This painting, by the British artist Frederic Leighton (c. 1830-1896), was inspired by the sad and tragic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The instrument-wielding man on the left is Orpheus, a superstar musician of ancient Greek mythology who had the power to entrance almost everything in creation (animate and inanimate, mortal and divine) whenever he chose to play and sing. Clinging to him is Eurydice, a nymph who fell in love with the legendary musician. As Orpheus reciprocated her love, the two decided to become married. Yet, before they could live happily ever after, tragedy unfairly struck their love story. On or around their wedding day, Eurydice was heartbreakingly bitten by a venomous snake and she died from the wound. Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), a Roman poet, described this mythical death scene:
“The outcome was even worse than foreshadowed: the newly-wed bride,
while taking a stroll through the grass with her band of attendant naiads,
suddenly fell down dead with the fangs of a snake in her ankle.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.8-10)
This sad event, no matter how tragic it was on its own, was actually just the prelude to a much more elaborate myth—which happens to be the myth depicted above in Anselm Feuerbach’s painting. It is the story of Orpheus journeying into the underworld in an attempt to bring Eurydice back from the dead. A concise summery of the myth was recorded by a scholar known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century), who wrote:
“[Calliope, the muse of poetry, bore] Orpheus, who practised the art of singing to the lyre, and set rocks and trees in motion by his singing. When his wife, Eurydice, died from a snake-bite, he went down to Hades in the hope of bringing her up, and persuaded Pluto to send her back to earth. Pluto promised to do so, provided that on the way up Orpheus never looked round until he had arrived back at his house. But Orpheus failed to obey him, and turning round, he caught sight of his wife, and she had to return below” (Apollodorus, Library, I.3.2).
It is this myth that inspired Frederic Leighton’s painting. In the artist’s scene, perhaps Eurydice is the instigator of her tragic fate, tempting Orpheus to look, instead of the usual ancient tale of the musician being the one to take a curious and cautious glimpse behind him. Otherwise, maybe Eurydice clings to Orpheus, hoping he could somehow use his magical music to ward off the agents of the underworld who were coming to bring the unfortunate nymph back to the realm of the dead. Nevertheless, this time, Orpheus could not overcome or sway the decision of Hades, and the musician had to depart without his wife. After losing Eurydice for this second time, Orpheus withdrew into depressed seclusion, seemingly shunning all contact with anything besides the flora and fauna of nature.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.