Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1861, Hamburg Kunsthalle
I've always loved this painting (click to enlarge). It's shocking and beautiful and mysterious all at once. For years a dog-eared postcard of it served as my bookmark. But for some reason, I never sought out the story behind it. I suppose I feared it would somehow diminish the thrill of the picture itself.
It wasn't until I was doing research for Night of the Furies that I discovered what the scene was about. It turns out it's connected with the Eleusinian Mysteries, an ancient Greek religious ceremony (and a key element of my novel). The woman, Phryne, was a famous hetaera, or courtesan, in 4th Century B.C. Greece. She was accused of profaning the Mysteries' seaside purification rites by striding naked into the water for all the world to see.
Her trial took place at the Aereopagus, a rock hill near the Acropolis that served as the setting for the high court of Athens. I took this picture of it from the vantage of the Acropolis. A temple dedicated to the Furies once stood at the foot of the rock.
Here's Wik on Phryne's trial: "...she was defended by the orator Hypereides, one of her lovers. When it seemed as if the verdict would be unfavourable, he tore open her robe and displayed her breasts, which so moved her judges that they acquitted her. ...The judges' change of heart was not simply because they were overcome by the beauty of her nude body, but because physical beauty was often seen as a facet of divinity or a mark of divine favor during those times."
Phryne's divine beauty inspired more than the court of Athens. The scene of her with her hair loose, wading nude through the shimmering sea, inspired the greatest painter of classical Greece, Apelles. His renowned painting Venus Anadyomene ("Aphrodite Rising from the Sea"), though lost to time, launched a recurring, iconic motif into the long history of art.
Here's a version in marble from a 4th century A.D. Roman villa.
The motif was revived in the Renaissance, two thousand years after Apelles. It inspired Botticelli's famous "Birth of Venus." In the 20th Century, the image found its way into the movies, with Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in the first and greatest Bond picture, Dr. No.
The scene quickly became a cinema classic, and was knocked off again in 2002 with Halle Berry as the Bond girl, Jinx, the latest Aphrodite incarnation.
I'm all for sexy girls with knives in their belts, but my favorite Birth of Venus is by the 19th-Century French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
It's probably this dreamier Aphrodite, tucked in the back of my mind somewhere, that inspired this scene in Night of the Furies:
The girl who held my eyes now was stepping lazily through the surf, gazing down at the frothy water, seemingly lost in herself. She was wearing a bikini with sailor stripes and the emblem of an anchor embroidered on the cups. Her hair was a rich black, cut to her shoulders, and tangled from drying in the wind. Her mouth was slightly open, and her downcast eyes were dark. She looked like a sated panther, moving with a kind of languid grace, dragging her toes through the water. Something about her—maybe the strength of her profile, or the whiteness of her skin, or the way she peered with quiet intentness at the strangers parading around her—told me she was different than the rest, that this was not the sort of place she came to very often. There was an air of youthful innocence about her, but an air intriguingly tinged with darkness, a sort of sensual contentment. I found the very sight of her arousing.
Arousing indeed. Phryne's brazen beauty was undoubtedly divine.
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