet
Greek bull unearthed after rain – BBC
Time Team for a new generation – The Telegraph
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 4 – Consulting 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