It’s been a while since I have written about the Greeks, and with a course on Greek mythology looming for me, I thought perhaps I should start reading some of the study text. I really find mythology so fascinating, especially the Greek, simply because it really does still play a massive role in our culture today. Lots of words and phrases enter our language, and so many films have a base from the stories which have been passed down.
When I was looking for a painting to go with this particular story, I was fairly disappointed in many of the depiction, simply because it either didn’t look like Prometheus was being particularly tortured, or that he didn’t look very god like or that he wasn’t in that much pain… I mean if my liver was ripped out every day and then regenerated so it could happen again, I would be pretty distressed, but many artists either didn’t want to show this element to the story or just wanted to create an artwork which was not too distressing to the viewer. This was until I came across Salvatore Rosa. I think he captures the scene perfectly in this fairly grotesque and extravagant painting.
Rosa was an Italian painter, as well as poet and printmaker, working in Naples, Rome and Florence during the 17th century. His work was known to be unorthodox and was considered a bit of a rebel to the art world at the time. Perhaps it was his poetic side that presented a deeper understanding of pain and torture which makes this painting come to life.
Created between 1646 – 1648, Rosa captures Prometheus chained to the rocks of Caucasus, while an eagle tears at his torso, exposing the intestines as it tries to get to his liver. The burning torch in the lower right hand corner identifies this as Prometheus, which I will come to shortly. We can see that Rosa has painted the look of terror and extreme anguish on Prometheus’s face, his muscles in his legs and arms tensed as the chains keep him from moving. The landscape in the painting seems desolate and foreboding, giving a more tortured feel to the painting, the eagle is not fully identifiable through the shadows cast from the rocks, which makes it something of the unknown, the size of the eagle only really realised if you look close to see the both outlines of the wings. In the background clouded skies give way to blue sky, which seems to say the cycle of torture is almost over, for this day.
What did Prometheus do to deserve such a torture…well I am going to tell you.
Prometheus and his bother Epimetheus were Titans, but Zeus had spared them from being banished to Tartarus after the war with the Olympians as they had refused to fight. Instead they were both given tasks, Prometheus to create man, and Epimetheus to give all the living being qualities.
Prometheus was the god of foresight and Epimetheus was the god of hindsight, so already you know that this wasn’t going to pan out too well. Prometheus lovingly created man from mud, and Athena breathed life in to them, but when he turned to Epimetheus so as man could be given qualities, he found that he had already given out all of the good ones. This left Prometheus in a quandary, what could he do to give the creations that he loved so much an advantage. It was here that he decided to make man walk on two legs like the gods. He also gave them fire. Prometheus really did love man, more than the Olympian gods simply because the Gods had been the ones to banish his family.
Zeus, was none too pleased that Prometheus had taken this free thought on his design and decreed that man must give a portion of each animal killed as a sacrifice to the Gods in worship. This got under Prometheus’s skin a little, and he devised a trick for man so that they would not lose out on the spoils of their kills. He showed man how to make two piles of the animals – one which had all the bones, but was covered in the succulent fats and the other which had all the good meat but was covered in the hides. The piles were then presented to Zeus to allow him to pick the one that he wanted. Zeus was known to be pretty greedy, and on seeing the pile with its seemingly large amounts of fats, he thought that the meat must be good in this pile and picked that one. He very soon realised that he had been tricked, which made his anger flare. As a punishment to man, Zeus took away their fire. Prometheus, not wanting to see his creations go without, then went and stole the fire back for man, by lighting a torch and showing them how to maintain and spread fire.
By this time Zeus’s patience had worn thin. He declared a punishment on both man and the two Titans who had allowed such trickery on him. For man, he created a mortal woman, so beautiful that she was hard to resist. Zeus showered her in gifts, building the mentality that she was almost goddess like, but he asked Hermes to give the woman a lying tongue and a deceptive heart. He then sent her down to Epimetheus. Prometheus had warned his brother not to accept gifts from the gods, but Epimetheus had forgotten, and married the woman. The woman’s name was Pandora, and we all know what she released upon the world…
As for Prometheus, Zeus was really angry over not only the trickery of the meat piles, and the stolen fire, but also because Prometheus refused to tell Zeus which of his children would dethrone him (as Zeus had to his own father Kronos). Zeus sent his two henchmen – Force and Violence, to capture Prometheus, and took him to the god Vulcan, who created unbreakable adamanite chains. He was then taken to Caucasus and chained to the mountain side. Zeus then sent an eagle each day to eat his liver, which would then grow back, so that the eagle could do it again (Greek gods where inventive with their tortures if nothing else). Zeus told Prometheus that he could be released if he would meet either one of the conditions that Zeus set. The conditions were, either tell him the name of the mother whose child would dethrone him, or, he could get an immortal to give his life for Prometheus and a mortal could kill the eagle.
These conditions seemed like a high price, so Prometheus endured the torture, but eventually Chiron the centaur volunteered his life in place of Prometheus, and Heracles killed the eagle and released the unbreakable chains.
Rosa captures the torture at its pinnacle point, its so gruesome, but indicative of what the myth presents. I love the detail in this painting and the muted pallet in the background to make the colour of the blood striking. I wouldn’t say that this is a beautiful painting, but it is a triumph non the less, as it poses the true drama of the scene, which many other artists failed to do.
What do you think of this painting? Why not tell me in the comment? Like this post? Why not share it?