Gods and monsters – where artists sought their inspiration
In the latest of her regular columns, Dorothy Blundell takes a sideways look behind the scenes at The Bowes Museum where she is a volunteer
WHERE do painters get their inspiration? It might be easier to say where they don’t. Anything and everything can light a spark of creativity.
A bowl of fruit, a beautiful woman or a sweeping landscape. Or maybe a truly epic tale like the history of the world – one such as that penned by the 1st century Roman poet, Ovid.
He wrote a narrative poem of mythological stories called the Metamorphoses and it has inspired countless examples of art, and not just paintings.
Take the Dragon Slayer for example. Painted by Hendrick Jacob Hoet (c1693-1733), it shows Perseus, on a winged horse, riding to the rescue of Andromeda before she is eaten by a sea-dwelling monster.
She had been chained to the rock as a sacrifice to the creature in order to stop the beast from devastating her father’s kingdom.
Bones lie scattered in the foreground, indicating her likely fate and adding to the drama of the image.
Perseus was smitten by her beauty, or as Ovid said: “He would have thought she was a marble statue, except that a light breeze stirred her hair, and warm tears ran from her eyes.”
Perseus vowed: “Rescued by my courage, she must be mine.”
Ovid continues: “Perseus evades the eager jaws on swift wings, and strikes with his curved sword wherever the monster is exposed. His wings, soaked with spray, grow heavy. He sees a rock... Resting there, and holding on to the topmost pinnacle with his left hand, he drives his sword in three or four times...”
And then there is the Harnessing of the Sun. More of a sketch than a painting, for artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) shows a collection of some of the details which he used when he decorated the ceiling of an Italian palace.
The ceiling was subsequently destroyed when the palace was bombed during the Second World War. The images are from the story about Helios, the god who drove the chariot of the sun across the skies every day.
Helios’ son, Phaethon, desperately wants to have a go and, as the horses are harnessed, Helios tries to dissuade him.
In the end Helios reluctantly agrees to let Phaethon take the reins – with tragic consequences. He can’t control the wild horses.
They veer off course, too near the earth and the blistering heat causes deserts and forest fires. To prevent further disaster, Zeus, god of the sky, throws a thunderbolt which hurls Phaethon to his death.
From the fiery chariot of the heavens, we move to hell, or to be precise, the mouth of hell which is depicted as a monster’s jaws agape in a stone carving from a church demolished in 1967 at Monk Hesleden, County Durham.
The Harrowing of Hell is 58cm high and is part of a 15th century altar screen which shows Christ going into hell, with Satan above, holding the keys.
If you want to know where to find more fantastic beasts, look at the Temptation of St Anthony, the first painting bought by John Bowes when he was 19. It shows all manner of monsters and demons assailing the hermit saint and the fires of hell glowing in the background.
The artist, Cornelis Saftleven (1607-1681), although better known for his scenes of peasant life and rural interiors, was significant in Dutch painting for his extraordinary representations of hell and the supernatural.
So, as you can see, legendary stories are fertile material for artists of any age.
With the further easing of lockdown restrictions, the museum reopened last week, so if you know any little monsters why not take them for a visit and see if the gods inspire them?
You can also explore the collection online at bowes museum.org.uk.