Orpheus and Eurydice – Frederic Leighton

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will probably know quite well now, that I am in fact a mythology geek. I love the stories of the Gods, mythical creatures and the unusual. They feed so much of what is in our culture today, be it in films, tv series, books, opera, plays, the list is endless, and I really relish having the understanding of these stories, as it gives me a fuller picture of the underlying roots. It can however make me come across as a smart ass, but we all have our crosses to bear.

Leighton created this painting in 1864, and it was met with a less than favourable reception. Audiences were confused by his interpretation of the couple, but to understand the painting you need to understand the story.

Orpheus was a talented and accomplished musician, his lyre was gifted to him from Apollo, and it was said that he could charm anything when he played music on it. Eurydice was an oak nymph, who Orpheus fell madly in love with. She was beautiful. The couple married and Orpheus played songs of joy on his lyre. As Eurydice dance, she trod on a snake, which bit in to her ankle, administering a fatal venom and she died instantly.

On her death, she was dragged to the underworld, leaving the bereft Orpheus grieving. The deities around Orpheus wept along side him and told him that he should enter the underworld to bring her back.

Orpheus takes heed of this advice and travels to the gate of the underworld. On arriving he is met by Cerberus, the three headed dog who guarded the gates of the underworld. Now the benefit of having three heads men’s that one is always awake, making the perfect guard dog. Orpheus played a lullaby on his lyre, lulling all three of Cerberus’s heads to sleep, this enabled him to crept past the creature and through the gates.

Orpheus wanders through the underworld, until he finds Hades, and he begs him to let Eurydice live. Hades laughs in Orpheus’s face. Orpheus completely grief stricken plays a mournful melody on his lyre, which pulls in Hades heart strings and Hades agrees to allow Eurydice love, if Orpheus can follow his instructions. The instructions given were that Orpheus had to walk in front of Eurydice playing his lyre all the way out of the underworld, he must not look back at her until they reach the outside of the gates of the underworld.

Orpheus agrees and he starts his long walk, playing songs with Eurydice behind him. For lost of the journey they walk over stony ground, which gives Orpheus comfort as he can hear Eurydice’s footsteps behind him, but as they nest the gates the ground softens and he can no longer hear his love behind him. It’s been a long journey and Orpheus has had to concentrate a lot on playing songs and he momentarily forgets that he can’t look back, and he glances over his shoulder to check on Eurydice. As soon as he sees her, Eurydice is dragged back to the underworld, never to return.

Orpheus in his heart broken then wonders the earth playing songs until he was ripped to pieces by Maenads for the ceasing of his worship to all the other gods except for Apollo.

With all this in mind then, why does Leighton’s picture look like Orpheus is spurning Eurydice? This is where the confusion came for the audience. What they failed to understand was that this was the point that Orpheus had turned to look at Eurydice. What seems to be a look of distain is really his repulsion at his own actions. The realisation that he has condemned his love. Perhaps if he doesn’t look at her again, Hades won’t realise that he has seen her. Eurydice on the other hand, has accepted her fate and tries to comfort the distraught Orpheus. She wants him to know that it is ok, and that she will willingly go to her fate.

This unconventional rendition of the scene has been flawlessly executed, the beauty of Eurydice, with alabaster skin and soft feminine features, against the tanned skin of her counterpart, the loving yet accepting look on her face against his anguish gloriously painted in the academic style.

How do you feel about this painting? Can you see the anguish and love or do you see something different? Why not let me know in the comments?

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