The theme of woman and the serpent is recurrent in 19th century. This relationship use to link Eve or Lilith with the serpent in many cases, but there are other women connected with the reptile from contemporary sources, as the Baudelaire’s poem Le Serpent qui danse o the Flaubert novel Salambó, and also myths taken from the Greek-Roman mythology.
This post is referred to a painting based in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, concretely to the legend of Cadmus and Harmonia.
This masterpiece was painted by one of the few Pre-Raphaelite female artists: Evelyn de Morgan. The date of the painting (1877) talks about a late Pre-Raphaelism, the current lead by John William Waterhouse.
To introduce the wactcher about the painting, Evelyn de Morgan put a text close to the canvas a legend extracther from Metamorphosis, Chapter four:
“With lambent tongue he kissed her patient face, crept in her bosom as his dwelling place entwined her neck, and shared the loved embrace”.
Victim of Zeus rage, Cadmus was turned into serpent, and has to live with this sape close to his beloved Harmonia. In this way Evelyn de Morgan has represented the tragedy of this couple.
Looking to the painting we can question ourselves: is this a non-erotic painting on the contrary of images of Eve or Lilith with the serpent? We must say no, most of all if we read the Ovid text. There is a loving affair inbetween Harmonia and her lover Cadmus turned into a serpent. But there are elements in the painting that shows contention: the pure blue sky, the blonde hair of Harmonia tied back and her eyes looking to the infinite, while Cadmus is coiled around the body of his lover. This fact could be related with the feeling of solitude of Harmonia due to the tragedy of her lover will be forever a serpent and not a man.
Maybe this is one of the few examples of representation of a woman and a serpent that is far from the attribution of perversity to the female sex.
Just about the style, as we mention, this is a painting in the way of Waterhouse nymphs. When I saw for the first time this painting I immediately thought in Waterhouse and I was surprised when I discover the author was a woman.
No doubt, the Pre-Raphaelite female characters have in common a singular beauty. I think them have reflect in their paintings the most pure and elevate female beauty.