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Illustrating Myths, Legends and Folklore: A picture speaks a thousand words

Updated on April 27, 2016

Myths, legends and folklore are intrinsic elements of society. The tales that we are raised with contribute to our construction of individual and collective identity - and this is a process that continues throughout our lives.

When these tales are illustrated with evocative and stirring images, the effect of the tales can be compounded greatly, lending credence to the popular saying, "a picture speaks a thousand words".

Join us in this Hub dedicated to presenting inspiring classic illustrations depicting scenes from myths, legends and folklore and experience what these images communicate to you about those classic tales, yourself and society.

"Mother of the World" by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)

"Mother of the World" - Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)
"Mother of the World" - Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)
Nicholas Roerich
Nicholas Roerich

At first glance, this painting by Roerich may be viewed as a representation of the Virgin Mary - there are, after all, a number of symbolic references within the design that support that position (including an altar with a stylized crucifix and a symbol reminiscent of a Chi-Rho or Tau-Rho [among the earliest forms of christogram]). There are also two figures shown in veneration - one appears in a Habit (as like a Nun).

Delving deeper into the imagery, however, it is likely that Roerich is communicating a broader spiritual message that seeks to unify Eastern and Western traditions (and potentially, also includes references to Theosophist practices).

The overt identification of the mountain range on the left of the painting as the Himalayas is significant. So, too, are comments known to have been made by Roerich concerning the influence of Easter traditions, including those promoted by Ramakrishna. One such comment by Roerich that may be particularly relevant follows:

"The last of the known sages of India, Ramakrishna and Vivekananda were worshipers of the Divine Origin in its aspect of the Mother of the World".

The veiled presentation of the central figure - the Mother of the World - is also of significance. Commentators have noted, for example, that presentation is consistent with the Theosophist writing of H P Blavatsky (in Isis Unveiled: A Master-Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology [1877]) wherein the author writes that Isis (a Goddess worshiped in Ancient Egypt as the Divine Mother of all Nature) had lifted her veil to reveal the highest secrets to the founder of Theosophy. Again, the following comment by Roerich is of relevance:

"... with gradual advancement the spirit itself will be able to remove this veil and see and understand".

In terms of the figurative elements of the painting, too, the golden "spirits" surround the "Mother of the World" have been described as bodhisattvas.

The symbolism is, thus, one of a grander and unifying nature consistent with Roerich's beliefs of a Divine creative force. Those beliefs are captured in the following comment from Roerich:

"I advise that the Name of the Mother of the World be pronounced not as a symbol but as a power-giver. I advise that the Source of infinity be invoked not as symbol but as a manifestation of Eternity, as an eternal Generator of beauty and the Creator of the firmament".

"Ulysses and the Sirens" by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)

"Ulysses and the Sirens" - John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)
"Ulysses and the Sirens" - John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)
John William Waterhouse
John William Waterhouse

The subject of this illustration by Waterhouse is the encounter between Ulysses (the Latin title for Odysseus), his compatriots and the Sirens as described in Homer's epic poem from Antiquity, "Odyssey".

As described by Homer, in journeying homeward to Ithaca, Ulysses heeded advice he had received from Circe concerning the deadly Sirens and commanded his companions to plug their ears with wax as a defense against the Sirens' song and had himself lashed to the mast so that he could also be protected in so manner while he satisfied his curiosity to hear the song.

This illustration by Waterhouse - an artist known for his unique style that was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionists - was painted in 1891 and is among a series prepared by the artist depicting this and other classic tales.

"Destiny" by Carlos Schwabe (1866-1926)

"Destiny" - Carlos Schwabe (1866-1926)
"Destiny" - Carlos Schwabe (1866-1926)
Carlos Schwabe
Carlos Schwabe

The subject of this illustration by Schwabe is a personification of Destiny - in this case, the artist appears to have drawn on German traditions to represent Norns (from the Norse tradition) that are, generally speaking, analogous with the Moirai described in Ancient Greek mythology and the Parcae of Roman mythology.

The three most significant Norns known from Norse mythology are Urðr (representing the past), Skuld (representing the future) and Verðandi (representing the present). Here, Schwabe has shown the Norns at their traditional mythical location, the well Urdarbrunn beneath the tree Yggdrasil of Asgard. Similarly, he has depicted the Norns in characteristic activity, including: spinning (the threads of life); deciding the fate of newborns; and overseeing the progress of humanity against their allotted plans.

This illustration by Schwabe - a Symbolist painter and print-maker - was painted in 1894 and contains an array of metaphorical references typical of his work that interpreted mythology and allegory prior to 1900.

"The Knight of the Holy Grail" by Frederick Judd Waugh (1861-1940)

"The Knight of the Holy Grail" - Frederick Judd Waugh (1861-1940)
"The Knight of the Holy Grail" - Frederick Judd Waugh (1861-1940)
Frederick Judd Waugh
Frederick Judd Waugh

The subject of this illustration by Waugh is an ecstatic vision experienced by Sir Galahad and described in Tennyson's poem, "Sir Galahad", that was first published in 1842.

The passage from "Sir Galahad" providing the context for this magnificent painting follows:

Sometime on lonely mountain-meres,
I find a magic bark;
I leap on board: no helmsman steers:
I float till all is dark.
A gentle sound, an awful light!
Three angels bear the holy Grail:
With folded feet, in stoles of white,
On sleeping wings they sail.
Ah, blessed vision! blood of God!
My spirit beats here mortal bars,
As down dark tides the glory slides,
And star-like mingles with the stars.

This illustration by Waugh is a significant departure from the marine themes with which he was usually associated and is a fitting subject for an artist, as was Waugh, who studied at the Académie Julian in Paris with Adolphe-William Bouguereau. It was painted in or about 1912.

"Hercules and the Hydra" by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

"Hercules and the Hydra" - John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
"Hercules and the Hydra" - John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)
John Singer Sargent
John Singer Sargent

The subject of this illustration by Sargent is a depiction of the battle between Hercules (the Roman name for the Greek mythical hero, 'Herakles') and the Lernaean Hydra - the second of twelve 'labors' (his 'dodekathlon') that were undertaken as penance for the crime of killing his own sons during a period of insanity inspired by Hera (the wife of Zeus).

The consolidated tale of the labors of Hercules has been attributed to the Ancient Greek poet, Peisander, who is believed to have consolidated a variety of traditions in an epic poem dated to the late 7th Century BC. Through the Greek mythical tradition, we learn that the Lernaean Hydra was a magical creature that had more heads than artists could depict (and for each head that was cut off, another two grew in its place), its breath was so foul that the very path it took was poisonous and it guarded an entrance to Hades that lay beneath the waters of the lake of Lerna in the Argolid.

Sargent has shown the battle in its early phase, when Hercules is still using a club in his attempts to kill the Hydra - according to the mythical tale, Hercules subsequently realized the futility of this approach and changed tactics (in addition to receiving assistance from his nephew, Iolaus) to decapitate and kill the Hydra.

While Sargent was a prolific painter that worked in a variety of styles, he is - arguably - best known for his portraits. This painting was prepared by Sargent between 1922 and 1925.

"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" by Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926)

"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" - Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926)
"The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" - Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926)
Viktor Vasnetsov
Viktor Vasnetsov

The subject of this illustration by Vasnetsov is based upon passages from the Biblical Book of 'Revelation', wherein the destruction of the wicked, the overthrow of Satan and the establishment of a new kingdom of Christ is dealt with in florid allegorical fashion. It is from the final book of the "New Testament" and is the only apocryphal work to be included in the Testament.

The text from "Revelation" that served as the inspiration for this painting follow:

"And I saw when the Lamb opened on of the seals; and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see. And I saw, and beheld a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see. And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword. And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo, a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand ... And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger and with death, and with the beasts of the earth".

Vasnetsov was a leading figure in the revivalist movement in Czarist Russia and is known for maintaining a particular interest in depicting mythological and historical subjects. This painting was prepared in 1887.

"The Barque of Charon" by Jose Benlliure y Gil (1858-1937)

"The Barque of Charon" - Jose Benlliure y Gil (1858-1937)
"The Barque of Charon" - Jose Benlliure y Gil (1858-1937)
Jose Benlliure y Gil
Jose Benlliure y Gil

The subject of this illustration by Jose Benlliure y Gil is Charon (the ferryman - from Greek mythology - that takes doomed Souls across the rivers Styx and Acheron to Hades).

Charon's role in transporting doomed Souls first appeared in Greek myths and as was the case with many characters inhabiting those myths, he was later incorporated into Roman legends. The following description of Charon is taken from Book 6 of Vergil's "Aeneid":

There Charon stands, who rules the dreary coast -
A sordid god: down from his hairy chin
A length of beard descends, uncombed, unclean;
His eyes, like hollow furnaces on fire;
A girdle, foul with grease, binds his obscene attire.

Jose Benlliure y Gil was a Spanish painter who became a leading member of the Spanish community in Rome - he was among a select group of artists in Rome supported by pensions from the Spanish government. This painting was prepared in 1919.

"The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania" by Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901)

"The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania" - Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901)
"The Reconciliation of Oberon and Titania" - Joseph Noel Paton (1821-1901)
Joseph Noel Paton
Joseph Noel Paton

The subjects of this illustration by Paton are the fairies Oberon and Titania and - at a broader level - their fellow fairies.

Oberon is a mythological ruler of the fairy realm that is known from early medieval legends connected with the Merovingian Dynasty (rules of a variety of Frankish tribes living in an area corresponding with the Gaul of Antiquity). The character of Titania is a later invention, being linked with Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" wherein she is nominated as Oberon's queen (Shakespeare, himself, took her name from Ovid's "Metamorphoses"). It is from that Shakespearean text that Paton draws his inspiration as, in this painting, he shows the reconciliation of the quarreling fairy royalty that occurs towards the end of that play.

Paton's art is characterized by Pre-Raphaelite influences and he is best known for his depictions of historical, fantasy, religious and allegorical subjects. This painting was prepared in 1847.

"Naiades and Centaurs in the Waves" by Georges Jules Victor Clairin (1843-1919)

"Naiades and Centaurs in the Waves" - Georges Jules Victor Clairin (1843-1919)
"Naiades and Centaurs in the Waves" - Georges Jules Victor Clairin (1843-1919)
Georges Jules Victor Clairin
Georges Jules Victor Clairin

The subjects of this illustration by Clairin are - as indicated by the title - a group of Naϊades and Centaurs (mythical creatures from Greek mythology).

In Greek mythology, Naϊades were a form of nymph that embodied - and had control over - smaller bodies of water, including fountains, wells, springs, streams and brooks (typically, they are described as either daughters of Poseidon or Oceanids). Centaurs, by contrast, are from a mythical composite race - embodying some of the characteristics of humans and some of horses. A certain kinship existed between Naϊades and Centaurs - as it did also with Satyrs - and the groups were known to mix (the Greek hero, Achilles, for example, was nursed back to health by Naϊades who were the daughters of Chiron [the superlative Centaur]).

Clairin trained in art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and is most well known for his Orientalist style. This painting is believed to date from the late 19th Century and thus, is appropriately associated with the 'fin de siecle' culture.

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