Monday, November 5, 2012

Illustrating the Eumenides

Some of these might be NSFW, if your work is uptight about paintings involving waist-up female nudity (all in the service of Art, of course!)

Someone in my course forum said they imagined the Eumenides as "monstrously bodied women with Clint Eastwood's `Dirty Harry` face". When I thought about it, I realised I had been picturing them as Japanese onryo, with white faces, black dishevelled hair and dirty white shifts, while the Delphic priestess in the play itself says she has seen paintings of them where they look like Harpies. Some of the articles I've read say that they have blood dripping from their eyes, which is a nice touch (and quite onryo-esque), but I can't track down the source for that.

I took a look at how other people have envisioned them, and there are some really spectacular renderings.

This is Bouguereau showing Orestes hounded by the Erinyes, in "The Remorse of Orestes" (1862). Here they have snakes in their hair, not mentioned by the Priestess (in my translation anyway), but which makes them more Gorgon-like. Apart from that they're the usual Academic beauties, not hideous at all.

Bouguereau might have picked up the snakes from Dante, who described them thus in the Inferno:
The three infernal Furies stained with blood,
  Who had the limbs of women and their mien,
And with the greenest hydras were begirt;
  Small serpents and cerastes were their tresses,
  Wherewith their horrid temples were entwined.
Here's Doré, with an illustration of this scene:

This is Franz von Stuck.The painting is just called "The Murderer".

I'd never come across Stuck before, but I love this painting.

Here's good old Sargent with a very decorative depiction of Orestes fleeing the Erinyes:

And this is a striking modern depiction by EK Buckley:

The gaping, empty, blood-rimmed eyes and mouths of the two upper figures is closest to what I imagined when I read the Eumenides. This and the Stuck are the only ones who manage to give the Eumenides the savage menace they deserve. We're talking about the first generation of gods, here, older and in a way more powerful than Apollo and Athena, who cannot (in the first instance) gainsay them or (in the second) take their prize without offering something greater in return.

Someone else in my course forum said that the creatures in the Eumenides were so terrifying that supposedly when they first revealed themselves on stage (they spend the first 10 minutes present but huddled on the ground) pregnant women miscarried. That is terror. The Furies should probably not be reduced to a group of plump flying maidens, bat-wings or no.

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