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Ovid Metamorphoses Titian Perseus and Andromeda

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2644 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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As a painting, Perseus and Andromeda (Plate 3.6) cannot narrate the events in the same way as Ovid’s text, but instead captures the moment of Perseus’ fight with the sea monster. Titian’s painting could be considered a translation of Ovid’s poem insomuch as the key elements of Ovid’s myth remain; it is authentic in its representation and there are enough correspondences between the two pieces to make it clear that Ovid’s Metamorphoses is Titian’s original source. Having said that, Titian produced Perseus and Andromeda for a specific person and purpose, in the manner of other Renaissance artists, and, it was intended to be viewed together with the rest of the Poesie (Gould), so the painting could be described as a hybrid, or even a refiguration of the Ovidian legend.

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The painting shows Andromeda chained to a rock, her vulnerable pose contrasting plainly with Perseus’ powerful lunge. There is no mention in Ovid’s text of either Perseus or Andromeda’s clothing, except for Perseus’ sandals; Titian has respected Ovid’s work in this aspect, giving Perseus his winged sandals instead of the Pegasus that other artists have favoured. Andromeda’s nakedness in the painting symbolizes her innocence and vulnerability, characteristics also shown in Metamorphoses (Ovid 670-675), and also reflects the Renaissance culture in which the painting was produced. Gould quotes Titian’s letters to Philip II as evidence of the erotic aspect of Andromeda’s nudity, particularly when considered with the other poesia. (Gould) This nudity, when taken together with the bright colours used for Perseus’ clothing, places the emphasis clearly on the soon-to-be couple; our eyes are immediately drawn to the helpless girl awaiting rescue by her hero. Ovid also seems to highlight the hero’s fight, dedicating almost a third of the full narrative to it. Titian parts from his source however, by consigning Andromeda’s parents to the background, if in fact, they appear at all – in the extreme right background, a city is visible, and on the shore, a group of people; it is not clear however, whether this group includes her parents, or are those mentioned towards the end of Ovid’s tale (Ovid 735). Titian again follows the Metamorphoses with his inclusion of what appear to be shells and coral at Andromeda’s feet. The shells presumably represent the Nereids and are a reminder of the reason for Andromeda’s fate, while the coral recalling Ovid’s allegorical description of its creation (Ovid 740-753). The remaining part of Ovid’s narrative, Perseus’ sacrifices to the gods, does not appear in Titian’s painting. This may be simply because, in concentrating on Perseus’ fight with a sea monster, the painting necessarily becomes a seascape and the sacrifices that Ovid describes occur on land.

In my opinion, Titian’s representation of Perseus and Andromeda is sympathetic to his source and invokes the excitement of Ovid’s own words. The Renaissance representation reflects some of Ovid’s more misogynistic elements. My only criticism of the Titian piece is the figure of Perseus, who seems to me to be falling, not fighting. Personally, this gives the painting a comic aspect that I’m sure the artist had not intended and detracts from Ovid’s own emphatic telling of the myth.

Part 2 (75 marks)

Write an essay of not more than 2,000 words on the following.

In what ways does Ovid manipulate a myth in order to highlight his theme of metamorphosis? Do you consider that this technique can lessen the myth’s impact and coherence at times? Answer with reference to a specific mythic narrative in Metamorphoses.

Ovid’s epic poem brings together a collection of formerly unrelated myths connected by a mutual theme; metamorphosis. The transformations described by Ovid usually occur as a result of love or lust, consensual or otherwise, and are often used to explain the origins of particular animals, plants or natural phenomena. Since Ovid wrote his Metamorphoses, it has often been used as a source of myth, however, when compared to other sources, it is clear that Ovid manipulated the myths, displaying his knowledge of the myths and combining and separating them into new forms to suit his own agenda. Of course, it is the nature of myth that they should be moulded and transformed in each retelling, and this is evidenced in the extant works of the Greek tragedians. Ovid is, at times, faithful to his sources, but at others, he appears to delight in his manipulation of the traditional myths.

Ovid’s chosen theme of transformation is not only seen explicitly within the myths, for example in Arachne’s transformation into a spider (Ovid 6.140-145), but also implicitly in Ovid’s own transformation of the received version of the myths in the classical world. Homer or Hesiod’s treatment of myth is serious and deliberate, revealing much about the gods’ destructiveness, unpredictable moods, loves, and personal vendettas, appearing to define the authors’ perceptions of life itself. While the events may be dramatic, irrational or even comical, they are presented as serious perceptions on the ‘way things are’. Modern readers can understand how such tales would explain things such as natural phenomena or the existence of certain creatures. Ovid’s Metamorphoses however, appears to be primarily a collection of stories for the sake of entertainment and Ovid’s own fame. Whilst some of the myths retain their didactic elements, for example, Teiresias’ prophecy that Narcissus would live a long life “so long as he never knows himself” (Ovid 3.348), others appear to simply emphasize the gods desire to punish, for example Diana’s punishment of Actaeon (Ovid 3.139-252). In fact, this change in attitude to the myths in the removal of some of the moral significance can also be described as a metamorphosis. Ovid also includes other transformations in his epic poem, such as transformations in human culture or in the natural world. Ovid highlights his theme throughout the Metamorphoses, emphasizing that everything changes, and that in fact, is the only constant (Ovid 15.176-452).

The transformation of Narcissus is one of the best-known of the Greek myths and has inspired writers and artists for over two thousand years. There are several extant versions of the myth; the most well-known of these is Ovid’s version, found in Book III of his Metamorphoses (completed 8AD). Until recently, scholars assumed that Ovid’s version was the earliest; however an earlier version was discovered among the Oxryynchus papyri prompting Dr Benjamin Henry, the Oxford scholar who discovered the poem, to claim that “the myth was altered by Ovid to broaden its appeal” (Keys). This version, attributed to the poet Parthenius of Nicaea, is thought to have been composed some 40 years before Ovid’s version, and ends with Narcissus committing suicide. Conon, a contemporary of Ovid’s, tells the same myth in his Narrations and like Parthenius, ends it with Narcissus’ suicide, while Pausanias’ later version has Narcissus fall in love not with himself, but with his twin sister (Jacoby).

Conon’s version is a more moral telling of the myth that sees Narcissus punished by the gods for his pride and vanity. The young man Aminias fell in love with Narcissus, and, like his fellow suitors was spurned by him, so “took his sword and killed himself by the door, calling on the goddess Nemesis to avenge him.” (Atsma) As a result of Nemesis’ curse, Narcissus fell in love with a reflection of himself in a stream, and in despair and guilt over his treatment of Aminias, Narcissus killed himself. That his death was more brutal than that portrayed in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is clear in Conon’s claim that “From his blood sprang the flower.” (Atsma)

Ovid’s version of the myth begins with Teiresias’ prophecy that Narcissus should never know himself (Ovid 3.348), and then digresses with the tale of Echo. Echo, cursed by Juno for helping Jupiter to conceal his adultery, was only able to “repeat the words she heard at the end of a sentence and never reply for herself” (Ovid 3.369). When she saw Narcissus hunting in the woods, she, like many others before her, fell in love with him and followed him, repeating his last words in an attempt to communicate with him. When finally, feels encouraged enough by his words – “We must come together!” (Ovid 3.386) – to show herself, he rejects her harshly, “Hands off! May I die before you enjoy my body!” This is an ironic choice of words give his imminent demise, and Ovid is manipulating the tone here to reflect his earlier description of Narcissus as “hard and proud” (Ovid 3.353). Echo was left ashamed and broken-hearted, eventually wasting away until only her voice, an echo, remained. The connection between Echo and Narcissus appears to be Ovid’s own invention since there are no earlier accounts that link the two characters. Ovid’s departure from the received narrative enables him to include two further metamorphoses in this poem. The first of these occurs when, in her anger, Juno transforms Echo from the crafty nymph with a “prattling tongue” (Ovid 3.367) to a “poor creature” (Ovid 3.374) who could only repeat others’ words, the second when Narcissus’ rejection of Echo triggers her further transformation into “a mere voice” (Ovid 3.359).

The inclusion of Echo in the Narcissus narrative may not have been usual in Ovid’s time, but my first reading of the Narcissus myth was in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, so for me, the two characters have become truly interlinked. I am not inclined to pity Narcissus, so for me, the Echo story heightens the tragic timbre of the full narrative. Without the inclusion of Echo, the Narcissus myth becomes simply a story of a proud, arrogant boy getting his comeuppance, but Echo’s story invites compassion and even a desire for justice. Together with the additional opportunities for metamorphoses that her story provides, Ovid’s inclusion of Echo as a new part of the Narcissus myth was in my opinion, inspired, and resulted in a more compelling story.

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With his metamorphoses of Echo complete, Ovid returns the focus to Narcissus; at the appeal of “one of his scorned admirers” (Ovid 3.404), Nemesis curses Narcissus to “fall in love and never obtain his desire” (Ovid 3.405). We then encounter the first of Narcissus’ ‘transformations’ – the change from thirsting for water to thirsting for himself. Another transformation is Narcissus’ own character, changing from an arrogant youth with a “heart so hard and proud” (Ovid 3.354) through love to an anguished youth who welcomes death as an end to his heartache. Ovid subtly alludes to these more implicit transformations that infuse his Metamorphoses.

Of course the most explicit transformation of the Echo and Narcissus story is Narcissus’ own transformation into the narcissus flower. This is the climax of the myth, the realisation of the theme of metamorphosis. Narcissus’ metamorphosis is the result of his pride, vanity, and his treatment of his admirers; as he rejected others, he is rejected by himself, becoming both the subject and object of unrequited love. Even in death, Ovid suggests that his arrogance continues; “as he crossed the Styx to ghostly Hades, he gazed at himself in the river” (Ovid 3.504). Ovid builds the suspense of the transformation itself gradually, not revealing the outcome until the final line in the narrative; “The body, however, was not to be found – only a flower with a trumpet of gold and pale white petals” (Ovid 3.510). The fact that the narrative ends with the resulting metamorphosis illustrates Ovid’s desire to highlight his theme. Ovid uses metamorphosis to explore the social and cultural ramifications of the events in his poem, for example, Narcissus’ harsh treatment of Echo resulted in her transformation into “a mere voice” (Ovid 3.359) – Echo essentially ‘lost herself’ to love.

Gildenhard and Zissos believe that the poetic form of Metamorphoses is interrupted by the story of Narcissus, claiming that this confirms that the inclusion of this myth was an afterthought that Ovid felt was necessary to verify Teiresias’ prophecies. They believe that the Narcissus myth is a replacement for the Oedipal figure that would be expected at this point in the Theban books, quoting Hardie’s comments that “Behind the Narcissus story there hovers the figure of the Sophoclean Oedipus, the glaring absence from the narrative surface of Ovid’s Theban books, Metamorphoses 3 and 4, but a ghostly presence in much of the drama of blindness, sight, and insight, particularly of the third book.” (Gildenhard and Zissos 3) Their essay explores the intertextuality between Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Ovid’s Narcissus myth, claiming that “Oedipus and Narcissus emerge as thematic mirror reflections of each other” (Gildenhard and Zissos 13). Gildenhard and Zissos conclude that Ovid’s inclusion of Narcissus over Oedipus stems from a desire to concentrate on the members of Cadmus’ family, and that Oedipus’ tale “would [not] have lent itself easily to inclusion within the tight-knit patterning of Cadmus’ daughters and nephews” (Gildenhard and Zissos 17). However, in my opinion, the story of Echo and Narcissus is simply more appropriate to Ovid’s chosen theme. Even if Ovid did include it as an afterthought, or a way of proving Teiresias’ prophecies, he does so in such a way that it amplifies his metamorphosis theme.

The story of Echo and Narcissus is one of my favourite classical myths, and also inspired one of my favourite paintings – Salvador Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus. The tragedy, the anger and the justice of the myth come together with the transformations of the characters to produce a captivating story. The freshness and originality with which Ovid presents a well-known tale make it uniquely Ovidian. His writing is vivid and the story moves quickly, and whilst some may consider the inclusion of Echo a digression, the narrative still flows. In my opinion, Ovid’s manipulation of some of the key elements of the myth helps to enhance it further. The Parthenius and Conon versions of the myth that end in the suicide of Narcissus lack the poetic justice of Ovid’s slow decline. In Ovid’s versions of the myth, Narcissus’ gradual fading away mirrors Echo’s demise, and in this way, once again highlights Ovid’s theme of metamorphoses. When Narcissus is dying, he is not concerned about the world around him, about food, drink or sleep; he takes his last breath by the image he has fallen in love with but can never obtain (Ovid 3.405), and so dies alone, without love. Ovid’s masterful handling of the narrative gives it an intensity that can be hard to find in retellings of classical myths, but Ovid’s Echo and Narcissus has stood the test of time and continues to inspire other writers and artists even today.



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