Saturday in the Museum with Dante

Image: Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Proserpine (1882).

This piece is by an English painter with an Italian name painting a Greek goddess as a stand-in for the married woman the painter pines for.  This week we took in a show at the Kennedy Center for the first time since before times. The show, Hadestown, is a retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth set in a time evocative of depression-era New Orleans.  The musical obviously centers on the tragic tale of a love-sick boy who travels to the underworld of Hades to retrieve his love.  The relationship that shapes the story, however, is the one between Hades and Persephone.  So, for our Saturday art posts that tend to focus on food themes, we choose this piece.  It is a tale of many levels, but to get to the end you have to go to hell.

In both the myth and in the Hadestown version, Hades spares Orpheus and grants him a chance to return to the living with Eurydice based on one fateful condition.  Hades does so at the urging of his wife, Persephone, who Hades himself brought (kidnapped in the myth, slightly less violent means suggested in Hadestown) to the Underworld.  In the myth, Persephone is moved by Orpheus’s song.  In Hadestown that song has a deeper meaning for her and Hades.  Hades and Persephone’s relationship was itself subject to a deal.  Under an arrangement with Zeus, Hades agreed to return Persephone to the land of the living after the abduction, but before she is retrieved she eats from the food of the underworld, the seeds of a pomegranate.  Having eaten the fruit of her captor she is bound to him, so the final arrangement is that she must return to Hades each year for as many months as she ate seeds.  This provides a mythical reason for the seasons, as Persephone brings life to earth every spring, but when she returns to the underworld for the required months (numbers vary from 3 to 4 to 6) winter comes. Currently global warming seems to be renegotiating the deal.

Rosetti’s painting captures the fateful meal for Persephone. But the inspiration was his own tale of love.  Rosetti, a leader in the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and his friend William Morris were commissioned to paint murals at the Oxford Union.  While there, they met a young beauty Jane Burden.  But Rosetti was already engaged to another woman.  Morris married Jane.  Rosetti went forward with his marriage, but his wife died young.  Then began the love triangle, as Rosetti initiated an affair with Jane.  For a time the affair even matched the seasons, as all three summered in the same place.  Jane Morris modeled for Rosetti, including eight version of Proserpine (the Roman take on the myth with Hades in the form of Pluto).

This version is at the Birmingham Museum.  The shading on the dress is lighter than other pictures.  Wikipedia provides a good description of the imagery, drawing on a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition catalogue.

“The pomegranate draws the viewer’s eye, the colour of its flesh matching the colour of Proserpine’s full lips. The ivy behind her, as Rossetti stated, represents clinging memory and the passing of time; the shadow on the wall is her time in Hades, the patch of sunlight, her glimpse of earth. Her dress, like spilling water, suggests the turning of the tides, and the incense burner denotes the subject as an immortal. Proserpine’s saddened eyes, which are the same cold blue color as most of the painting, indirectly stare at the other realm. Overall, dark hues characterise the color scheme of the piece.”

The poem in the corner is one of Rosetti’s own, done in English and Italian depending on the version.  The English reads:

Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
Unto this wall, – one instant and no more
Admitted at my distant palace-door
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here.
Afar those skies from this Tartarean grey
That chills me: and afar how far away,
The nights that shall become the days that were.
Afar from mine own self I seem, and wing
Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
(Whose sounds mine inner sense in fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring) —
‘Woe me for thee, unhappy Proserpine’.

It is more lyrical than some odes to the goddess, but very poor at hiding his true intentions regarding Jane.


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