Perseus and Andromeda. The characters and symbols in the Rubens’ painting

Rubens Perseus and Andromeda
Peter Paul Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda. 1622. The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

The myth about Perseus and Andromeda is one of the best-known ones. Everyone knows the monster who wanted to devour a beautiful maiden and about the courages hero who defeated the demon and saved the beauty.

But we hardly remember the details. However, the myth details are one more intriguing than another.

Both the prehistory of why Andromeda’s parents obediently let their daughter to be given to the monster and the unexpected appearance of Perseus on a winged horse. And the legend about his one-hoofed pet’s origin is even more fascinating.

At the Rubens’ painting, we see the dawning feelings of the savior and the saved. But will they get marry? Will they be happy?

Leaping ahead – yes, the story of these two will have the happy end.

But it won’t be easy to reach it: there will have to face other obstacles on their way – and it will be not only the monster of the deep…

RUbens Perseus and Andromeda
Peter Paul Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda. 1622. The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

1. ANDROMEDA

Andromeda is not a common girl. After all, she is a king’s daughter. Her father ruled Joppa (today, Jaffa city in Israel). And matrilineally she is a bit of goddess. Her grand-grandfather was no other than Hermes.

But Andromeda is also a tragic heroine. She had to pay for her parents’ sins.

Her mother got carelessly proud of her beauty. And instead of being proud alone in front of a mirror, she managed to do this before niraids – the goddesses of the water element.

And as we know, ancient Greek gods weren’t extremely forgiving. If they are irritated with something, punishment follows immediately.

Niraids complained to Poseidon, and he sent the sea monster to Joppa. For many years, it kept ruining coastal villages, until the king learned from the oracle, that he could stop it by sacrificing his daughter Andromeda.

Thus, the beauty was enchained to the rock.
I call her beautiful only because it was written by ancient authors.

The interpretation of her beauty by Rubens is rather uncommon – the girl with the bun body, golden hair, and a bright glow occupying the whole cheek.

She is far, very far away from the classical beauty canons. So that you could understand what I’m talking about, compare her with Andromeda by Raphael Mengs.

Mengs Perseus and Andromeda
Anton Raphael Mengs. Perseus and Andromeda. 1778. The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

2. PERSEUS

Perseus is one of the most famous mythological heroes of. He the second popular hero to Hercules. By the way, they are paternal father.

The human mother of Perseus was Danae and his God-father was Zeus. Do you remember a girl to whom the Thunder-bearer appeared in the form of a golden rain?

Gentileschi. Danae
Orazio Gentileschi. Danae. 1621. The Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA

You can easily recognize Perseus on any painting by his winged sandals. He got them from the three old sisters. Three of them had only a single tooth and a single eye. Perseus stole them and traded them for various magic things, including these sandals.

Just like Hercules, Perseus performed feats. Once, he was flying from yet another mission. He had just defeated the Gorgon Medusa. Flying over the coast near Joppa, he saw poor Andromeda.

His heart beat fast. Being astonished by Andromeda’s beauty, he decided to save her. When the monster approached the girl, Perseus showed the Gorgon’s head to it. And it turned into stone.

To my mind, it was the easiest way to fight a monster in the history of myths and fairy tales.

Before the battle, Perseus thoughtfully asked the girl’s father for permission to marry Andromeda. He promised, but didn’t say that his daughter already had a fiance – his brother Phineus.

The fiance didn’t put up with the insult. He broke to the wedding feast to kill audacious Perseus. But was turned to stone.

Carracci. Perseus and Phineus
Annibale Carracci. Perseus and Phineus. 1597. Palazzo Farnese, Rome

As a result, the couple got married. And they lived happily ever after and gave birth to several children.

3. CETO MONSTER

Ceto was a real monster. Moreover, it gave birth to lots of youngsters. All the dragons and snake-like girls are Ceto’s children. Including the Gorgon Medusa.

Yes, it turns out that the mother died from her daughter’s gaze.

At the Rubens’ painting Ceto is already defeated. Therefore, we don’t even notice it immediately. It is of stone-colour at the very bottom of the canvas.

Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda (a detail)
Peter Paul Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda. (a detail)

From the works of ancient authors it’s not completely clear how the monster was defeated. Whether it died by Perseus’ sword or by the gaze of the Gorgon’s cut head.

It’s obvious that Rubens preferred the second version.
However, he has another picture with the same plot, where the Gorgon’s head is missing. It looks like here the monster was defeated by the sword.

Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda
Peter Paul Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda. 1622. The Berlin State Museum

4. THE GORGON’S HEAD

Medusa was the youngest sister of the three Gorgons. Moreover, she was mortal. She was born with ordinary hair.

But once Poseidon wanted her. Medusa hid from him in Athena’s temple. Nevertheless, he found her there and possessed her right in the temple.

Of course, Athena didn’t like it. And she turned poor girl’s hair into snakes.

Rubens. The head of Medusa
Peter Paul Rubens. The head of Medusa. 1618.

Medusa turned all living creatures to stone with her gaze. But Perseus was able to cope with this danger.

When fighting with Gorgon, he was looking at her reflection in his shield. At a certain point he managed to make a strike at Medusa and behead her.

5. PEGASUS

When Perseus killed Medusa, she was pregnant from Poseidon. Their children appeared from her head. A warrior Chrysaor… and a winged horse Pegasus. He was taken by Perseus.

Burne-Jones. The Birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor
Edward Coley Burne-Jones. The Birth of Pegasus and Chrysaor. 1885. The Southampton City Art Gallery, Great Britain

At the same time, snakes from Medusa’s head scattered around and killed all the living creatures. And her blood got into the sea and gave birth to corals.

6. THE GODDESS OF VICTORY NIKE

Perseus has just performed his feat, and the Goddess of victory Nike is already here. With a triumphal wreath. And she is also winged. Oh yes, lots of wings for a single painting.

Why not Athena? This mighty goddess was responsible for all-triumphant power, wisdom, and war. Nike was more the patroness of triumph. It can be called a narrower specialization.

7. CUPIDS

Since we see the dawning feelings between two characters, the cupids seem to have flooded the picture.

Three cupids are helping Andromeda to get dressed. Another one is holding Perseus’ golden helmet. Another has the shield with Gorgon’s head. And one more saddled Pegasus.

They are plump to the max, just like all the characters by Rubens. It’s amazing that the artist was thin, watched his diet and took physical exercises. His wives weren’t very plump either.

So, why is Rubens so good with his “Perseus and Andromeda”?

The canvas “Perseus and Andromeda” is painted in the Baroque style. There are lots of characters on it, with each of them being busy with their own business.

But Rubens found a genius way to arrange them in the space. As a result, there is no sense of chaos. First of all, this is due to almost monochrome colour. The characters are in harmony with the background dark stone.

Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda
Peter Paul Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda. 1622. The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

The characters’ arrangement in triangular form smoothes the feeling of chaos as well. But to find place for the massive horse, the artist had to bring its croup to the forefront of the painting.

But somehow, we are not confused by it. It is shadowed and looks attractive in general (to the extent that a croup can look attractive).

To understand the Rubens’ genius, compare his masterpiece with a painting by Giorgio Vasari with the same plot.

Vasari has many characters as well, and the feeling of chaos is present in his picture.

Vasari. Perseus and Andromeda
Giorgio Vasari. Perseus and Andromeda. 1572. Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.

Thus, after making it clear about all the characters of the picture, the feeling of confusion and misunderstanding disappears.

And then, you want to enjoy the picture itself. Especially its colour. Rubens was the unsurpassed master in depicting skin shades.

He conveyed a human beauty through a pearly shine with pink and grey tints. Andromeda’s skin glows from inside and shines like silk.

Complement it with the girl’s modesty. This is shown by her lowered eyes, light tension due to the fact that she is naked, and the glow on her entire cheek.

It is a completely different kind of beauty that can’t be seen at once.

Rubens avoids the Baroque passion in this story. Otherwise, he would have shown the fight and terrified Andromeda.

Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda (a detail)
Peter Paul Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda (a detail). 1622

Here we see a lyric story. The battle is over. Young people touched each other for the first time. Cupids are obviously pleased.

Only Pegasus is still looking cautiously at petrified Ceto. Like any animal, he doesn’t trust its stillness.

Rubens liked this plot: when the noble Force defeats the absolute Evil and liberates the Beauty. The plot, which has been duplicated in countless tales of various nations for 2500 years.

Authour: Oksana Kopenkina

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