Priestess of Delphi

John Collier. "Priestess of Delphi". (1891). All rights reserved.

As we could see in the past post about Evelyn de Morgan, there are more Pre-Raphaelite painters not wellknown but extremey interesting. This time I want to talk about a painting of John Collier (UK 1850-1934).

As a brief review we must comment that Collier was strongly influenced by artists like Lawrence Alma-Tadema and John William Wateerhouse. This influence made his painting was located in the Pre-Raphaelite aura. Apart from the symbolist themes of his most reputated works as Lilith (1892), Tanhauser in Venusberg (1901) or Lady Godiva (1898), Collier became famous in London as portrait artist, and so, he was member of societys like Royal Society of Portrait Painters or Royal Institute of Oil Painters.

This post is referred to a singular Collier’s paintings, not very popular but quite interesting: Priestess of Delphi (1891). The painting is about the mythical Delphi oracle. Collier travels to the Ancient Greece and let us to assit to the visionary trance of the Pythia, the main priestess of Delphi in the moment that Apollo reveals the future to her. One of the most famous revelations of Delphi oracle was the future of Oedipus who should kill his father and marry his mother.

The procedure of divination was as follows: the consultant ask the God Apollo the question about his future and the message was transmitted to the Pythia, the principal virgin priestess of the Temple of Delphi. So, she walked into the sacred cave, sat on a tripod, took bay leaf leaves, drunk from the Spring of Enthusiasm and breathed the sacred vapours that came from crevices in the floor of the cave. In that moment, the priestess entered in trance and the God revealed the answer to the question. This revelation used to be confuse, an enigma.

Recent investigations let us know the reason of the ecstatic trances in Delphi: the steam of the caves is sulphuric and with the help of bay leaf, made the person to get tipsy and have hallucinations.

So, if we look the Collier’s painting we can see all these elements we have referred. We can see a woman, the Pythia, dressed in orange and red as the Greek style, covering the body and the head. She is sat on a tripod and has in her hands a vessel with the water from Enthusiasm Spring and bay leaf leaves. We can see also how the sulphuric steam come from inside the earth. The face of the Pythia has a severe expression, most of all her eyes, shadowed, that seems to look to nowhere. Collier is representing the precise moment of the Hallucination of the fortuneteller.

The theme of the painting is quite rare, but it´s very based in real facts, that moves us to think that John Collier knew perfectly the divination procedure of Delphi Temple.

We must say about this painting that in technique belongs to the late Pre-Raphaelist movement, practised by Waterhouse, Evelyn De Morgan or Alma Tadema, but the theme is near Symbolism. It’s usual that these two movements, that coexisted at the end of 19th century, had points in common.