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Orpheus and Eurydice: Illustrations throughout the Ages for this Romantic Tragedy from Antiquity

Updated on April 22, 2016
Here we show a portion of 'Orpheus and Eurydice' by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) - it is from a suite of illustrations published in "Gods and Mortals in Love" (1935).
Here we show a portion of 'Orpheus and Eurydice' by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) - it is from a suite of illustrations published in "Gods and Mortals in Love" (1935).

The mythical figure of Orpheus has been identified with the Kingship of the Thracian Tribe of Cicones. Pindar - a literary figure from antiquity - has linked Orpheus with the journeys of Jason and the Argonauts and refers to him as "the father of songs".

Tales associated with Orpheus include the tragic story of his love for his wife, Eurydice, that compelled him - following her death - to travel to the Underworld and return to Earth with her, only to have her companionship snatched from him at the last by misfortune.

Here we show a Roman mosaic depicting Orpheus and the animals he had charmed with his music - that mosaic dates from the 3rd Century BC.
Here we show a Roman mosaic depicting Orpheus and the animals he had charmed with his music - that mosaic dates from the 3rd Century BC.

Orpheus

Tales of Orpheus from antiquity suggest that he was a wonderful poet and musician, with particularly strong links to the lyre, in addition to participating in religious ritual activities (including augury and astrology).

His prodigious talent with the lyre is described in the following poem:

Orpheus with his lute made trees
And the mountain-tops that freeze
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Every sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting Spring.
Everything that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads and then lay by,
In sweet Music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.

Pindar (522-433 BC) - a poet from Thebes - referred to Orpheus as the "father of songs" and his musical abilities were legendary. Simonides of Ceos (556-468 BC), for example, also noted Orpheus talents, stating that they were capable of no lesser feats than: charming birds, fish and beasts; making trees and rocks dance; and diverting the course of rivers.

Here we show a portion of an illustration depicting Orpheus charming animals with his music - it is from an illuminated Medieval manuscript.
Here we show a portion of an illustration depicting Orpheus charming animals with his music - it is from an illuminated Medieval manuscript.

According to a variety of ancient sources, Orpheus' talents came from the god, Apollo, who gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play and his mother - possibly the muse, Calliope - who taught him to sing lyrics.

From the "Argonautica" of Apollonius Rhodius (early 3rd Century BC - after 246 BC) - the tale of the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts - we learn that the Argonauts were saved (after heeding the advice of Chiron, the Centaur) by Orpheus' music when confronted with the Sirens.

Here we show a portion of "Scenes from the Story of the Argonauts" attributed to Biagio d'Antonio (active by 1472 - 1516) and Jacopo del Sellaio (1441/42 - 1493). Therein, Jason is shown consulting with Hercules, Chiron and Orpheus.
Here we show a portion of "Scenes from the Story of the Argonauts" attributed to Biagio d'Antonio (active by 1472 - 1516) and Jacopo del Sellaio (1441/42 - 1493). Therein, Jason is shown consulting with Hercules, Chiron and Orpheus.

Orpheus and Eurydice

The tale of the death of Eurydice and Orpheus' trials - and ultimately failure - in journeying to the Underworld to reclaim her appear to date from the 1st Century BC, with details of the tale appearing in Book IV of the "Georgics" by the Roman poet, Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro [80-19 BC]).

Here we show a portion of an illustration depicting Orpheus, Eurydice and Demons from an illuminated Medieval manuscript.
Here we show a portion of an illustration depicting Orpheus, Eurydice and Demons from an illuminated Medieval manuscript.

Virgil's tale, 'Orpheus and Eurydice', begins by telling of the love between Orpheus and Eurydice and her untimely death, thus:

"Not for nothing does divine anger harass you: you atone for a heavy crime: it is Orpheus, wretched man, who brings this punishment on you, no less than you deserve if the fates did not oppose it: he raves madly for his lost wife. She, doomed girl, running headlong along the stream, so as to escape you, did not see the fierce snake, that kept to the riverbank, in the deep grass under her feet. But her crowd of Dryad friends filled the mountaintops with their cry: the towers of Rhodope wept, and the heights of Pangaea, and Thrace, the warlike land of Rhesus, and the Getae, the Hebrus, and Orythia, Acte's child. Orpheus, consoling love's anguish, with his hollow lyre, sang of you, sweet wife, you, alone on the empty shore, of you as day neared, of you as day departed. He even entered the jaws of Taenarus, the high gates of Dis, and the grove dim with dark fear, and came to the spirits, and their dread king, and hearts that do not know how to soften at human prayer".

Here we show a portion of "Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus" by Jacopo del Sellaio (1441/42 - 1493).
Here we show a portion of "Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus" by Jacopo del Sellaio (1441/42 - 1493).
Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld - Pieter Fris (1627 - 1706)
Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld - Pieter Fris (1627 - 1706)

Virgil's tale continues, recounting Orpheus' journey to the Underworld, thus:

"The insubstantial shadows, and the phantoms of those without light, came from the lowest depths of Erebus, startled by his song, as many as the thousand birds that hide among the leaves, when Vesper, or wintry rain, drives them from the hills, mothers and husbands, and the bodies of noble heroes bereft of life, boys and unmarried girls, and young men placed on the pyre before their father’s eyes: round them are the black mud and foul reeds of Cocytus, the vile marsh, holding them with its sluggish waters, and Styx, confining them in its nine-fold ditches. The House of the Dead itself was stupefied, and innermost Tartarus, and the Furies, with dark snakes twined in their hair, and Cerberus held his three mouths gaping wide, and the whirling of Ixion’s wheel stopped in the wind".

Here we show a portion of the central panel "The Legend of Orpheus" - a triptych by John Duncan (1866-1945).
Here we show a portion of the central panel "The Legend of Orpheus" - a triptych by John Duncan (1866-1945).
"Orpheus leading Eurydice from the Underworld" - Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875)
"Orpheus leading Eurydice from the Underworld" - Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875)

Virgil continues the tale with Orpheus' attempt to return to the human world with Eurydice - after persuading Persephone (or, Proserpine, as she is referred to by Virgil) and Hades to release his wife - thus:

"And now, retracing his steps, he evaded all mischance, and Eurydice, regained, approached the upper air, he following behind (since Proserpine had ordained it), when a sudden madness seized the incautious lover, one to be forgiven, if the spirits knew how to forgive: he stopped, and forgetful, alas, on the edge of light, his will conquered, he looked back, now, at his Eurydice. In that instant, all his effort was wasted, and his pact with the cruel tyrant was broken, and three times a crash was heard by the waters of Avernus. 'Orpheus,' she cried, 'what madness has destroyed my wretched self, and you? See, the cruel Fates recall me, and sleep hides my swimming eyes, Farewell, now: I am taken, wrapped round by vast night, stretching out to you, alas, hands no longer yours.' She spoke, and suddenly fled, far from his eyes, like smoke vanishing in thin air, and never saw him more, though he grasped in vain at shadows, and longed to speak further: nor did Charon, the ferryman of Orcus, let him cross the barrier of that marsh again".

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