BMCR 1994.09.17

1994.09.17, Reid et al., Oxford Guide to Myth/Arts

, , The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1990s. Classical mythology in the arts, 1330-1990s.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. 2 volumes (xxiii, 1310 pages) ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780195049985.

The flyleaf of The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1990s reminds us, in Shelley’s words, that “we are all Greeks,” and the ensuing thirteen hundred pages of entries and indexes exhaustively document the depth and breadth of our enduring Hellenic heritage. Initially appropriated by pagan Rome and then taken up again and again in the successive waves of the Christian and secular reappropriations of antiquity we call the Renaissance, Neo-classicism, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Modernism, and Post-modernism, the classical Greek myths have been repeatedly represented in our literature, in the visual arts of painting and sculpture, and in the performing arts of music and dance. The Guide copiously chronicles the transmission and transformation of classical mythology in the most prestigious arts of the last seven centuries, and even though it largely excludes from consideration the elite arts of decoration (plates, coins, figurines, medals, furniture, jewels) and the popular art of prints (including, in our own age, comics, film, and television), within the parameters set by the Guide the resulting array of some 30,000 works of art is quite stunning enough. Exhaustively compiled by Jane Davidson Reid, Senior Research Associate at Mount Holyoke College, with the principal assistance of Chris Rohmann and a subsidiary roster of the compiler’s many “academic friends”, the Guide henceforth will be the standard tool for classicists and modernists, historians and critics, artists and writers, and all those others intent on studying the survival and revival of classical mythology down to the present day. For general bibliographical orientation to the field one will still consult Frances Van Keuren’s Guide to Research in Classical Art and Mythology (Chicago, 1991).

The Oxford Guide‘s two thick volumes list representations of all the major gods and heroes from Achilles to Zeus as well as such lesser-known companion figures as Achelous or Zetes. The blind entries of the latter personages are cross-referenced with the entries of Heracles and Jason respectively, where we discover many unfamiliar instances of the river-god’s struggle with the hero for the hand of Deianeira or the winged Argonaut’s participation in the pursuit of the Harpies. In addition to the enumeration by proper name of literary, pictorial, musical, or choreographical representations of major and minor mythological exploits such as the above, there are also a number of thematically or topographically demarcated entries such as Ages of the World, Arcadia, Bacchanalia, Banquet of the Gods ( see Gods and Goddesses), Hades, Parnassus, Seven Against Thebes, Shepherds and Shepherdesses, and Trojan War. An individual entry may bear more than a single proper name if the relevant story is that of a linked pair of figures, such as the lovers Acontius and Cydippe, Hero and Leander, or Troilus and Cressida, the last of whose “myth” is not Greek at all but derives from the medieval Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. Other post-classical stories involving a properly mythological figure are found as subentries under Aphrodite—at fifty pages the longest entry in the Guide—where along with numerous representations of the Greek myths of the goddess’s birth there are also listings of the Roman theme of Venus Frigida derived from Terence’s famous quotation “Sine Cerere et Baccho friget Venus,” as well as the thirteenth-century German theme of the captivation of Tannhäuser by Venus, best known to us in the operatic version by Richard Wagner. Aphrodite’s amorous encounters with Ares are given a separate entry under the couple’s joint names whereas the goddess’s love for the Trojan prince Anchises is treated as a subentry under her name alone. The mortal issue of their union, Aeneas, is accorded one of the most elaborate entries in the Guide, following over the course of thirty pages the recitation in Virgil from the hero’s flight from Troy to his encounter with Dido, his arrival in Latium, and his eventual apotheosis. The wanderings of Odysseus, the life and death of Orpheus, and the machinations of Eros are treated at the same length as the tales of Aeneas, but only the adventures and labors of Heracles are accorded the same attention as that received by Aphrodite. So too in our own day when the likes of Madonna and Schwarzenegger ritually embody Sex and Violence for the cinematic devotions of our culture at large.

Ours has been called the culture of narcissism, and the entry on Narcissus may be used as a means of assessing the scope and limit of the Guide. As in the case of each entry, an initial paragraph summarizes the story of the deathly metamorphosis of Narcissus, the youth-turned-flower who spurned the love of the nymph Echo in favor of pining after the inaccessible image he perceived in the water of a pool. In Ovid this specular image is understood as the reflection of Narcissus which the youth eventually comes to acknowledge in the impossibility of its possession; in Pausanias, however, the reflection reminds the youth of his deceased sister over whose lost likeness he remains suspended in mourning. Whether by way of the trauma of the unfulfillable desire for an ideal image of Self or Other (as psychoanalysis, not mentioned in the Guide, will reinterpret the myth in our century), Narcissus inevitably dies. Beyond the standard references to lines in Ovid and Pausanias, the Guide also sends us to the versions of the story in Conon, Philostratus, Ausonius, and Nonnus, as well as to Louise Vinge’s fundamental study of the latter-day literary reworkings of the myth (Lund, 1967).

All this takes up less than thirty lines of type, a brief descriptive and bibliographical prelude to the ten pages of entries of 306 writers, painters, sculptors, composers, choreographers, etc. who variously have taken up the Narcissus myth. Several medieval sources are cited such as Le Roman de la Rose (ca. 1230) where, for example, the fate of Narcissus is warningly evoked at the site of the narrator’s discovery of the Fountain of Love. A number of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sources are also cited such as the Ovide moralisé (ca. 1320) or Christine de Pizan’s L’Epistre d’Othéa à Hector (ca. 1400), where once again the lover’s plight is didactically compared to the unassuaged youth of the myth. In the latter case the Guide misses noting the painted illuminations that accompany the text of the manuscript, a reference available, however, in Andor Pigler’s monumental Barockthemen: Eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts (Budapest, 1974), a work duly acknowledged in the introduction and cited only selectively in the Guide. The listings in the two volumes share thirty entries, from Filarete’s bronze door (ca. 1445) at the Vatican to a painting in a Darmstadt private collection by Johann August Nahl the Younger (1752-1825). The index of artists at the back of volume two indicates that Filarete’s sculptural reliefs feature many additional representations of myth from the death of Actaeon to the infancy of Zeus, whereas the much less well-known Nahl is listed as the author of only a single work, “Hector’s Farewell to Andromache,” in addition to the aforementioned “Narcissus.” The Guide cites Pigler as the source for the obscure Nahl reference (all abbreviated source s are listed in full at the back of volume two), but the Guide silently passes by some fifty entries in Pigler, many of them from the underexamined media of drawings and prints although several paintings in known locations by otherwise included artists are omitted as well. Conversely, the Guide adds to Pigler’s often inaccessible and unillustrated references some thirty Renaissance and Baroque representations of Narcissus in readily accessible, recent publications.

Too recent to be included in the Guide is Colin Bailey’s exhibition catalogue The Loves of the Gods: Mythological Paintings from Watteau to David (Fort Worth, 1992) with its comprehensive listing of mythological paintings exhibited at the Salon, 1699-1791, compiled by Carrie A. Hamilton and Rosamund Downing. The Loves of the Gods exhibited two Narcissus paintings not included in the Guide by Nicolas-Bernard Lépicié (a variant of 1771) and Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1792), but approximately two-thirds of the exhibition’s sixty-seven works are known to the Guide though not always at their current location. Also missing from the Guide is Hendrick van Balen’s representation in the Philadelphia Museum of Art of Narcissus as one of his “Four Ovidian Scenes” (ca. 1600), a work included in Mercedes Rochelle’s useful but now largely superceded Mythological and Classical World Art Index: A Locator of Paintings, Sculptures, Frescoes, Manuscript Illuminations, Sketches, Woodcuts and Engravings Executed 1200 B.C. to A.D. 1900, with a Directory of the Institutions Holding Them (Jefferson, N.C., 1991).

Nothing comparable to either Pigler or Bailey exists for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is here that the Guide breaks quite new ground. Having just completed a book on the myth of Narcissus and the paintings of reflections in water by Claude Monet (1840-1926), I’m astounded by how much in the Guide I didn’t know. This is especially true on the musical side where the Guide goes farthest in documenting the thorough mythological saturation of public entertainment. From Scacchi (1638) to Scarlatti (1720), Glück (1779), Scribe (1820), Massenet (1877), Fokine (1911), and Villela (1966), composers and choreographers have repeatedly conspired to keep the myth of Narcissus before the public in alternatively tragic or comic manifestations, thus enriching our context for understanding the mute, often too-seriously-taken representations of the visual arts.

Of the Narcissus-representations mentioned in my book, the Guide notes paintings, prints, and sculptures spanning three centuries by Poussin (ca. 1630), Claude (1644), Houasse (1691), Le Moyne (ca. 1725), Lépicié (1771), Daumier (1842), Gleyre (1847), Dubois (1863), Moreau (ca. 1890), Desvallières (1893), Brancusi (ca. 1910), and Dali (1937), as well as poems from Ronsard (1554), Marbeuf (1620), and Chénier (ca. 1790), to Gide (1891), Valéry (1891), Régnier (1895), and Rilke (1926). My research turned up additional works exhibited at the Salon in Paris by the lesser-known artists Desgoffe (1844), Vibert (1864), Machard (1872), Courtois (1887), Cavé (1890), Lemaître (1894), Oble (1895), Boisson (1896), Bisson (1896), Charpentier (1897), and Greber (1909), as well as poems and prose by the Symbolist writers Baudelaire, Bernard, Bouhélier, Darnetal, Dauguet, Gasquet, Gilkin, Gourmont, Lorrain, Mallarmé, Mauclair, Pilon, Rollinat, Royère, Scheffer, and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. Such supplementary listings could be multiplied for each and every entry, and I offer mine in the spirit of the Guide‘s generous invitation to its readers “to help close the lacunae inevitable in a work of this sort.” Given that Heracles could have herded the cattle of Geryon through the lacunae of previous guides, it is the heroic labor of Reid’s Guide to have done so much to close the gap.