Veronese, Paolo: Hermes, Herse and Aglauros (c1580)

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The Independent Culture

The story of Hermes, Herse and Aglauros is not one of the better-known tales from Ovid. It's not very spectacular as a tale, and not very promising, you might think, as a picture subject. The relevant part goes like this. The god Hermes is in love with Herse, an Athenian princess, and is trying to use her sister, Aglauros, as go-between. But Aglauros is eaten up with envy and determines to prevent their coming together. She stations herself at the doorway of Herse's chamber to block Hermes' access, and vows not to move until he has gone away. That's a deal, he replies, and turns her to stone at a touch of his staff.

Ovid then describes in calm detail the experience of her rapidly advancing paralysis: 'Aglauros tried to get up, but her legs, which she had bent while sitting down, were prevented from moving by a sluggish heaviness. She fought to raise herself up and straighten her body, but her knee joints were rigid. A coldness spread to her very fingertips, and her veins lost their blood and colour. Just as a bitter, incurable cancer will creep and multiply, so did the lethal chill, bit by bit, enter Aglauros's breast, closing the paths of life and breath. She did not try to speak, nor, if she had tried, would she have had a passage for her voice. Rock was already taking hold of her throat, her mouth was growing hard, and she sat there, a bloodless statue.'

It is clearly the embodiment of her gnawing envy.

Painting can do bodies in action easily enough. The sensation of bodies is more of a challenge. Veronese's painting of Hermes, Herse and Aglauros gives you the essential action in a tightly composed incident. It's all concentrated in the left-hand foreground of the picture. The doorway coincides with the picture's left edge. The floor-bound woman is on the picture's bottom edge. The god, still coming in through the door, meets the woman, who tries to hold him back, and he pins her down with his staff. There are no large gestures or expressions. A sequence of actions and reactions " the god's entrance, the woman's resistance, the magic touch " are compacted into a single, rather subdued bodily encounter. The experience of paralysis, on the other hand, cannot be shown directly. But Veronese creates a pictorial equivalent for it, and in the process it seems to overtake the god, too.

Look at those two figures again. They're so densely entangled, both physically and visually, that it hard to tell what's going on between them; but it's worth trying. Hermes, as he comes into the room and into the picture, meets Aglauros on the floor. He steps over her body. He takes her in his stride. His right leg holds her in a lock.

This striding leg is hardly discernible. It's almost completely hidden behind her raised arm and head and torso. It must be worked out from glimpses. Its knee is directly behind her head. Its dark sandalled ankle emerges next to her right shoulder. The only bit you can identify distinctly are Hermes' toes, which Aglauros grips with her right hand. But you might well take them for her toes, connected somehow to the end of her bent right leg.

That misconnection would be no more implausible than other supposedly real anatomical connections. Look at Hermes' left hand. It holds up his cloak next to his head, but how it's meant to join, via an arm, on to his left shoulder is not clear. And Aglauros's emerging knee: somehow it joins, via a thigh and a hip, on to her torso. And where its own foot is supposed to be, who knows?

The point about these two figures is that, though you can try to pick them apart and put them together, they don't work out as two single, articulate bodies that happen to be entwined in a complicated way. The individual bodies don't properly join up. The separate bodies aren't properly distinct. They're an arrangement of body parts, collapsed into an indefinite composite entity. As the paralysing power passes from one to the other, they fuse together. And their shaping only strengthens this. Bodies in a picture become shapes. And shape-wise, these two bodies are turned into a block, a single oblong block. See how the right-hand side of Hermes falls into a straight, upright line " going up from his ankle, up his shin, up the edge of his rumpled cloak, to his raised left hand. It makes a vertical barrier in the picture space, and between this barrier and the side of the picture and the bottom of the picture, the two figures are contained, hemmed in, pressed together, solidified.

The picture, in fact, gives Aglauros her desire. She and Hermes are held together in their own subsection of the scene. As he turns her to stone, she is more strongly bonded, more deeply involved with the god than her sister Herse, who sits upstage on the other side of the picture, with her little dog, recoiling from the incident, at an angle that echoes Hermes' lean, but quite separate. After such a crisis, the picture suggests, as does Ovid, their relationship will be going no further.

THE ARTIST

Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) is sometimes called a decorator, or decorative painter. Born Paolo Caliari, in Verona, he went to Venice and became one of the leading painters of the generation after Titian. His pictures are filled with colour and texture and luxury, rich stuffs, gleaming marble, sturdy and glowing flesh. Whether he is painting biblical, Christian, pagan or allegorical subjects, the mood is always courtly. He can certainly do vast panoramic pageants. His most distinctive works are domesticated versions of classical myths, usually tales of love. They are usually grand and sexy, dream-like and half-comic, peopled by heavy, sleepy, slightly helpless figures, who are often leaning weightlessly at an angle, dressed in a loosely thrown piece of fabric that is just about to slip off their naked bodies. His biblical paintings brought him before the Inquisition for trivialising religious subjects.

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