Currently I am taking an Intro to Mythology course, in which we are looking at many of the Ancient Greco Roman Myths. The class began with the study of basic Greek Myth, with readings from Hesiod, and Apollodorus. These stories covered myths from the Titans, and gods, to the forming of the Earth and universe. Following these stories, the class shifted to heroes, and what it meant to be heroic in the Ancient World. Reading works concerning Herakles, Jason, Perseus. Spending amble amounts of time discussing Achilles and Hector from The Iliad. Now the class is focused on reading the Metamorphoses, by Ovid, (March 20, 43 BCE-17/18 CE). The Metamorphoses was written during the first decade of the CE. The professor, also the head of the Classics Department at my university stated; behind the bible, this work from Ovid is the second most important piece of literature to the Western World. From other literary works, to many paintings and sculptures, the influences of this work is widely seen. In this post, I wish to share two works from Tiziano Vecellio, also known as Titian (c. 1488/1490– 27 August 1576, a Venetian artist of the sixteenth century. I will state, in no way do I claim to be an art critic. Actually, quite the opposite as I have just recently begun to appreciate art myself. In posts were I include art, my opinions of the pieces will be given. I welcome other’s thoughts on them, and look forward to discussing these pieces with anyone willing.
These pictures are dealing with the story of Actaeon and his coming upon Diana, or as she is known to the Ancient Greeks, the Goddess Artemis.
This first one Diana and Actaeon. The second is The Death of Actaeon. The story of Actaeon is one of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. After being out hunting with his friends and dogs, Actaeon decides to go walking through the woods, and gets lost. He then comes upon a group of women, bathing. Wishing for a closer look, he is discovered. Ovid states Diana’s reaction, “…such was the blush on the face of Diana observed quite naked… She wished that her arrows were ready to hand…” (Ovid, Book 3: lines 184-190). Ovid gives the impression that while embarrassed to be seen in the nude, she also still kept her wits about her, wishing to strike down the young voyeur in his tracks. But, was this truly Actaeon’s fault? Ovid also states, “Why punish a man for a pure mistake?” (Ovid, line 142). More on this line from Ovid’s work in respect to his own life, in a later post. Following his ‘mistake’ Actaeon is then transformed into a stag, hunted down by his very dogs and companions and killed.
From the first piece, one can see that Actaeon has come upon Diana. With the white sheet, trying as she may, to cover herself in vain. The viewer can tell it is Diana on account of the crescent moon shaped crown on her head. She is depicted with this piece on top of her head in most pieces. This work also has wonderful foreshadowing, with the stag in the upper right of the painting. You also see the common red and blue seen during much of this time. The red representing this idea of the mortality of people, and the impending death coming to Actaeon. The blue, which the Virgin Mary is often depicted in, representing that of chastity. Diana was a virgin goddess. The depiction of both styles of dogs I find perplexing as well. Actaeon was known for hunting dogs, therefore the dog by his side, makes sense to me. However, I am having a hard time as to why Titian put this small, feeble dog next to Diana. Diana herself was a huntress, so would she not also have hunting dogs. The only thing this dog could hunt for are the scraps under the table. I did notice that, the dog beside Actaeon shares his expression, one of curiosity. It is as if the dog is also stupefied by what they have come upon. The smaller, toy dog, by Diana appears to be growling and taking an attack position, reflecting that of its master. I would still expect this dog to be a bigger version of its self, fit for hunting wild animals. It could possibly be that, in Titians mind, Artemis would not require a normal hunting dog, as her skill is far greater then that of mans.
In the second painting, I find it fascinating, that the woman in the painting, who I believe to be Diana, is painted not only without her crescent moon, but also in red, an immortal goddess, wearing the color that represents death and mortality. In contrast to the first painting, were the trees, while have some brown to them, are primarily still green, and fresh. To me, the shift in the first, to the second were the trees are that of Autumn, and brown and dying, can represent this shift in Actaeon’s life. His life went from being in his youth and having a fresh, health life, to then having his life cut down in its prime. The second painting, to me, seems darker, more dreary than the first. In the second one, Titian also details Actaeon with only the head of a stag, still on all two legs, instead of full stag form. This still follows the myth, as Actaeon’s true punishment was not so much being turned into a stag, but, “Now you may tell the story of seeing Diana naked- If story-telling is in your power!” (Ovid, line 191-192). Here Diana cursed him, by going on about him being able to tell his story, which she knew he would not be able to do, as a stag can not speak. So his true punishment is becoming the very voiceless prey, he and his dogs hunt.
These two paintings tell a story from an ancient author. They are both superlatively done and in a manner that reflects and interprets the story of Actaeon from the painters point of view, as well as incorporating and keeping true to the myth as told by Ovid.