Saturday 2 January 2021

How My Favourite (Ovidian?) Painting Has Helped Me in Lockdown


During the  confinements of the last ten months, virtual art galleries have provided comfort. On the anniversary of Piero di Cosimo’s birth in 1462, with our British hospitals in crisis, my favourite painting in the National Gallery seems apposite. Erwin Panofsky got it right in saying that it entrances by its "strange lure”.

The external viewer forms a triangle, with the two internal viewers, of the prostrate young woman. The dog on the right and the satyr on the left bow their heads towards her. We assume she is dead—her throat bears an injury—and wonder about the relationship between her and these two non-human witnesses.

It was once assumed that it portrayed the death of Procris, an Athenian princess, as told by Ovid. In Ars Amatoria book III,  after realizing that her lover Cephalus had not been unfaithful, she rushes to be with him in the forest. He shoots her dead with an arrow, mistaking her for a wild beast. In Ovid’s  Metamorphoses book VII, the goddess Eos makes Cephalus doubt Procris’ fidelity. She runs away to be a nymph of Diana. When Cephalus apologises she returns to him, bringing him a magical spear and Laelaps (“Hurricane”), an infallible hunting dog. But her husband mistakes her for an animal and kills her—this time with a javelin in her breast.

But Ovid's narratives are difficult to reconcile with the painting. Ovid’s Procris dies in her human husband’s arms, with no mention of any satyr. The wound is in her breast rather than throat, and both she and the dog are transformed into marble statues.

It is just possible that di Cosimo was responding to a tragic drama, Cefalo by Niccolò da Correggio. This did include a faun, who was himself in love with Procris. He falsely told her that Cephalus had been unfaithful, thus indirectly making himself responsible for her death. The dog might then symbolize the true faithfulness of Procris, contrasted with the faun’s destructive jealousy.

Yet since 1951, the Natonal Gallery has stopped calling the painting ‘The death of Procris’; it is simply ‘A mythological subject’ or ‘A satyr mourning over a nymph’. The mystery behind the tragic death of the woman perhaps makes it even more profound.  We wonder at the detail of her sandals, making us ask who she is, who used to frolic in this lovely landscape. Did the satyr and dog see what happened? Did they love her? How much do they each know?

We wonder at the distant ships and buildings—what human community is seemingly so oblivious of this private tragedy? Why is this dog separated from his pack, seen unconcerned in the middle distance? Who killed the woman and why? Above all, the tender concern in the satyr’s face, and the gentleness of his touch on her shoulder and forehead, make us ask what his own role has been.  

The companionship of faithful pets, tragic death, as well as the need for trust and kindness, are all dominant presences in our lockdown life. This eerie, dreamlike, compassionate painting helps me to think about all of them.

Finlay, Captain Seahawk and Jasper aka Satan

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