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Michelangelo’s (pissed up) Bacchus

By Elevenses, Michelangelo Bacchus, Talking art

Gazing into the glazed eyes of Michelanagelo’s Bacchus in the Bargello in Florence a few years ago, a friend said to me that you kind of have to love him, even if he looks a bit dodgy. Unusually, I couldn’t quite agree. I was more with the poet Percy Shelley who wrote that the god of wine looks ‘drunken, brutal, and narrow-minded, and has an expression of dissoluteness the most revolting’. A virtuoso piece of sculpting though.

Bacchus Bargello Michelangelo

Michelangelo, Bacchus, 1496-7, Bargello, Florence

Michelangelo’s Bacchus can barely focus on his cup and he definitely looks as though he could sway off that marble podium at any time. His tummy is protruding, shoulders slumped, and whilst there is evidence of some firm musculature beneath that naked torso, his body appears softly rounded, and somewhat feminine.

His left hand loosely grips an animal pelt, quite probably that of a leopard as they traditionally pulled his chariot, and bunch of grapes that are being slyly nibbled by the little satyr sitting on the tree stump behind him. The pay-off is that Bacchus is practically leaning against the satyr for support. You can practically smell the wine on his breath and see the red stained lips and teeth.

At some point he also made the sartorial decision to adorn his head with vine leaves and little bunches of grapes which resemble curls. If you’ve read the Elevenses blog ‘The art of the Bacchanal’ you’ll know that ivy was more commonly used as Bacchus’s crown. It was supposed to act as a defence against drunkenness. Could have been helpful here?!

Standing a little over two metres high, he is in fact, the embodiment of drunkenness. I haven’t tried, but I imagine wobbliness is pretty bloody hard to achieve in marble.

Which begs the question: who commissioned this and did they actually want a pissed up Bacchus with a slightly sleezy air or something less challenging – after all Bacchus here is a nasty reminder of the effects of drink.

The first question is easy to answer. The consensus is that Michelangelo was commissioned by Cardinal Riario in Rome and began working on the statue in 1496.

The answer to the second question is less clear because we don’t have the paperwork detailing the commission. Regular payments were made but as far as all the evidence suggests, the statue was never actually delivered to the Cardinal but instead displayed in the sculpture garden of Riario’s banker and Michelangelo’s friend, Jacopo Galli.

One theory is that the drunkenness was a problem. This is way past the ruddy cheeked conviviality of many other depictions of Bacchus. Alcohol was the pathway to hell and so it was unseemly in the extreme to have a statue, albeit of the god of wine, that appeared to represent total inebriation, especially if you were a man of the cloth.

Or perhaps it wasn’t quite antique enough. The 16th century saw a lot of excavation and everyone was mad for the statues of classical antiquity.

Michelangelo Bacchus 1496

Michelangelo had just pulled off a magnificent stunt in which he created a marble cupid, roughed it up a bit, and allowed it to be passed off as a genuine antique. This is, in fact, how he met Cardinal Riario who bought the piece believing it to be antique. When he found out that it was merely a fabulous fake, he was initially furious but, once he had his money back, he recognised the extraordinary talent of Michelangelo and invited him to come to Rome. This is when he commissioned Bacchus.

It would definitely seem that Michelangelo was attempting a similar outcome with Bacchus as he did with Cupid (now lost). Word on the street was that the artist himself mutilated the statue to make it look more antique, knocking off the raised hand and cup and chiselling away the penis (ouch).

In this sketch by Marten van Heemskerck of Bacchus in Galli’s sculpture garden, dated to the 1530s, you can see that both are already missing. By the 1550s, however, the hand had returned, reattached by the artist using cement, but the penis was never in evidence.

van Heemskerck Bacchus

Drawing of Bacchus in the sculpture garden of Jacopo Galli by Maarten van Heemskerck, c. 1533–1536

Did it look antique? Some contemporary commentators definitely thought so, others weren’t sure. Perhaps the slightest doubt wasn’t good enough for either Michelangelo or Riario? Perhaps it just wasn’t the kind of antique Riario was looking for.

Finally, there’s the fact that it may have been considered too effeminate. The issue was that this led to suggestions of homosexuality. Which was forbidden. But rife. Michelangelo was probably gay. Nevertheless you couldn’t promote it in a statue in the late 15th century.

So drunk, not antique enough, too effeminate? All of the above? Who knows?

Michelangelo I imagine was somewhat upset at the time. But for us today, it’s testament to his daring and genius. Would I want Michelangelo’s Bacchus in my garden though? Definitely not.

And the big (or little) question is: where’s his penis?

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Villa dei Misteri

By Elevenses, Talking art, Villa dei Misteri

Ah, the Villa dei Misteri or the Villa of Mysteries. What could be more exciting than a fresco series depicting Bacchic rituals involving a mystic marriage between a mortal woman and Bacchus?

If the frescos depict the ritual that actually took place, it was quite an event! But the frescos themselves are amazing. Created in the 1st century B.C., they are rare survivals of wall painting – Vesuvius saw to it that so much was destroyed but the ones that weren’t smashed to smithereens were brilliantly preserved by volcanic ash.

Villa dei Misteri

The first fresco shows a noble Roman woman entering the space just as we would. She’s demure and wearing a veil but I’m going to say that this is about to change because she’s the initiate about to go through the Bacchic ritual.

As she approaches the lady sitting on throne, perhaps a priestess, a young boy very studiously reads from a scroll. He seems to be being encouraged by the priestess – just look at the way she places her hand around the back of his neck; it’s really tender and very naturalistic. He’s probably reading the declaration of the initiation, and judging by the fact that she has more scroll in her hand, it’s quite long.

This part of the fresco feels very calm. This continues into the next two scenes.

villa dei misteri

Firstly we have a lady carrying a tray of something or other. No one is quite sure what – perhaps bread or cakes. She’s wearing a crown of myrtle which is associated with Aphrodite the goddess of love, and seems to be carrying some laurel which, in terms of a crown, would signify a triumph or victory but it was also used as seasoning so perhaps she’s the cook rather than a serving girl…

Alternatively she could be the initiate with an offering.

Whoever she is, she’s not engaging with the other figures in the fresco but is interacting with us.

Not so the next group of figures who are absorbed in a shared activity. Again, we aren’t exactly sure what they’re doing but given the girl on the right is pouring water on a purple robe that is being lifted very carefully by the seated women, and assisted by the woman on the right, it might be some kind of cleansing ritual. Whatever is happening, it’s clearly a delicate operation that involves cooperation between the women as the one on the left is looking pretty intently at the one on the right. Notice how the girl to the right is also wearing a myrtle crown.


As is the chap in the following image. In fact that’s all he’s wearing. The purple robe that is being dropped gives some continuity and he’s providing us with a sound track to the narrative as he plays the lyre, lost, I think in his own thoughts. Perhaps that’s how he hasn’t noticed that his robe has fallen off? He may very conceivably also be Silenus, Bacchus’s great friend and teacher; in which case he’s not lost in his own thoughts but completely wasted.

The musical accompaniment continues with a young man or perhaps a satyr playing the panpipes and another suckling goat. This is where it starts to get weird, and this woman knows it!

She’s just to the right of the goat-suckler but actually she’s looking across to the next wall and something is clearly really freaking her out.

Is this the initiate? Is it someone else? We don’t know for sure but we do know that she’d rather hot-foot it out of there. Notice the way that her body is turned in the opposite direction to her face as though she is about to run; it feels as though she might bound off that platform, which looks so real, and escape through the room. Her hand is held out as though to push back what she’s seeing and her face (and upper torso) is brilliantly framed by her billowing cloak which adds to the dynamism of this character. There’s a truly excellent use of light and shadow here which adds a brilliant sense of volume or three dimensionality to this figure; the hand is foreshortened, the way her face is painted brings a sense of her personality and psychology. It’s really accomplished.

OK! But what is it that she’s seen?

villa dei misteri

She appears to be looking over to the first group of figures on the back wall and perhaps in particular this pretty grim mask that one of the youths is holding up. This is a Silenus mask, used in Bacchic rituals. Silenus (again) proffers a drinking cup to his young friend, but notice how he’s possibly not drinking but looking into the bowl. Notice, too, how the mask lines up with his face so that he can see his reflection and the mask behind him. It reminds me of the gorgon at the bottom of the drinking cup that we saw in the Greek Symposium. This is what you become…

villa dei misteri

Then we come to the true protagonist in this fresco. A pissed up Bacchus. He’s in the centre of the back wall slouched on Ariadne’s lap, thyrsus propped against his chair; if he’s taking another ‘spiritual’ wife, he’s not going to remember much the next day but that’s how it was with these ceremonies. Remember the maenads? Well, this is what they went through!

It’s probable that the ladies to the right of Bacchus are preparing or unpacking a liknon basket. These were baskets that were used to separate grain from chaff but were also used as cradles and Bacchus was supposed to have been found in one by Silenus, hence they are associated with him. We can see the ubiquitous purple robe again; other things that may have been included in the basket were fruits, a wooden phallus and possibly a Silenus mask. That’s already being bandied about!

The idea is that these objects brought about an awakening and that the initiate would be ushered or perhaps more accurately ‘propelled’ into the retinue of Bacchus…

…which obviously involves a good whipping whilst your sisters comfort you, look on rather sternly or just dance around playing the symbols.

Again, the artist has bridged the corner brilliantly and I’m thinking that whipping is going to hurt by the way she’s pulling back the whip to get a really strong stroke in there.

Rather wonderfully, after this scene, there is a window. It might be fanciful to imagine that this is a metaphorical enlightenment – am I bringing in ideas from the Christian faith where they aren’t appropriate? Anyway, the window creates a gap and the final scene is much calmer again and really rather beautiful.

A cupid figure holds up a mirror to seated woman who is looking out at us whilst another woman, dressed in purple, is, interestingly looking down at the mirror. One of them is probably the initiate but which one? Is the other a new bride being prepared for the ritual to begin again?

So many questions.

What we do know is that these were created by a truly majestic artist and that this would be a place to go back to if you could time travel wearing an invisible cloak to witness some truly interesting scenes!

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

The art of the Bacchanal

By Bacchanal, Elevenses, Talking art

The art of the Bacchanal? Yes, the spotlight for this week’s Elevenses is on Dionysus or Bacchus as the Roman’s called him.

If the Greeks were fond of the slightly obscure and nuanced story of Hephaestus and how wine facilitated a reconciliation between him and his mother (see last week’s post and video), the Romans were more straightforward.

One of their favourite depictions was the drinking contest between Bacchus and Hercules (or Dionysus and Heracles if you’re thinking Greek). Here they are on a very fancy 23-karat gold bowl which was part of an extraordinary 18th century find when a house in Rennes was demolished.

Rennes cup Bacchus and Hercules

Bacchus & Hercules (detail), Roman gold offering bowl, ca. 210 A.D. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Bacchus is in the centre crowned with ivy (not vine leaves as is often mistakenly stated). Ivy was supposed to defend against drunkenness and at one point the berries were even thought to be a hangover cure (maybe because they’re poisonous and make you vomit?).

[The link between Bacchus and ivy, by the way, made its way over to England where old English Taverns would display ivy above their doors indicating the high quality of their drinks. I would say that self praise is no praise at all but it obviously worked so what do I know?]

But back to Bacchus. He carries a drinking horn in one hand and a staff or thyrsus in the other. The thyrsus usually has an acorn on top (as it does here) or sometimes it’s covered in grapes, vine leaves or ivy and is generally thought to symbolise fertility, hedonism, prosperity – all the good things in life! Speaking of all the good things  in life, everyone needs a panther ready to pull their chariot – there he is just below Bacchus, and what is life without good music? Nothing, I’d say so there’s an aulos player to the left, and a panpipe player on the right with a few maenads thrown in for good measure. Although Bacchus is in the centre, the other protagonist on this plate is the muscle man, Hercules, to the right. He’s still standing for now, but the way that he holds out his empty bowl to Bacchus suggests that everything might be about to go horribly wrong for him.

I might suggest that this image is the pair of them a few hours later. This is a pavement mosaic of the same scene, one of five that decorated a dining room in a 2nd century Roman villa. Dionysus is, dare I say it, possibly slightly unfocussed, but he’s finished his cup whilst Hercules, in an Herculean effort, is still downing his wine – remember that you had to drink the same amount at the same speed. Symposium rules applied to the gods, too.

I’m very glad to see that flute girl is back – unusually wearing  more clothes than the men. The older chap to the right is Silenus, Bacchus’s great friend and teacher. The child in the centre is Ampelus (a child personifying the vine) who looks, in fact, as though he is clapping Bacchus thus crowning him the victor, at least of this round. Who knows whether that’s the end or not???

Mosaic drinking competition between Hercules and Bacchus

Mosaic from Antioch, The drinking contest between Heracles and Dionysus, 2nd century A.D., Worcester Art Museum, Worcester

What we do know is that Bacchus is always going to be the winner because this is an allegorical victory of wine over physical strength. The Romans loved this story (albeit one that they possibly made up as it doesn’t feature in Greek art or literature) and used it, as these two examples show, in diverse mediums.

I suppose at the end of the day the Greek tale of Hephaestus actually tells a very similar story but at least they dressed it up a bit!

Now, speaking of dressing up, or down(!), there are some other figures who are often depicted with Bacchus and I want to end by talking about them.

Say hello to the maenads.

Maenad at Bacchanal

Dancing maenad, detail from a Paestan red-figure skyphos, ca. 330-320 B.C., British Museum, London

Here’s one who’s being very dramatic on the side of a drinking cup and I think the only thing holding her up is a thyrsus.

Who were maenads? Well, they were mortal women who were made mad in the service of Bacchus – maenad literally means madness or frenzy. Many stories suggest that this all happened against their will. Did it? I’ll tell you their duties and you can decide.

Most of their work focused around maintaining grape vines, harvesting grapes, and preparing wine.

Maenads tending grapes

Chiusi Painter, Attic black-figure cup depicting sileni and maenads collecting the harvest, late 6th century, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

But when the time came for a Bacchanal or a Dionysian cult ritual, the craziness was ramped up to the max. Think lots of drinking, energetic dancing to exhaustion, more drinking, stripping off and dancing naked, more drinking, orgies, more drinking – all to the point where you believe that you have been possessed by Dionysus himself.

Once possessed, you were connected to the divine because Dionysus was of course a god. So it was an unusual way to seek a religious experience perhaps, but were women forced into it?

Poussin Maenads Dancing

Nicolas Poussin, A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term, 1632-3, National Gallery, London

I have a feeling that the Maenads or Baccantes (generally considered a Roman word for Maenad) in Poussin’s work are fine. I feel we are at the start of proceedings here with a bit of light dancing in front of the statue or ‘term’ of Pan the god of the wild whose name also means ‘everything’ but came to be associated with lust. Forced into it? Not these ones…

P.S. What’s the difference between a nymph and a maenad? Nymphs weren’t mortal but mythological creatures who helped raise Dionysus and honoured him willingly and without getting falling-over pissed.

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Tipsy Hephaestus Releases Mother from Chains

By Elevenses, Hephaestus and Hera, Talking art

‘Tipsy Hephaestus releases mother from chains’?? Er, yes! Which is why he’s often celebrated on Kraters (vessels used to mix wine with water) even though he essentially bound her in the first place. All clear? No? Read on…

Hephaestus on a horse Attic krater

Attributed to Lydos, Krater depicting Hephaestus, ca. 550 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

krater depicting Hepaestus

Attic krater depicting Hephaestus, ca. 440-430 B.C., Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden, Netherlands

Hephaestus is the one on the horse, looking (unusually) dashing in both depictions as he heads to Olympus. But this is the end of the story. The tale actually begins at the moment of Hephaestus’s birth. He was, shall we say, not the most attractive of babies. Actually, even his own mother was unbeguiled by him even though it was probably her fault that he wasn’t the cutest.

Hera had decided that she wanted another child. But she wanted this child to be her own. And when I say ‘her own’ I mean no father, no turkey baster, no donor, no nothing. As she was a goddess, it was in her power to produce life from her own body with no male intervention and that’s exactly what she did.

Why did she want this? Somewhere in the archives, there is an Elevenses all about Athena who was said to be Zeus’s favourite child because he kind of spontaneously gave birth to her out of the top of his head, hence he was her only parent. Once the pain subsided, that worked pretty well for him. Athena was a bit of a superstar of the Greek pantheon and Hera was jealous.

Athena emerging from Zeus's head

19th century German copy of an ancient Greek vase depicting the birth of Athena

When Hephaestus was born, however, she was so horrified and mortified, that she chucked him off Olympus.

The poor little lad fell and fell and fell for an entire day – that’s how high Olympus is – but instead of dying before he’d even got going in life, he eventually plopped into the sea, completely crippled but alive. That is why, by the way, he’s depicted on a horse, although his injuries aren’t featured and he’s looking pretty healthy to me, especially on the Leiden krater.

Anyway, when he plopped into the sea at the bottom of Olympus, Thetis (possibly Achilles mum) scooped him up and nursed him. She looked after him into his adolescence, when his skills as a blacksmith became ever more obvious. He wasn’t strong or dashing but Hephaestus became the often sought-after blacksmith of the gods. At some point, however, he found out that he’d been thrown off Olympus by his mum. That must have been a tough day. So it might be surprising that he subsequently sent Hera one of the most beautiful gifts that she’d ever received. Perhaps she didn’t know who it was from, or maybe she thought that she had a very forgiving son, but when she unwrapped the beautiful throne, she had to sit in it straight away.

Hephaestus's magic throne

Attributed to the Kleophon Painter, Attic Skyphos (wine cup), ca. 430 – 420 B.C., Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo

Here she is on her throne. But if you look closely, you’ll notice that there’s a satyr (flute girl was clearly demoted – see last week’s talk on the Greek symposium) blowing an aulos into her face. And frankly she looks as though she’s flinching but she can’t do much about it because she’s stuck.

Hephaestus made a throne that he knew his mother wouldn’t possibly be able to resist, and when she sat in it, she was bound by invisible chains and unable to move. Revenge is a dish best served cold, right?

So why does he appear so often on kraters? It’s a sort of nod to the benefits of wine. In the story, Ares or Mars (to use his Roman name) was sent to force Hephaestus to release Hera. It didn’t work. He even denied he had a mother. But when Dionysus or Bacchus was deployed to get him tipsy and persuade him to come and set her free, the wine did the trick.

In the full image on this cup, he’s riding into Olympus to do just that.

Hephaestus rides into Olympus to release Hera

What I love about these cups is that they give us a great insight into the way the ancient Greeks saw their gods and imagined their trials and tribulations and successes. We see all of this today as a great story, but it was more of a lesson for them; be it a warning or an encouragement.

With that in mind, I wonder what will become of aulos boy when Hera gets free???

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

The Greek Symposium

By Elevenses, Greek symposium, Talking art

Ah, the Greek Symposium. All politics and philosophy you might think. Er, no. The ancient Greeks indulged in drinking rituals that would rival anything the boys on a rugby tour might throw at you. And I’d say that they even upped the ante!

kylix symposium scene

Kylix depicting a symposium, 5th century B.C., Berlin State Museum, Germany

As the men are illustrated around the edge of the cup, so they would recline around the edge of the room, two to each couch, with numbers ranging from 6 to 30.

The evenings started off very respectably with a banquet at which it is entirely possible that alcohol wasn’t served at all. The ancient Greeks had clearly learnt the art of lining their stomachs. After dinner, the men (yes, it was a bit of a boy’s club) had their hands washed by slaves, the floor was swept (by slaves), the room splashed with perfume (by slaves) and as if those slaves weren’t busy enough already, they often had to make time to adorn the men with garlands.

Then they’d start drinking.

At the beginning of this process, one incredibly important ritual had to take place; there would be a number of toasts to divinities; one imagines that Bacchus was always included. No one could decline to participate and everyone had to keep pace.

After these toasts, the wine would be diluted with water in a vessel known as a krater.

Krater to mix water and wine

Attributed to Lydos, Krater (bowl for mixing wine and water), ca. 550 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

The banqueters had to decide what percentage of water to put in and anything less than 50% was considered dangerous. I love the thought of the wrangles between those who wanted more or less water – I’m thinking punishments may have been doled out for anyone considered too conservative? Or am I getting carried away by my limited knowledge of ferocious rugby drinking sessions? Anyway, once mixed, the ‘fun’ would begin. Each guest would have to drink the same amount, with everyone else, so they’d choose the size of the cup that would be used and off they would go round after round. As they drank, each man had to take a turn singing a song.

symposium fresco man holding lyre

  Symposium scene from the Tomb of the Diver necropolis frescoes in Paestum, ca. 475 B.C., National Archaeological Museum of Paestum, Italy

Some would be little love songs, and the performer might accompany himself on a lyre.

Here’s one such fellow, although I think he might be more interested in the bearded gentleman he’s sharing a couch with. This is a fresco from a rare Greek wall painting that has survived from circa 475 BC. It’s called the Tomb of the Diver (another fresco depicts a man diving).

Other men might have been more interested in the Flute Girl who accompanied more bawdy, rousing songs on a flute.

She’s looking quite demure here and rather professional as she plays a double flute or an aulos. The reality is that her aulos playing could well have sounded shocking because, in truth, the flute girl was hired for her looks and sex appeal rather than her musical expertise. With that in mind, she may well have worn far fewer clothes than depicted here. If you’re wondering what’s behind her, it’s her flute case.

The poor flute girl was I’m sure veritably molested by the end of the night – that was part of her job description I think, as sobering a thought as that thought might be, but there was at least one man that she was safe from…

Flute girl

Attributed to the Brygos Painter, Flute girl depicted on lekythos (perfume bottle), ca.480 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

There was an ancient Greek book called Epidemics in which all sorts of phobias were recorded. One of the more unusual entries related to a gentleman who stated that he suffered from a fear of flute girls. I suppose this might relate to the fact that he was rubbish at singing or wasn’t interested in groping her (or worse), in any event the evening ended for him as soon as she started playing because he became so ill.

Assuming, however, that you didn’t suffer flute girl phobia, the evening would offer plenty of chance for silliness and games.

monster eye kylix
gorgon at the bottom of your cup

Nikosthenes, kylix (drinking cup) with monster eyes and a gorgon, ca. 530 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

Assuming you didn’t suffer flute girl phobia, the evening would offer plenty of chance for silliness and games.

I mean, wouldn’t it be absolutely hilarious if you turned into a monster with crazy eyes every time you drank? Look at the eyes on this. This is Dionysus in the centre holding a rhyton or a wine funnel with satyrs and maenads on either side.

And as you drained your glass, imagine if a monstrous gorgon was gradually revealed, such as this one.

The gorgon joke was particularly effective as, of course, the drinker’s face that would have originally been reflected in the wine was slowly replaced as the wine was drunk. I feel this would become more apt as the evening went on!

As would flicking things. You get drunk, you flick things. Great game, as depicted both in the Tomb of the Diver fresco and on various drinking paraphernalia. This game was known as kottabos and basically once you’d finished your cup, you’d flick the dregs at a target saying the name of your beloved. If they hit the target, happy days, if not, that wasn’t so good. You’d want to try that one early in the proceedings! The chap here has his next drink lined up – he’s flicking with his right and cradling another cup with his left.

kottabos game

Kylix (drinking cup), Kottabos, ca. 500 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y., USA

kottabos tomb of the diver
Drinking cup symposium conga

Brygos painter, kylix featuring drunken revellers, Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, Germany

And (almost) finally, there’s dancing. Of sorts. Unfortunately for the neighbours, this doesn’t seem to have been confined to the house where the symposium was taking place. Oh no, the guests would emerge, conga style, accompanied by the flute girl and try to rouse participants from other houses. Out of control!

And this is how the evening ends!

tondo from Bygros Painter kylix

Brygos painter, kylix featuring drunken revellers, Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, Germany
Photo credit: akg-images / André Held

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Release the Kraken

By Elevenses, Kraken, Talking art

Last week was all about Behemoth and Leviathan, but is the Kraken the same as Leviathan? In some mentions in popular culture, they are interchangeable but I did some digging and as you can see from these images, they are indeed similar but not quite the same…


Behemouth, Leviathan and Ziz, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana


Kraken, 2011, Wasted Talents Blogspot at

As you can see from these images, they are indeed similar but not quite the same.

Leviathan (the ‘fish’ to the right of the first image) is wrapped around an island, the Kraken IS an island.

The image of the Kraken is from a website called wasted talent – the strapline is ‘Corporate Artists wasting their talent by day, and unleashing their art super powers by night’. Love it!

The story goes that in around 1,000 AD a bishop was travelling from Norway to Greenland, spotted an island, celebrated mass on it and was very surprised to find that, after returning to his boat, he turned to take a last look but it had disappeared.

Anyway, said bishop was lucky to escape because this island was, in fact, what King Sverre of Norway termed in 1180 AD, ‘The Kraken’.

So the story of the Kraken is a Norse myth that actually has nothing to do with ancient Greece at all, no matter what you were led to believe in the Clash of the Titans.

The Kraken was described as a huge creature with tentacles and eyes the size of dinner plates. Some stories claim that the tentacles of the Kraken are more than a mile long which would make sense if it was mistaken for an island.

Kraken 1650 image of creature devouring boat

A kraken attacking a ship, c. 1650, getty images

Accounts of what the Kraken liked to eat were varied. According to the more bloody thirsty legends, the giant beast would rapidly ascend from the depths to wrap its monstrous tentacles around a ship, pulling it under the waves where it could devour the sailors.

Or it would swim around and around the vessel to create a maelstrom and sink the ship that way. Is that reminiscent of anything? Remember Charybdis?

Some say that it was more interested in fish which was such a terrifying prospect for the fish that they would swim near to the surface of the water, basically trying to escape. All that did was enable brave sailors to profit by making an easy catch. Nice choice, the Kraken or the fishing net! But the real kicker for the fish was that once the Kraken had eaten and digested them, it would poo out its waste but this waste would be so irresistible to the fish (seriously who came up with this theory?) that they were attracted back to the vicinity of the Kraken so that the cycle was put on repeat.

Much of this was noted, albeit rather less sensationally, when the Kraken made an appearance in scientific journals, which it did quite frequently. The first is dated to around 1250 and describes the Kraken in great detail. It also comments on the monster’s unique feeding habits but has a slightly different twist; it claims that the Kraken would regurgitate food particles from its mouth into the sea. Fish would be attracted to the food and swarm to feed. The Kraken could then scoop up the school of fish in one gulp. Is that less disgusting? Not sure.

When Swedish botanist and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus first undertook the task of classifying all living creatures on Earth, he also included the Kraken. The 1735 edition of his Systema Naturae has an entry for the Kraken, which he categorized as a cephalopod and named Microcosmus marinus. Subsequent reprints omitted the Kraken entry which was a shame. Perhaps that’s because, in another work, Linnaeus noted that the Kraken was a ‘unique monster that inhabits the seas of Norway, but I have not seen this animal.’

Nonetheless, it appears again in a description by the Danish historian and bishop, Erik Pontoppidan in his Natural History of Norway from 1755 which includes, by the way, mention of a ‘strong and peculiar’ scent that is particularly alluring to fish.

Pontoppidan didn’t go overboard (pardon the pun) in his claims about the terrifying nature of the Kraken, which, unfortunately cannot be said for Pierre Denys de Montfort. Granted he had figured out that, surprise, surprise, the Kraken was either a giant squid or octopus, and indeed he is known today for his pioneering inquiries into the existence of the gigantic octopuses.

Montfort turned out, however, to be a bit of a sensationalist. He claimed that ten British warships that had mysteriously disappeared one night in 1782 must have been attacked and sunk by giant octopuses. Unfortunately for Montfort, the British knew what had actually happened to the ships, and called him out on his claims. Suffice to say, his career went down the pan and never recovered.

de Montfort giant octopus attacking ship

Pierre Denys de Montfort, a colossal octopus, 1801

Not so for Jules Verne who’s original edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea included this illustration which pays homage to the Kraken.

So what was reported by the bishop who took mass on the island all those years ago? The description of the ‘emissions’ and the numerous tentacles suggest that it might well have been an octopus or a squid, and indeed several have washed up on northern shores over the centuries. As they are soft-bodied cephalopods, however, they wouldn’t leave behind fossil evidence so who knows?

Jules Verne giant squid

The crew of Nautilus battles a giant squid in Jules Vernes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, illustration from original 1870 edition

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Behemoth and Leviathan

By Behemoth and Leviathan, Elevenses, Talking art

I bet you’ve heard of Behemoth and Leviathan but who are/were they?

Here they are depicted as an ox (Behemoth) and as a huge fish (Leviathan) in a 13th century manuscript that was created in northern France but is written in Hebrew. The story of the pair is found in the book of Job but is far more developed in the Jewish tradition than Christian.

Behemoth British Library

Behemoth, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library

Leviathan British Library

Leviathan, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library

So it’s a story about an ox and a fish? Sort of but the ox is an animal so large that it covers the earth and the fish is of a similar size in the oceans.

The myth of Behemoth and Leviathan goes back to the beginning of time.

God created Leviathan on the fifth day and then Behemoth on the sixth. In some stories they both have wives created at the same time but in others only Leviathan gets female company. This doesn’t last long as Chaos comes along (like many things created at the beginning of time, chaos was both a concept and a living entity) and corrupts Leviathan. This means that Leviathan is now capable of evil intent and therefore God, quite sensibly, got rid of Mrs L. to avoid double trouble. As the pair were more powerful than any other creatures on land or earth, but equal in strength to each other, the world was held in equilibrium; evil existed but couldn’t prevail.

Ziz, British Library

Ziz, The Northern French Miscellany, 1277-1286, British Library

If you’re wondering whether the sky was represented in the same way, say hello to Ziz, the original big bird. According to a tale in the Babylonian Talmud, a bird was seen by sailors standing up to it’s ankles in water. They assumed that the water wasn’t deep but a voice warned them that they were very much deceived. Apparently a carpenter had dropped his axe seven years previously and it STILL hadn’t reached the bottom! I don’t, however, know how they knew it hadn’t reached the bottom?! If you watch the video, you will notice that I get this tale somewhat wrong but the essence is correct. These animals are massive.

So how do you represent animals of unfathomable size pictorially? You take your cue from written descriptions and think of animals that would garner the appropriate amount of respect and fear within your society.

The book of Job describes Behemoth as a strong herbivore with a tail like a cedar tree (to give some sense of scale). Leviathan is a scaly, twisty creature with sharp teeth.

Here they are again in a 13th century German manuscript. Ziz is a griffin type animal this time, Leviathan is huge enough to encircle an island and Behemoth is frankly just a happy ox chewing on a (presumably) very tall tree.

Behemoth, Leviathan, Ziz, Ambrosiana Bible

Behemouth, Leviathan and Ziz, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana

I wonder, though, whether this mosaic from the House of the Faun references the same myth? It can’t refer to a Christian context as it was created late in the 1st century BC. The hippopotamus and crocodile in the centre are certainly engaged in a little contretemps but don’t seem to be about to take it to the next level!

The mosaic depicts scenes from the Nile and these were the most feared of the animals to be found there. They also correspond with later tradition in that the hippo is a giant herbivore and the crocodile is known for its teeth and ability to twist. Could this particular creation myth have ancient roots?

House of the Faun Nile Mosaic

 Late 1st century BC mosaic, Scenes from the Nile, House of the Faun, Pompeii

So that’s what happened at the beginning of time, but how does it end? With a feast of course!

This is the image directly below Behemoth, Leviathan and Ziz from the Ambrosiana Bible. The story goes that at the end of the world, God will command Behemoth and Leviathan to engage in combat. But as they are equally matched, it will be a fight to the death for both of them. Once dead, they will join the mother of all roast birds (Ziz – aww!) on the banquet table for all the righteous. And what a banquet this will be as it will herald the beginning of the Messianic Age when everyone will live in a world without evil.  At least this what the Jewish tradition states. The book of Job in the bible is quiet on the matter but the apocryphal Old Testament tells the same tale.

Ambrosiana Bible end of the world feast

Feast of the Righteous, 1236, Ambrosiana Bible, Ulm (Germany), Milano, Biblioteca Ambrosiana

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Scylla and Charybdis

By Elevenses, Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis, Talking art

Today we are between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. In times past folks may have been more worried about being between Scylla and Charybdis which, to be honest, is a pretty terrible place to be as anyone who has ever passed through the Straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily will know.

Who or what are Scylla and Charybdis?

This is a fresco from a cycle of works about Ulysses or Odysseus who had the journey of all journeys home from Troy, and as part of this nightmare had to pass through the Straits of Messina.

Ulysses fresco Scylla nd Charybdis

Alessandro Allori, Scylla from the Ulysses Cycle, 1575, Palazzo Salviati, Florence

Charybdis is depicted on the bottom right of the fresco and was thought to be the daughter of Poseidon, the Sea God, and Gaia, the Earth Goddess, which is funny because I always thought of her as a man; she definitely looks like an old man here.

As with many stories in Greek mythology, Charybdis had a better start in life which, thanks to Zeus, has now somewhat gone down the drain.

Being the daughter of Poseidon, she was closer to him than she was to her uncle Zeus and so when Poseidon requested that she help him increase the size of his realm by flooding large areas of land with seawater, she acquiesced only to incur the wrath of Zeus. No one wants the wrath of Zeus because he’s nothing if not inventive. As Charybdis’s punishment, she was turned into a monster that would eternally swallow sea water, creating whirlpools.

Scylla may have had an even more dramatic and terrible transformation as she was a beautiful nymph, possibly or possibly not the daughter of Lamia, who got herself turned into a terrible monster, destined to be trapped in the rocks opposite Charybdis. Her monstrosity took the form of six ravenous heads that yapped like dogs and had three rows of sharp teeth to tear apart any sailor that came within reach. Unfortunately, six of Odysseus’s men were lost to her as we see here. You have to love the fact that the remaining men simply seem mildly curious at the fate of their fellow sailors.

The Strait of Messina is, by the way, extremely dangerous so who knows, perhaps the legends were created to fit the geography rather than the other way round?! Controversial!

Here Scylla is again on this krater from classical antiquity. I’m not sure those dogs look particularly terrifying?! It’s curious that she has a serpentine tail and carries a fish knife. Arguably depictions of her altered after Ovid’s Metamorphosis became widely known and most artists took their cue from his description:

She frantically felt for the flesh of her thighs, her legs and her feet,
but all that she found was a cluster of gaping hell-hounds.
She’d nothing to stand on but rabid dogs whose bestial backs she was holding
in check beneath her truncated loins and protuberant belly (trans. David Raeburn)

Louvre Krater, Scylla

Krater from Classical period, circa 450-425BC, Louvre, Paris

Let’s go back to the story of Scylla because you would imagine that she must have done something truly horrific to have such a grim destiny.

The truth is that she did absolutely nothing wrong except attract the wrong man. Here he is. This is Glaucus, at least as Rubens imagined him, and I find it very hard to believe that Scylla wasn’t interested but she wasn’t.

Glaucus Rubens

Glaucus was extremely interested in her, however, oh yes! So much so that he went to the witch Circe to ask her make him a love potion to give to Scylla. But what does Circe do instead? She gives him a draft that turns Scylla into a monster. Why? Because Glaucus is irresistible to at least one lady in this story! Circe doesn’t get her man, however, she gets exiled instead and wreaks havoc elsewhere.

Circe isn’t in this image but here is the lovely Scylla who looks as though she’s just taken all her unruly dogs for a walk by the sea wearing only a transparent wisp of material and hopefully a lot of SPF 50. The model was Rubens’ second wife Helen Fourment who was 37 years his junior and to his evident delight, very happy to pose nude.

Rubens, Scylla and Glaucus, 1636, Musée Bonnat-Hellau, France

If we know what Rubens’ main concern was (he painted Helen as often as he could and absolutely adored her), Turner’s is also obvious. Same scene, completely different focus! Look at that sun – the light is just fantastic as you would expect from Turner. BUT although we know that he excelled at painting dramatic light effects, the sun is sort of part of the story. Guess who Circe’s father was? Helios the Sun God. Circe’s presence can be said, therefore, to radiate throughout this work. Apparently, although it’s square, it was also intended to be framed in a circular frame making the reference to the sun even more implicit. This was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1841 where it was ridiculed for being indistinct and lacking detail.

Glaucus and Scylla Turner

J. M. W. Turner, Scylla and Glaucus, 1841, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.


By Elevenses, Lamia, Talking art

I can say with some certainty that you wouldn’t want to meet Lamia. Why not? John William Waterhouse has depicted her as a pretty lady sitting pensively beside a lake maybe checking out her hair in the reflection. There’s a lot of detail in this image (Waterhouse adopted the style of the pre-Raphelites, so called because they championed a return to art pre Raphael who they felt led the charge towards art becoming less precise and less detailed) and it’s all very lovely, so much so that it might take a while to notice that the beautiful blue and gold cloth on her lap is in fact a snake skin and that there are a couple of snakes either side of her too.


John William Waterhouse, Lamia, 1909

What are the snakes all about? That’s a fair question. Waterhouse’s painting references a poem by Keats.

This beautiful woman, Lamia, starts the poem as a snake. Ah ha! She persuades Hermes to return her to human form and in exchange she will reveal the hiding place of a nymph with whom he’s fallen madly in love. The clue to whether the love is reciprocated is in the fact that the nymph has hidden from him.

Sisterly love? Very much not!

Lamia herself has her eye on a delicious fellow and, as the beautiful woman she has been transformed into, she seduces him and they live a solitary life together until one day he says that they really ought to marry.

Lamia doesn’t go a bundle on this but she agrees as long as the philosopher Apollonius isn’t invited. What did he ever do to her? Nothing but she knows that he will recognise her as the serpent she truly is.

Apollonius pitches up anyway, reveals her as a serpent, ruins the wedding feast and she vanishes and her new husband dies. A bad marriage that didn’t even really begin!

Here’s another painting by Waterhouse in which she’s seen seducing the knight. Again, the devil is in the detail; notice the snake at the bottom of the work and the way Lamia is rocking snake skin accessories!

Lamia and the Knight, Waterhouse

John William Waterhouse, Lamia and the Soldier, 1905, private collection

So where did Keats get his inspiration from?

Greek mythology, obviously!

Disappointingly I can’t find a painting of any part of the Lamia story from Greek mythology – I suppose that’s because it’s relatively unknown, but I did find examples such as the two below on

So now we have a snake and babies involved. The Greeks really knew how to tell a good story – and with this one they managed to create one that is still used to threaten naughty children today in some countries.

Lamia started life in many of the tales as the beautiful Queen of Libya. In some she is also the daughter of the sea god Poseidon and a nymph.

Unfortunately for Lamia she caught the eye of Zeus and they had a rapturous affair, even though she’s his niece. What happens when you get jiggy with Zeus? There are offspring. Always. What also happens when you have an affair with Zeus? His wife finds out and exacts retribution. Not on her husband but on the object of his affections, although in this case, Zeus must have been pretty devastated too because Hera killed the children he had with Lamia. Well, except one possible daughter Scylla, who became a six headed monster who killed sailors. I say ‘possible’ because her parentage is uncertain. Anyway, the grief destroyed Lamia and not only did she also turn into a monster, but she completely flipped and began to kill any child she could lay her hands on. Some say that she even ate them.

Some of you, even as I speak, might be wondering why no plan was hatched to kill the crazy baby murderess. All you’d have to do is wait until she fell asleep, right? That might have been a good plan BUT in some versions of the story, Hera wasn’t done with killing her children and making Lamia mad. Oh no, the coup de grace was that she caused Lamia to be sleepless by preventing her from ever being able to close her eyes. Luckily for Lamia the ever practical Zeus was on hand with a remedy for that. He made her eyes removable so that she could take them out when she needed rest.

So now Lamia exists in mythology as a vampiric child killer and, largely thanks to Keats, as a dangerous shapeshifting seducer of men.

Lamia Edward Topsell woodcut

Woodcut depicting Lamia, 1607, from Edward Topsell‘s The History of Four-Footed Beasts

Oh, she was possibly also inspiration for this creature to be found in Edward Topsell’s 17th century book, The History of Four-Footed Beasts. The beast which has the head and breasts of a woman, forelegs like a bear, hindlegs like a goat and the body of a serpent but with scales like a dragon (snakes and dragons have often been interchangeable), they preyed on humans and sucked the blood of children.

They probably ruin your hardy perennials too so I’d say they wouldn’t be a welcome visitor. All that from a roll in the hay with Zeus!

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.

Marriage a la Mode – The Lady’s Death

By Elevenses, Marriage a la Mode, Talking art

This is the final painting in Hogarth’s Marriage a la Mode series and it’s descriptively called ‘The Lady’s Death’. Ouch.

We don’t see what happened after Silvertongue killed the Countess’s husband in a sword fight in a dodgy bagnio and fled out of the window, but Hogarth has filled in the gaps for us, leading us to this moment.

Marriage a la Mode - The Lady's Death

William Hogarth, Marriage a la Mode: The Lady’s Death, 1743, National Gallery, London

It is clear, for instance that Silvertongue and the Countess had a room on the ground floor because the lawyer survived long enough to be arrested, brought to trial and hanged for murder. We know this because at the lady’s feet is a discarded broadsheet that has a drawing of a gallows at the top and the headline that includes the words ‘Counsellor Silvertongue’ and ‘last dying speech’. Just next to this is a presumably empty bottle with a label reading ‘laudanum’ visible. So, from her surroundings and the fact that her Dad is next to her (remember him from the first painting?) we can deduce that she returned to her father’s home to lie low with her child, who also makes his or her first and last appearance here. Perhaps she has spent frantic weeks pouring over the papers for news of her lover, or following his trial because the suggestion is that the news of his death has made her so desperate that she has now chosen to take her own life surrounded by her loving family and faithful servants. Or not.

bad news and laudanum, hogarth

Let’s talk about her Dad first. Is he distraught that she’s breathing her last? No. He’s removing the ring from her finger. Okay, so in the case of suicide all of her possessions would have had to have been turned over to the crown so you could say that he’s making the best of a terrible situation but in all honesty I feel he could have waited just a while longer and allowed her to give one final (or perhaps one single – we know she wasn’t maternal!) cuddle to the child that is being presented to her by the maid.

Hogarth Marriage a la Mode Death of Lady


The child isn’t, it has to be said, the cutest little thing. It could be a boy or a girl as both wore dresses until the age of around 8, but whichever sex he or she is, they haven’t been given the best start in life. We’ve seen that sunken bridge on the nose before in Dr. M. La Pillule and we’ve certainly seen the black spot. The poor child is suffering from congenital syphilis. If you recall, the doctor was rather bandy legged but here the disease is so far advanced that surgical boots and braces are required, all suggesting that the heir to the Squanderfield title won’t last long at all. Cast your mind back again to the first image and the ostentatious family tree that started with William the Conqueror. That’s about to come to abrupt end.

The blame for the ‘abrupt end’ of the Countess is, it seems, being put firmly at the feet of the footman. Is he a footman? A servant, certainly. He’s not the brightest and the apothecary (I’m very disappointed not to meet Dr La Pillule again) appears to be berating him for not preventing the lady’s death. The items in his pocket have been identified as a stomach pump 18th century style, and a bottle of syrup which was used to induce vomiting. Apparently that’s all too late now.

The blame game Hogarth Marriage a la Mode

I’ve said that I’m sad not to see Dr La Pillule but, wait, there is another shadowy figure heading out the door to the left of the work. Could that be him? It’s hard to tell as he’s half hidden and has his back to us. Having delivered the news that has prompted the Alderman to remove the ring from the Countess’s finger, he may well be admiring the line of buckets on the wall. Each is marked with an ‘S’ for sand. Once again, we are invited to look back to the earlier works and perhaps think of that marvellous proverb ‘don’t kindle a fire you can’t extinguish’ that was suggested by a smouldering corset ribbon in The Bagnio. Doesn’t that seem a lifetime ago now?

Smouldering corset

Doctor's departure Marriage a la Mode

The ostentatious bad taste of the young couple’s marital home is also lightyears away from the strange meal on the table. I would worry that they aren’t getting enough nutrients if they eat like this: an egg on what the National Gallery suggest is a plate of rice, a couple of slices of bread and a pig’s head that the dog is tucking into. I’d say that the fact that the dog is warily about to slide it off the table by the ear makes reference to their ‘pig’s ear’ of a marriage but the expression wasn’t in common use until the mid 20th century. However, the old proverb ‘you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ dates from the 16th century and I think that just about sums up the whole charade!

Pig's Ear marriage a la mode Hogarth

Who can identify, by the way which bridge the Alderman’s house has a view of? It’s not the one I mention in the live talk because that wasn’t built until the 19th century – doh! Sometimes I have to make a ‘deliberate’ mistake!!! I made the same mistake back in February too in the post about Valentine’s cards which you can watch here or read about here. It’s London Bridge, not Tower Bridge, obviously…

The video of this episode can be viewed here. To view the entire ‘Elevenses with Lynne’ archive, head to the Free Art Videos page.