Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Art of the Snake

Hygeia, by Gustav Klimt

THE SNAKE:  As seen through the eyes of Art and Artists throughout the world.

Love them or hate them, few members of the Animal Kingdom are as honored, and at the same time as reviled, as this reptilian descendant of the lizard; nonetheless, snakes have fascinated people since the beginning of time. The oldest mythological symbol encompassing qualities of the male and female, fire and water, and earth, the snake is also symbolic of patience, healing, fertility and birth, power and desire, and has often been used as a guardian of temples and other sacred places. The snake has also been given the negative attributes of vengeance and vindictiveness, qualities best exemplified by humans, and modern science has perfected the use of their venom in the development of medicines.

Through the years, snakes have been portrayed in the various art forms, from the veritable...

"In the Beginning...."  

Adam and Eve by Mattis Pool (1676-1727)
In the Rabbinical tradition, in the Garden of Eden, the snake seduced Eve into eating from the Tree of Knowledge. As a result, Adam and Eve were expelled from their terrestrial paradise, and the serpent was cursed to to crawl on its belly, groveling in the dust for the rest of its life (Genesis).

This copperplate engraving by Mattys Pool (1676-1727) is from a rare book representing the work of Francis van Bossuit, a Flemish ivory sculptor (1635-1692). Pool's engravings were based on the drawings of Dutch painter, Barent Graat (1628-1709), and published the year of Pool's death.


Egyptians worshiped and feared the snake, and for them it took a variety of symbols and forms. First and foremost, the snake (cobra) was a powerful deity, Wadjet, which could be seen adorning the Pharaoh's headdresses from predynastic and protodynastic periods, to the end of the Roman occupation. Wadjet was the goddess of Lower Egypt, protector of kings, and of women in childbirth. Another deity, Geb, appears in some depictions with a human body and a snake for its head; in Egyptian mythology, Geb is the god of the Earth, and the father of snakes.

In all its guises, the snake was a powerful symbol for Egyptians, which they believed could bring wealth and salvation to some, and damnation to others.

In Exodus, Moses and his brother Aaron face the Pharaoh, demanding the release of the Hebrews, in the name of Jehovah; “Let my people go....” To prove their god was more powerful, Aaron cast his staff to the ground upon which it turned into a snake. To the Egyptians this act was more magic than divine power, and to prove his superiority, the Pharaoh ordered his sorcerers to duplicated the feat, whose staffs also turned into snakes, but Aaron's staff, then, swallowed up al of the sorcerer's staffs—the pharaoh ignored the symbolic warning that came with Aaron's snake, that the Pharaoh's power was inferior to Aaron's God.

Throughout the Renaissance it was customary for royalty, nobility, and people of power, to represent themselves allegorically. The line between fantasy and reality was blurred when these personages represented themselves as historical figures whose qualities they believed to share, or at the very least, emulate. François II de Dinteville (1498-1554), Bishop of Auxerre, was no exception, and in this painting he is shown with his three brothers as principal protagonists in the dramatic confrontation between Moses and Aaron, and the Pharaoh of Egypt—suggestive of the breakdown in relations between the Dinteville brothers, and the King of France, Francis I, starting in 1538. François II Dinteville is shown as Aaron, the most prominent figure in the painting, and holding the snake; his brother Jean (1504-1555) appears as Moses, in the red striped garment, and to the right of Dinteville. Standing directly behind Moses and Aaron are the two younger Dinteville brothers, Guillaume (1505-1559), and Gaucher (1509-1550). Guillaume is directly to Aaron's left, in the red robe and plumed cap; Gaucher, whose face is framed by Moses' bent arm, is wearing a deep blue robe, and stands behind, and directly between his two oldest brothers. The painting, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is of French or Dutch origin, by an unknown artist of the Mannerist style.

Another famous Egyptian snake, the Asp, gained notoriety when Cleopatra placed the unsuspecting reptile to her breast. In this allegorical portrait of Cleopatra, by Piero di Cosimo (originally di Lorenzo, 1462-1521), the subject is in fact alleged to be Genoese noblewoman Simonetta Vespucci, whom di Cosimo painted posthumously in 1480, fourteen years after her death. Cleopatra's style is that of late Medieval and early Renaissance periods used by di Cosimo's contemporaries, Anbrogio de Predis (1455-1508), Davide Ghirladaio (1452-1525), Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510) and Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1557): the sitter is shown in a rather flat profile, with an expressionless face, and against a backdrop depicting a setting associated with the sitter.

Cleopatra stares into the distance, defiantly and conscious of her actions, as though pretending to be unaware, to not disturb the the asp, which will soon bite. Of particular interest is the regal detail of the hair, richly decorated with pearls and ribbons, befitting of a queen.

It is not known whether the notation at the bottom of this painting, naming the sitter as Simonetta Vespucci, is original. The painting hangs at the Musée Condé, Chantilly, France.


According to the various stories in Greek mythology, the god Apollo sent an arrow through the air to pierce the heart of his unfaithful lover, Lapithian princess, Coronis. As she lay dying, Coronis told Apollo that he should have waited for the birth of their son, before killing her. As Coronis lay on the funeral pyre, a remorseful Apollo reached into her womb and saved his son. The child was named, Asclepius, and was given to Cheiron, who taught the infant the arts of healing and hunting. Asclepius also learned the use of drugs, love potions and incantations, and how to perform surgery. When Asclepius brought Hippolytus back from the dead, in exchange for gold, Zeus hurled a thunderbolt to strike Asclepius dead—a mere mortal—for intervening in the natural order of life and death. Realizing that Asclepius had done good to man, Zeus made him a god, and placed him among the stars as the snake bearer, Ophiucus Constellation.

Through the years, the snake wrapped around a staff has been part of medical lore. In Greece, this lore was based on healers treating common infections of parasitic worms, or “fiery serpent,” which were cured by cutting the flesh above the path of the worm. As it crawled out from under the skin, the healer carefully wound the worm around a stick, or rod, until it was fully removed from the patient's body.

The snake, and the staff, not to be confused with Mercury's Caduceus, became the symbol of Asclepius, and consequently of Medicine. Like medicine, the snake (serpent) can be beneficial or harmful, and represents both life and death; its poison, if swallowed, could be a life giving drug; when ingested through the blood stream, it is deadly.

The plate, above, depicting Asclepius is part of a set engraved by Sidney Hall (1788-1831) to go with Jehoshapaha Aspin's A Familiar treatise on astronomy, published in London, 1825. The set of thirty two cards, designed by “a Lady” (Hall), was meant to facilitate the amateur astronomer. Each card, depicting one individual constellation, was pierced with holes of different sizes which, when held against a light, displayed a realistic pattern and magnitude of the stars in each constellation. The set of hand colored cards, published to go along Aspin's text, was called Urania's Mirror.

Hall, a British engraver and cartographer in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was very popular and respected for his engravings of the United Kingdom and the ancient world, reproduced in many early Nineteenth Century atlases.  

In the portrait below by Peter Paul Rubens, Hygeia (1615), the goddess of Health and Hygiene, and the daughter of Asclepius, is depicted allegorically to reflect northern European features as was the custom, in all painting until the 1800s. Rubens, known for his emphasis on color, movement, and sensuality, created Hyegia in the style he made famous, that of the voluptuous woman. Hygeia gives a restoring tonic to the snake, which like her father's, is her symbol. The mood of the painting is light, to reflect the subject's mythological background of health and healing, though the cloudy background is symbolic of unexpected health issues. 

Hygeia by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Rubens did two versions of this painting, the other at times referred to as Cleopatra, in which the mood of the painting is much somber, as a result of her affair with Marc Anthony, their defeat by Augustus, and the Roman Emperor's revenge upon the lovers. While Hygeia's face shows care and concern, Cleopatra's face, is pained and anguished, and the colors in the painting are overall darker, moodier, to reflect the subject's frame of mind; the foreboding sky in the background, indicating the final outcome of the scene.  Apart from the overall mood in the two paintings, one major difference is the color of sash:  it is black in Hygeia, and in Cleopatra, it is the same color as the robe.

Both paintings have variously been called by each other's names, and Cleopatra, listed as Hygeia, is  in the Lobkovicz Collection, at the Národní Gallerie, Prague. Hyageia is at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The painting at the top of this page is also a representation of Hygeia, by Austrian master artist, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Originally a triptych to decorate the ceremonial hall at the University of Vienna, the three large paintings, Medicine, Philosophy and Jurisprudence, were commissioned in 1894, but Klimt's work was too controversial for the university professors, whose views the artist attacked in the canvases. After many arguments, Klimt canceled the contract and returned his fees, to the school. When Germany lost World War II, and the Nazis occupying Austria began their retreat, on 7 May, 1945, they set off explosives at Immendrof Castle, where the triptych and ten other of Klimt's paintings were stored. Nothing survived of the castle or the artwork. Luckily for posterity, several pictures of these masterpieces have survived.

It is easy to understand why the paintings were so scandalous. In Medicine, Klimt delivered a haughty Hygeia, disconnected form her surroundings, and the tragedy of nearby humans in different stages of life, and death. Hygeia looks down at the viewer with disdain, barely going through the rituals of her profession, without care or empathy for those in her need.

Another Greek myth is that of the Gorgon Medusa, and her two wicked sisters, Stheno and Euryale. As with all Greek myths the legend of Medusa has different versions. The early accounts tell of Medusa and her sisters as a winged monsters with snakes in their hair and other animal features, and are often depicted as such in early Greek pottery, and sculpture. Later classical writers point to a different Medusa, one who is beautiful, and celebrated for her charms. Poseidon, infatuated with Medusa, raped the maiden in the Temple of Athena. Medusa was punished by an angry Athena for violating her temple, turning the fair maiden into an ugly monster, and giving her snakes instead of hair. In all versions of the legend, Medusa's face and stare will turn any onlooker into stone; and unlike her sisters, Medusa is a mortal, who will be killed by Perseus.

Caravaggio's Medusa c.1598, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Michaelangelo Merisi (1571-1610) better known as Caravaggio, the name of the town where he grew up, arrived in Rome from northern Italy in 1592. At the time, he was just like hundreds of other young men arrival in the Papal city, aspiring to make a name for himself in the art world. It did not take long, however, for Caravaggio's unconventional, rebellious, and at times dangerous personality, to get him noticed by the nobility and the authorities. His art was just as revolutionary, just as controversial, and just as shocking as Caravaggio was in life, and just as quickly his art received the recognition so desired by the artist.

Caravaggio invented himself, and his art, to follow the same dictum: to break the rules. A contradiction in terms, Caravaggio was a deeply spiritual man, whose complex, haunted, and self destructive personality became his own muse. He painted with, up to then, unknown realism and keen attention to the emotional and physical detail of the human state: his subjects showed real life wrinkles, scars, damaged hands or fingers, dirt on their feet and under their fingernails; his models were chosen (sometimes pulled into the studio from the street) not for their external beauty, but for the qualities they could give the subject to be painted. It can be said that, at once, the viewer can smell the wretchedness and feel transported by the virtues of the subjects being portrayed in the paintings.

At a time when Roman painters were restrained by their techniques and procedures, Caravaggio avoided drawings and painted from life, exclusively. He took the medium of chiaroscuro and made it his own, by redefining the rules. He added an third dimension to the light as it entered the canvas and fell on the subjects. Caravaggio created a brighter and more translucent light, resulting in deeper, darker shadows, which gave the composition, or subject of the painting, an illusory quality of floating on the canvas. Caravaggio's technique elevated realism to its highest level, and demanded its marriage to the drama being portrayed. In the process, he erased the space between life and art, making the viewer, for the first time, become an active participant of the action on the canvas. Caravaggio's work shocked and pleased his patrons, whose regal sensibilities were offended or awakened by the crude realism of the people he portrayed, on canvas. The artists in Rome and elsewhere shared the same reaction: those more stablished, feared and were loath of him, the younger generations saw him as their artistic savior and followed his techniques.

In this portrait of Medusa, Caravaggio's intense realism becomes almost disturbing, and self-fulfilling: as in his other paintings with severed heads, it is the artist who is being represented. In Medusa, it is not mythology, nor the snakes, but Caravaggio's features, which call attention to the canvas; it is his shock, anger, pity, frustration, helplessness, and surprise, coupled with a silent scream which haunt the viewer, like the echo of a nightmare. Medusa is on canvas what Caravaggio was in life: enigmatic.

Caravaggio's genius laid the foundations for the Baroque movement in art, but his accomplishments were overshadowed by his temper and volatile character. His life was difficult to sort out, much less understood, and as rapidly as he gained popularity while living, Caravaggio was almost as rapidly forgotten in death.

Part II

No comments:

Post a Comment