Ovid’s Heroides – Artist Interpretations – Part 3

Here we are at part three, and the stories become even more grisily as we have a whole range of punishments and deaths to contend with!

9: Deianira to Hercules

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Deianira (c 1878), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection.

Here, Evelyn De Morgan depicts Deianira, Hercules’ wife, as a tormented soul, her arms wrap around her head in despair and it is because of what she did! To quote Ovid,

What have I done? Alas, is this the madness my love has driven me to embrace? Wicked woman, Deianira, why do you wait to die?

The story of Deianira and Hercules has many interpretations. The story goes like this. Hercules sees Deianira and falls in love. this independent young woman is not interested in marriage and although she has many suitors, she rejects them all. However, two persist in their suits, Hercules and Achelous, the river God. The two fight it out and finally, Hercules wins and marries fair Deianira. Luckily for him, she falls in love with him! Another version has Hercules take what he wants by force, but promises to marry Deianira when he returns from an adventure. Deianira’s father promises her to Achelous, but Hercules keeps to his word and returns to fight for Deianira’s hand.

All was well until Hercule’s accidentally kills one of the king’s servants. Feeling awful, Hercules leaves with Deianira. They come to the river Evenus and require help in crossing. The centaur, Nessa appears and offers to take Deianira across the river. Once away from Hercules, Nessa tries to rape Deianira and so Hercules shoots him with his bow, the arrows dipped in the blood of the Hydra for extra lethality!

As Nessa lies dying, he tells Deianira to take some of his blood and mix it with olive oil, apply it to Hercules cloak of lion skin and it will stop Hercules from straying. His lack of fidelity was one problem that this marriage suffered!

This tightly cropped canvas shows the three together after Hercules comes to the rescue but little does he know what will happen next.

Bartholomäus Spranger, Hercules, Deianira and the Centaur Nessus, 1580 Kunsthistorisches Museum,Vienna

The tragedy of the story is that Hercules becomes involved with another woman, and fearing that she will be rejected, Deianira puts the potion on the lion skin and Hercules dies an agonising death. Poor Deianira, in her grief and her guilt hangs herself!

10: Ariadne to Theseus

Paulus Bor (circa 1601–1669), Ariadne (1630-35), oil on canvas, 149 x 106 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu, Poznań, Poland.

In this Bor painting, we can see Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete, with her famous thread. In Ovid’s Heroides, the letter from Ariadne to her lover, Thesus, is one of regret and anger that she has been abandoned and has lost everything that she once had. The anger seems to be directed towards herself as well as to Theseus, as she wishes he would return.

Ariadne’s story is that with the Minotaur held in the labyrinth and her father exacting sacrifice from the surrounding islands in the form of sending victims to their death within the labryrinth, Ariadne foolishly gave her heart and the solution to handsome Theseus.

Theseus used the thread given to him by Ariadne to enter the maze, kill the Minotaur and escape using the thread to guide him. He eloped with Ariadne and headed to the island of Naxos where he abandoned her. No wonder, Ariadne is so upset!!

Then, you said to me: ‘I swear by the dangers overcome,

that you’ll be mine while we both shall live.’

We live, and I’m not yours, Theseus, if you still live,

I’m a woman buried by the fraud of a lying man.

However, it isn’t all bad news for Ariadne as along comes Dionysus and I know who I’d be inviting to my post-lockdown party out of these two men. Lovis Corinth portrays the scene on Naxos with such loose brushwork and his ‘joie de vivre’ is just what Ariadne needs!

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) Ariadne on Naxos (1913), oil on canvas, 116 × 147 cm, Private collection.

11: Canace to Macareus

Artist not known, Canace, from Heroines of Tor Marancia (date not known), fresco, dimensions not known, Sala delle Nozze Aldobrandine, The Vatican.

The story of Canace in Ovid’s book involves the incestual relationship between Canace and her brother Macareus and the murder of their child by their father, King Aelous. In the introduction, Harold Isbell says that “As Canace presents the case for their love, they are innocents caught up in a most private action that has finally a catastrophic and public conclusion”

In the letter, Canace writes to her love just before she commits suicide as ordered by her father, who send sends his own sword for her to use. It ends so sadly:

Live on, remember us, and weep tears over my wound:

lover, do not shun the body of your lover.

You, I beg, obey the requests of the sister you loved too well!

I myself will obey our father’s order.

12: Medea to Jason

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Medea (1866-68), oil on wood panel with gilded background, 61.2 x 45.6 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England.

One of the most impressive paintings in the BMAG’s collection and it is the scene where Medea, abandoned by her husband, Jason, uses her skills and knowledge of herbs to create a poisoned robe and coronet as a wedding gift to her rival, Creusa. The epitome of ‘a woman scorned’, Medea may have had a point. Having helped Jason in his quest to capture the golden fleece through her spells and potions, he should have known better than to abandon his wife and child, for someone whose riches far outstripped hers.

http://www.preraphaelites.org/the-collection/1925p105/medea/

Medea’s vengeance is horrific; not only does she kill Creusa and her father through her actions, but she also murders her children by Jason. Here in Anselm Feurbach’s painting from 1870, we see Jason leaving and the tenderness with which the children are being comforted belies their fate. The hypocrisy with which she uses them as a reason for Jason to return to her is overwhelming:

If I’m worthless to you, consider the children we have:

a dread stepmother, in my place, will be cruel to them.

And they’re so like you, and touched by your semblance,

and as often as I see them, my eyes are wet with tears.

Medea, Anselm Feurbach, oil on canvas, 1870.

13: Laodamia to Protesilaus

George William Joy (1844-1925), Laodamia (1878), oil on canvas, 107.3 x 153.3 cm, Portsmouth City Museum, Portsmouth, England.

With this letter, we move away from the hatred, anger and scorn of abandoned women, and hear from a grief stricken widow, Laodamia. As readers, we know that Protesilaus is killed in the Trojan War by Hector; a fact that was foretold in the prophecy that the first Greek to set foot on Troy would perish. Poor Protesilaus was the first to land and his fate, therefore, was sealed.

In the letter, Laodamia speaks beautifully of the hope she has that he might yet return to her:

…I will come to accompany you,

whether what – alas! – I fear might be, or whether you survive.

Let this letter end with a last small request:

if you care for me, let your care be for yourself!

Sarcophagus with scenes of the myth of Protesilaus and Laodamia. “Laodamia meets Protesilaus”.
The front panel. Marble. Late 2nd century CE. Naples, Santa Chiara Church

Part 4 coming up!

For more information on this text, visit Heroides.org

10: Ariadne to Theseus

Paulus Bor (circa 1601–1669), Ariadne (1630-35), oil on canvas, 149 x 106 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu, Poznań, Poland.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) Ariadne on Naxos (1913), oil on canvas, 116 × 147 cm, Private collection.

Two parts of the story come together here.

11: Canace to Macareus

Artist not known, Canace, from Heroines of Tor Marancia (date not known), fresco, dimensions not known, Sala delle Nozze Aldobrandine, The Vatican.

12: Medea to Jason

Frederick Sandys (1829–1904), Medea (1866-68), oil on wood panel with gilded background, 61.2 x 45.6 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England.

Medea, Anselm Feurbach, oil on canvas, 1870.

13: Laodamia to Protesilaus

George William Joy (1844-1925), Laodamia (1878), oil on canvas, 107.3 x 153.3 cm, Portsmouth City Museum, Portsmouth, England.

Sarcophagus with scenes of the myth of Protesilaus and Laodamia. “Laodamia meets Protesilaus”.
The front panel. Marble. Late 2nd century CE. Naples, Santa Chiara Church

14: Hypermnestra to Lynceus

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Danaides (1903), oil on canvas, 111 × 154.3 cm, Private collection.

Artist not known, Hypermnestra, Lynceus (or Linus) and the Danaïdes (1473), hand coloured woodcut from Giovanni Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris, translated by Heinrich Steinhöwel and printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm c 1474, Penn Libraries call number: Inc B-720, Philadelphia, PA

This story was told in the fourteenth of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris (Concerning Famous Women), published in 1374, and illustrated as Hypermnestra, Lynceus and the Danaïdes (1473) in this hand coloured woodcut from the translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel.

15: Sappho to Phaon

Simeon Solomon (1840–1905), Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864), watercolour on paper, 33 x 38.1 cm, The Tate Gallery (Purchased 1980), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

Sappho and Phaon, 1809,Oil on canvas, 225 x 262 cm,The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

16, 17: Paris to Helen, Helen to Paris

Gaston Bussière (1862–1928), Helen of Troy (1895), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Ursulines de Mâcon, Mâcon, France.

Hector admonishing Paris and Helen. 1820. Amable Paul Coutan. French.1792-1837. oil on canvas

18, 19: Leander to Hero, Hero to Leander

Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton (1830–1896), Last Watch of Hero (1880),

Image: Robert Laurent (United States, born France, 1890-1970), Hero and Leander, circa 1943, limestone, 27 x 39 x 20 inches, Portland Museum of Art, Maine, Hamilton Easter Field Art Foundation Collection, gift of Barn Gallery Associates, Inc., Ogunquit, Maine, 1979.13.45. © Estate of Robert Laurent

20, 21: Acontius to Cydippe, Cydippe to Acontius

Paulus Bor (c 1601–1669), Cydippe with Acontius’s Apple (date not known), oil on canvas, 151 x 113.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam.

Circle of Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), Acontius and Cydippe Before the Altar of Diana (date not known), oil on canvas, 90.9 x 71.2 cm, Private collection.

For more information on this text, visit Heroides.org