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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Artist's Mythological Bible

Bibles of biblical proportions
Whenever someone mentions the Bible, we naturally think first of Judeo-Christian scriptures--considered God's imparting to man everything man needs to know about God. But, over the years, the word "bible" has been appropriated as a title for similar compendiums on a host of other subjects. There's The Shooter's Bible, for instance--basically everything anyone needs to know about firearms. We have the Bird Watcher's Bible, the Stamp Collector's Bible, Star Wars Collector's Bible and even The Comic Bible, which, by the way, has nothing to do with funny scriptures. I wouldn't be surprised if, somewhere in the vast reference library of know-it-all-ism, there isn't an artist's bible.

Ovid's Metamorphosis, 1581 edition
in German
During the Renaissance, as the number of working artists proliferated, and the number who could be kept reasonably busy decorating church walls reached a saturation point, painters turned from the Bible to a revival of interest in Greek and Roman mythology in their search for other noble subject matter worthy of their time and talents. In doing so, they discovered a sort of bible of mythology. The Latin scholar, Ovid wrote it, in the first century CE. And it was very well written too. There was liveliness in Ovid's narratives that made his texts hugely popular with secular humanist scholars and artists from the 15th century well into modern times. His Metamorphosis (left) was a long poem of myths and legends telling of passion, tragedy, punishment, and salvation. But, unlike the Bible, it proclaimed no clear morality. Thus it was fair game for great thinkers, writers, philosophers, and particularly great artists in search of a freedom of expression in their themes and subject matter, which Christian teachings would not endure. Ovid's tales became the secular painter's bible.

Apollo and Daphne, 1470,
Antonio Pollaiuolo
Antonio Pollaiuolo may have been the first Renaissance artist to embrace Ovid in his depiction of the nymph Daphne fleeing a lascivious god, Apollo, in Apollo and Daphne painted in 1470. In 1522, Titian illustrated the story of Ariadne, abandoned by her lover, Theseus, on the island of Naxos as she falls in love with Bacchus (below). Veronese, in 1580, painted Venus and Adonis (bottom) with her nude son, Cupid, the archer of love. Even as late as the nineteenth century, English artist Herbert Draper turned to Ovid's story of Icarus and his foolish disregard for the words of his father in his depiction of nude sea nymphs singing their lament for the mythological aviator's tragic death.

Bacchus and Ariadne, 1522, Titian
In each case, regardless of the prevailing style of the era, we find artists mining Ovid's words for a richly evocative treasure of subject matter and, moreover, an imaginative freedom of expression their counterparts painting for the church could only envy. In the 20th century and today, narrative paint--Ovidian, biblical, or otherwise--has practically ceased to exist, moving over to more viable storytelling media (Ovid according to Disney?). But we can continue to appreciate the broad tradition of creative expression which Ovid's secular "bible" engendered as, today, we enjoy the freedom to turn our painting talents to virtually any subject matter we see fit.
Venus and Adonis, 1580-82, Veronese

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