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.

Cadmus and Harmonia

Evelyn De Morgan. "Cadmus and Harmonia". (1877). All rights reserved.

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.