by Sarah Baur
In his painting "Perseus and Andromeda", the former president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Frederic Leighton, depicts a well-known scene from Greek mythology that has been widely reproduced in art. In the middle of a rocky bay, a young woman with long blond hair is depicted. She is almost completely naked, only her pubic region and one leg are still covered by her white robe. With a tortured expression, she writhes against a rock on which a threatening, dragon-like monster spreads its wings above her. With an angry, smoking mouth, the monster looks up to the sky, distracted by its supposed prey, where a winged horse and rider appear in brilliant sunshine.
According to the myth, the story of the sitter begins with the self-absorption of Queen Cassiopeia. She claimed to surpass the Nereids and Nymphs in beauty and thus angered the sea god Poseidon. In order not to let Cassiopeia's insolence go unpunished, he sent a sea monster to the shores of her land Aithiopia, which caused chaos and devastation there. To put an end to the terror, Andromeda, the queen's daughter, was to be sacrificed to the monster and was tied to a rock in the bay of the sea. This would not have ended well for the young Andromeda if Perseus had not discovered her, who was on his way back from his fight with Medusa on his winged horse Pegasus. He defeated the monster, saved Andromeda from her fate and took her as his wife.
Leighton stages the dramatic action here in an imposing rocky landscape that contributes to the overall mood. It represents precisely the climax of tension in the story, when Andromeda can only escape the clutches of the monster by a hair's breadth. The mighty figure of the monster, looming fearsomely over its victim, shadows Andromeda and hints at her impending fate. Its black angular body contrasts sharply with Andromeda's delicate light features. The "damsel in distress" is here quite typically depicted in pure innocent white, both in terms of the incarnate and light-coloured long hair and her now barely-there clothing. The hero Perseus is also particularly accentuated not only by an equally light colouring but also by a circle of light. Perseus - made recognisable by the winged cloak of invisibility and, of course, by Pegasus - is captured in the moment of movement after he has just shot the deadly arrow at the monster, which has found its target in the scales of the latter. Thus, Leighton's dramatic and contrasting staging here shows a prime example of the struggle between good and evil. Of course, we as viewers can also feast our eyes on the beautiful woman and thus it is also an erotic motif.
However, the wedding of the protagonists almost did not take place, as Andromeda was already promised to her uncle Phineus. When Phineus got into a quarrel with Perseus, Perseus held up the head of Medusa and was thus able to eliminate his comrade-in-arms and petrify him. In another of Leighton's paintings, which was painted a few years later and focuses on Perseus as he rescues Andromeda, even this severed head of Medusa can be seen.
Frederic Leighton - Perseus and Andromeda
1891, Oil on canvas, 235 x 129.2 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Frederic Leighton - Perseus on Pegasus Hastening to the Rescue of Andromeda
Oil on canvas, 1895-6, Leicester Museum & Art Gallery
Annibale Carracci and Domenichino - Perseus and Phineas
Fresco, 1597, Farnese Gallery, Rome