Three Paintings of the Rape of Proserpina
(Author's note: Click the paintings for to enlarge)

     In the myth The Rape of Proserpina, Persephone is playing and picking flowers in a field with her friends. Hades notices and abducts her. Once in the Underworld, Persephone becomes hungry and eats some pomegranate seeds, causing her to remain in with Hades. While on earth, Demeter mourns her daughter, and causes crops to die. Zeus intervenes and Persephone spends half the year with her mother and the other half with Hades. The painters I wish to discuss are the following: Evelyn de Morgan, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Frederic Leighton.

Demeter Mourning Persephone
Figure 1. Evelyn de Morgan, Demeter mourning Persephone, oil on canvas, 49 x 44 cm, The De Morgan Centre, London
     Demeter mourning Persephone (Figure 1.) takes place when Demeter realizes her daughter had been taken. The earth is dead and she is tearing the wheat and flowers out of her hair. However, there are signs of hope, such as the dawn and little patches of green in the background. Another interpretation is that the dawn is a symbol of resurrection and the wheat is a symbol of rebirth in Christian tradition (Smith 96). At first, I thought this painting depicted the beginning of the death of the world. I didn’t see the sun rising like Smith did; I saw it setting as the world slowly dies.

     Smith goes on to say, “Demeter is shown alone, when we typically see paintings related to this myth, those paintings focus on Persephone’s abduction or Persephone’s return from the Underworld” (97). I will have to concur with this statement; most paintings of this myth either show Persephone alone, her abduction, or her return, never paintings of Demeter by herself. This might be that the loss of her daughter is a burden she carries by herself and herself alone.      Once again, we have a lone female as the main focus of the painting in Rossetti’s painting Proserpine (Figure 2). One will notice this painting is darker than Demeter Mourning Persephone. The first painting (see Figure 1.), Demeter is bright, almost glowing. The painting is very rich in color. Demeter is mourning and she doesn’t seem to care who sees. The second painting (Figure 2.), Persephone is wearing dark clothes and she appears to be in a very dark place with only a small window with light coming in. Her hands are close to her, possibly indicating that she’s scared, or defensive. Persephone also has the look of someone who would stab you in the back.

Figure 2. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine, oil on canvas, 125.1 x 61cm, Tate Gallery, London
     It is unclear whether Persephone had already eaten the pomegranate seeds, or if she has yet to do so. The painting appears to be dark; Persephone is now trapped in the Underworld. The expression on her face gives the impression that she is unhappy with her current situation and she wants to go home, but cannot. The light coming in from the background gives a ray of hope that she may return to her mother. “Yet the pomegranate, the cause of Proserpina’s relegation for half the year to hell, is also used in Christian symbolism to stand for the hope of resurrection, since Proserpina returns each year to the upper earth…

     Perhaps we may, then, interpret the ray of light on the background wall not only as a memory of past bliss, but as a sign of hope.” (Treuherz 217) I can see where Treuherz is coming from with this interpretation. Persephone wants to return to her mother, but she is stuck in the underworld. She remembers her life before her abductions and she hopes to return to her mother and see the light of day once again.

     Persephone is reaching out to her mother after the long half-year with her arms outstretched, while Demeter has arms wide open to accept Persephone. This is the scene depicted in the painting The Return of Persephone (Figure 3.). The cave can also be seen as symbolism for a womb. In a way, this is Persephone’s second birth, or rebirth. This painting has more color than Rossetti’s Proserpine (see Figure 2.). Demeter isn’t as bright as she is in Demeter Mourning Persephone (see Figure 1.), but Persephone appears to be glowing.

The Return of Persephone
Figure 3. Frederic Leighton, The Return of Persephone, oil on canvas, 203.2 x 152.4 cm, Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds, UK
     Newall sums up this painting beautifully. He states, “Leighton's painting shows the limp corpse of Persephone, wearing a shroud-like drapery over her yellow undergarment, being carried upwards by Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Persephone is awaited by her mother Demeter, dressed in a warm-coloured and voluminous drapery, whose strong, sun-browned arms are stretched wide to embrace her beloved daughter. The scene of the reunion is set at the mouth of the cave which leads to the Underworld: below is darkness and death; while above is a cloud-strewn sky and the bright light of day. The transition is represented by the contrast between the few heliophobic plants which survive around the inside of the mouth and the spray of cherry-blossom seen beyond. The fertile landscape burgeons as a consequence of Persephone having regained the light of the sun“. (124-125) Once again, I will have to agree with this interpretation. Persephone yearns for her mother and Demeter welcomes her with arms wide open, accepting her daughter. Persephone is reaching toward her mother, who is in the warm light. It appears Persephone would rather be with her mother rather than in the Underworld where it is dark and cold.

     The common theme in these paintings is resurrection, or rebirth. Demeter mourning Persephone focuses on Demeter mourning the loss of her daughter, but has elements of rebirth, such as the dawn sky and patches of green. Proserpine focuses on Persephone eating the pomegranate. The pomegranate is used in Christian symbolism for resurrection. The Return of Persephone focuses on Demeter’s reunion with Persephone. Persephone appears to be rejuvenated at the sight of her mother. While these lovely paintings show resurrection or rebirth in some way, they show it through different aspects of the myth.

Works Cited

Newall, Christopher. The Art of Lord Leighton. London: Phaion Press Ltd, 1990. Print.
Smith, Elsie Lawton. Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and the Allegorical Body. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 2002. Print.
Treuherz, Julian, Elizabeth Prettejohn, Edwin Becker. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2003. Print.

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