Roman Ideals of Beauty and Playing with Gender: Analyzing Various Representations of Omphale and Hercules in Roman Art

During the third century AD, Plotinus, who was a Neo-Platonist, changed the traditional view of Beauty accepted earlier in antiquity. Beauty had been considered to be the symmetry of parts, but Plotinus defined Beauty differently—a Principle created and emanated an Idea, which could also be called Beauty. Additionally, he argues that each part of a whole does not specifically have Beauty; instead, the individual parts combine, contributing to make the final product beautiful. However, he continues, if the whole is considered Beautiful, the parts must also be beautiful because the whole could not be made of ugly parts. Plotinus wrote his views concerning his contemporaries, and there is a connection between his aesthetic theories and Roman art of the time.

The aesthetic theoretical implications of Roman art, specifically of the kind outlined by Plotinus, have not been explored thoroughly, according to Thea Ravasi.[1] In Roman art, there are a few portrayals of Omphale, the queen of Lydia, and Hercules, the demigod, which are seen in sculpture, fresco, and mosaic. Although a variety of mediums are used, analyzing the various representations of Omphale and Hercules presents what Romans prized aesthetically—or the combination and juxtaposition of the ideal and the real, the feminine versus masculine—revealing the play between male and female gender roles during the Roman era.

The Myth
To begin, understanding the depictions of representations of Hercules and Omphale depends on knowing the myth. While there are numerous versions, in the telling used for the purpose of this paper, Hercules desired to atone for murdering one of his friends, Iphitus. After consulting the oracle Apollo, the god advised Hercules to serve Omphale, Queen of Lydia, even though Hercules, a son of Zeus, was famous because of his exceptional strength. Despite the change in status from a son of a god to a slave, Hercules still completed the tasks Omphale gave him, which she, as the queen, tailored for him specifically.[2] There were numerous tasks, such Hercules being forced to do women’s work and wear women’s clothing. For example, he had to hold a basket of wool, while Omphale and her maidens worked on the spinning. Moreover, while Hercules wore women’s clothing, Omphale wore the Nemean Lion skin.

In Greek mythology, the Nemean lion was a vicious monster. Because of its golden fur, it could not be killed by humans’ weapons and its claws were extremely sharp. Hercules killed the Nemean lion as the first of the twelve labors that King Eurystheus required. Omphale not only wore the lion skin but also carried the club of Hercules’. Tertullian (c. 155–240), an early Christian author who lived in a Roman province in Africa, writes about the pagan myth, which is surprising given his Christian background. He reasons that the skin must have been “softened, smoothened, and freed from stench for a long time, as had been done, so I presume, in Omphale’s house, by means of balsam and fenugreek oil” because Tertullian believed that not even the strongest of women could have held up, let alone wear, the mighty lion skin.[3] Nevertheless, over time, Omphale fell in love with Hercules because of his strength and handsome features, and the couple married. This myth was used in Roman political maneuvering.[4] Yet artists throughout time have explored the gender roles of the myth in art.[5] The following sections will explore various Roman artistic representations of the myth through the mediums of sculpture, fresco, and mosaic.

A unique sculpture is Portrait Statue of Woman in form of Omphale, which is located currently in the Vatican Museum (Fig. 1). In funerary Roman art, the deceased individual’s portrait sometimes included a mature face juxtaposed with an ideal body comparable to the gods, which was popular among the Roman nobility and the wealthy. This sculpture shows a middle-aged woman with an elaborate hairstyle, indicating the Severan period, which occurred from AD 193 to AD 235. The hairstyle is parted in the middle, with two braids in the front, framing her face; there appears to be slight waves in her hair that cover her ears. There is the Nemean lion head covering, although no Hercules is included. The figure is almost completely nude; the claws of the lion reach towards her nipples, and a cloth, coming from behind, rests by her side, and her right hand holds it closely to her body in front of her genitalia. Quite a bit of skin, which appears smooth and tangible, is showing, and her left arm cradles the club.


Figure 1. Portrait Statue of Woman in form of Omphale, Roman, AD 193–235.

With this sculpture of Portrait Statue of Woman in form of Omphale, the ideal and the realistic are portrayed. There is a great contrast between ideal body type, such as one of a goddess like Venus, and realistic facial portrait of this middle-aged woman. She stands serene and divine looking with elegant contrapposto, while her face is clearly aged older than the rest of the body. The nudity of statues becomes a type of costume, which gives resemblances of divinity to the portrait of the deceased.[6] Visually, these juxtaposed styles of the old and the new look strange and even incoherent for modern viewers; however, Plotinus and other Romans of this time would have found these portrayals to be aesthetically pleasing. Beauty, during this time, was the unity of the composed individual parts. Therefore, because the parts are beautiful, here the idealized body as well as the aged face, the whole is considered beautiful. Additionally, the parts considered masculine (e.g., the lion skin and club) juxtaposed with the parts considered feminine (e.g., the long hairstyle, the goddess-like body, the smooth skin, and graceful elegance) combine to create an object of Beauty.

It is unclear why this woman would have chosen to be shown in the form of Omphale. Of course, Omphale is a woman of great authority, as her country’s sole leader. Therefore, the woman whose portrait was being made may have desired to be associated with that strength and resilience. Another juxtaposition is the sophisticated, detailed hairstyle, indicated earlier as a style from the Severan era, versus the lion skin. The hairstyle is meant to be seen because the lion skin is placed quite a bit back on her head. If this occurred in real life, the skin would probably fall over from the weight of the head; therefore, this woman obviously wanted her hairstyle to be visible. During the Roman period, beauty was connected with physical features as well as feminine virtue. If a women had an elegant hairstyle, she was seen as being both beautiful and virtuous. Therefore, unique and elaborate hairstyles showed women, especially of the upper classes, as having traits of the ideal Roman woman while also being stylish and affluent.[1]

Hairstyles were used by the upper-class women to push political or social agendas, depending on who was ruling at the time.[2] Perhaps the woman depicted as Omphale desired to present herself as an ideal Roman woman and citizen by following the hairstyle trends of the time. At the same time, this sculpture emphasizes her strength or even maybe her position of power if she belonged to the upper classes, which would make sense given the quality of this statue.

Another reason this woman may present herself as Omphale could be to associate herself with the goddess Venus. When creating portraits and life-size statues, the body type and overall portrayal reflected trends in politics, religious affiliations, and personal taste. For Roman women, the selection of the body type portrayed reflected a particular role. It was important as well as difficult for Roman women “to fashion themselves as fit but amply endowed, wealthy but modest, elaborately coiffured but capable of working with wool, and sensuous but models of correct behavior.”[3] These roles were portrayed through the selection of body types; the body type became a type of façade that was connected with various Roman goddesses, who were recognizable by the general populace. By choosing a particular body type, the bearer also took on the characteristics of that goddess.

For example, the goddess Venus was associated with not only attractiveness but also fertility. Here this woman has the body type of Venus, with a flawless figure, perhaps to present herself as desirable and fertile. Her aged face, in contrast, emphasizes her wisdom and experience, which could be associated with Omphale, a wise and competent ruler. This contrast of hyper-feminine with the naturalistic features shows that wealthy, upper-class women of the time had a great say in how they wanted to be presented.

The decision to not include Hercules is an intriguing one. Of course, no Hercules could be shown because perhaps the woman shown here is unmarried or desired a representation of only herself. With the patriarchy of Roman society, women were expected to fulfill values—chastity, fertility, beauty—that men desired.[4] This portrait of the woman as Omphale stands in contrast to patriarchal expectation of Roman women.

She seems to associate herself with Queen Omphale, who had political power typically associated outside a Roman woman’s world, and Venus, who was a goddess of great beauty and fertility, which are associated with the child-bearing and the home. Additionally, she maintains a realistic portrait for her face, therefore combining different worlds into one thoughtful presentation. This portrait is a deliberate decision in complex, multi-referential representation. This woman does not need a cross-dressing Hercules because these juxtapositions in style and references emphasize her own power and decisions in how she presents herself and how she wants others to see her.

Another example of a statue, quite different from the portrait statue discussed above, is included in a marble statue group of Hercules and Omphale, now located in Naples at the National Archaeological Museum (Fig. 2).


Figure 2. Marble statue group of Hercules and Omphale, Roman, first century AD.

This Roman statue comes from first century AD. Omphale is shown wearing Hercules’ cloak and lion-skin headdress, which is further up on her head than the woman’s portrait as Omphale. The claws of the lion do not come down her chest here, and she does not attempt to make herself modest, as seen previously. Instead, the cloak wraps around her left thigh, and her genitalia is completely exposed. Additionally, she leans on the club of Hercules, which is in her left hand this time. In contrast, Hercules, who is dressed in a woman’s tunic that slips off his shoulder in a Venus-like manner, wears wears a woman’s snood and holds skeins of wool in his hands with wool basket at his feet.[5] Hercules’ cork-screw curls create a prominent beard, and both of them stand in contrapposto that are a reflection of the other—Omphale’s left leg bends, and Hercules’ right leg bends. While classical in style in many ways, Hercules’ legs look stubby and shorter than expected. However, these shorter legs make the couple close to the same height and, consequently, the same level.

In this sculpture, Hercules does not appear to be ashamed of being dressed in women’s clothing, which could be because there are other Greek and Roman stories with cross-dressing men. For example, Achilles’ mother hides her son from the Greeks, who are preparing for war and want Achilles, the great warrior, to join them. Because his mother is concerned that he might die, she hides him in a palace of young women, and he is dressed as a woman to fit in with his surroundings. However, when Odysseus pretends to be a peddler and goes to the palace to catch Achilles, Odysseus places swords underneath the other trinkets in order to catch Achilles, who is interested in weapons. As depicted in the Sarcophagus of Alexander Severus and Mammaea, the scene in the sarcophagus shows Achilles reaching out to grab and examine the weapons with his female clothing falling off, revealing who he is (Fig. 3).[6]


Figure 3. Sarcophagus of Alexander Severus and Mammaea, Rome, AD 250, illustration from History of Rome by Victor Duruy (c. 1884).

One reason that Roman artists may not show Hercules and Achilles as being ashamed of dressing in women’s clothing is because it is only momentary, since the viewers know that men will go back to their traditional clothing. Another reason could be that both of these men are renowned for their fighting and masculinity; even though they dress in women’s clothing, it is easy to see that Achilles and Hercules are actually men—not women—with ripped muscles and hyper-masculine, idealized forms.

Both the man and woman are portrayed positively in the marble statue group. Silberberg-Pierce discusses that Roman art conveys a positive portrayal of women in paintings, writing that “[t]his model can profitably be applied to all Roman art production: it represents a woman’s view, one which, until recently, has been effectively suppressed.”[7] This work is a sculpture and not a painting but still depicts women, specifically Omphale, positively. Hercules and Omphale are quite close to being the same height, which suggests a type of equality, since one is neither higher nor superior over the other. Standing quite close together, Omphale’s arm wraps around Hercules with her left hand on his shoulder in a posture of consultation and mutual admiration.

Additionally, she is confident in her sexuality and in her strength. The viewer sees Omphale looks towards Hercules, who gazes off into the distance, as their bodies appear to be melding into one. Because of the mirroring poses and touch between each other, they are shown as a unified couple, and no hierarchy of one being greater than the other is suggested. Rather that suggesting a power play dynamic here, the couple looks supportive and united because despite their separate parts, their concord and union exhibits Beauty.

This section addresses another medium—frescos—depicting Hercules and Omphale. During the Imperial Roman period from 27 BC to AD 284, a portrayal of Hercules and Omphale was painted in a basilica in Pompeii, which is now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli in Naples, Italy (Fig. 4).


Figure 4. Hercules and Omphale, Pompeii, 27 BC–AD 284.

The viewers see Hercules standing before Omphale, shown as an enthroned, regal queen with a laurel-wreath crown. Nike, the winged goddess representing victory, is shown floating above him. Additionally, a small boy, which could represent the god Pan, holds pipes and stands behind Omphale. There are an eagle and a lion on either side of Hercules. In the left-hand corner, the viewers see Hercules’ son, Telephos, who is sucking on a doe.[8] This depiction contrasts greatly with the previous two examples examined in the sculpture section.

This portrayal presents a power dynamic between Hercules and Omphale. Omphale sits above him powerfully and looks off into the distance while placing her hands on her face with a contemplative look, as if considering the tasks that she will require of him. Therefore, this scene foreshadows the task of cross-dressing that will later take place because of the lion in the bottom right-hand corner (e.g., since Omphale will wear the lion skin that Hercules had killed) and the imbalanced power of master versus slave.

His shame is evident and reflects the fact that he will soon have to wear women’s clothing as part of his atonement for killing his friend, since he must obey whatever she orders. There is no freedom or liberation for Hercules, and Omphale’s gaze suggests one of independence and supremacy. In contrast to Omphale’s dominance, Hercules looks down in shame rather than looking Omphale in the eyes, which contrasts to the statue of the couple. His backside is exposed, revealing round buttocks and muscular back, arms, and legs.

Eve D’Ambra argues that male full-frontal nudity “appears active and aggressive” when compared to the modest nude of Venus; however, male nudity here does not exude confidence or “personal agency” for Hercules, perhaps because it does not depict full-frontal nudity.[9] Therefore, if male nudity suggests aggression, then female nudity would be considered passive or less active because the Venus figure is not always completely nude but tries to cover herself partly in order to be considered beautiful.

By being clothed, Omphale could be seen as taking on a more active role. Another reason could be reflective of female responses to prostitution in Pompeii because immodesty was associated with prostitution. Women, who were wealthy and belonged to the upper classes, actively exhorted for a return to propriety and written engravings even appeared on the walls of the Triclinia in Pompeii.[10] While impositions of enforced morality may seem strange to modern viewers, it still presents active and involved women in Pompeii, which is reflective of the active, strong depiction of Omphale.

This portrayal shows an exception to Roman Beauty because of how this strong, powerful-looking woman still follows a very classical style, such as how the drapery rests against Omphale’s body. The viewer sees the suggestion of her body underneath, the shading on the arms and her face, and the perspective of the three-quarter view of her serene, goddess-like face. The individual parts independently all have Beauty with the idealized parts contributing to Beautiful, idealized figures of the whole, even though the scene or event may seem somewhat mismatched, such as the male being naked and exposed before the woman.

Another fresco in Pompeii depicting Hercules and Omphale dates from the first century BCE, now located in Naples at the National Archaeological Museum (Fig. 5). In this depiction, Omphale holds a leaf-fan and looks down at Hercules with a mystified expression on her face. Hercules is already wearing the woman’s dress with a wreath on his head, reclining drunkenly with one of his arms in the air.[11] Hercules’ strange depiction could explain the puzzled expressions on the women’s faces.


Figure 5. Fresco of Hercules and Omphale, Pompeii, first century BCE.

Surprisingly, while Hercules already wears the women’s clothing, Omphale is still wearing her own feminine clothing and not Hercules’. Perhaps one reason this portrayal is shown this way could emphasize the humor of the event. Hercules is not ashamed but rather inebriated and acting and looking ridiculous, while Omphale maintains her dignity. Omphale is placed at a higher level, emphasizing her position of power and her sober status, rather than having them on the same plane. Another reason for this portrayal could be showing why Omphale decided to dress in male clothing. The viewers see the putti figures attempting to lift the heavy club of Hercules up to the level where Omphale is sitting. Hercules is reduced to a comical, lower level by dressing in women’s clothing, but Omphale will be empowered even more by dressing in his clothing because it shows her strength and grandeur. Although the four putti figures can barely lift the club, but she will not only carry the club but also wear the heavy lion skin.

In this fresco, Omphale is not alone or only with Hercules but has female companions. The tunic slips off her Omphale’s shoulder, similar to Venus, as seen with the marble statue group of Hercules and Omphale; however, with that statue, it was Hercules’ shoulder that was exposed from the women’s clothing slipping off on that side. Yellow and greyish-purple tones mark Omphale’s clothing. On her sides, Omphale not alone here but surrounded by two young girls. The one maiden on Omphale’s left also mimics her queen, since her shoulder is also bare, and she wears white. This girl is much smaller than Omphale, although it is unclear whether or not she is supposed to be younger or the same age.

On the other side, the maiden on Omphale’s right holds her hand up to her face and looks with a quizzical expression on her face. Her clothing is in nude and green colors, and her navel is visible through the transparent clothing. This maiden is taller than the other one, but her proportions are strange and curved, making her appear serpentine instead of human. In contrast, Omphale appears to have the best proportions and follows the classical style the most with natural drapery and goddess-like elegance and beauty.

The women’s appearances emphasize Pompeii standards of beauty. Their hair is piled up on top of their heads. Roman women used hairpins, typically made out of bone, ivory, glass, gold, or silver, to style their hair, which were described as being tapered at the end (Fig. 6 and Fig. 7).


Figure 6. Hairpin, Pompeii, from house 1.12.5, 10 centimeters, first century AD.


Figure 7. Hairpin, Pompeii, from house 1.12.6, 10.5 centimeters, first century AD.

For hairdressing, hairpins were also used to separate locks and to pin up and hold the hair in place once the style was completed, and these devices could range from simple to elaborate. Because hairpins are not often shown in depictions, it is believed that Roman women typically preferred the pins to be unseen and hid them in their hair. In this fresco, little white, shiny dots are seen in the women’s hair, which would suggest a decorated end of the pin.[12] These hairpins were the most common way of adorning hair in Pompeii.[13]

All three women wear gold necklaces and bracelets and earrings that appear to have pearls, which was considered precious in Pompeii. Ancient sources called the S-shaped hook with the pearl pendants as stalagmium, which had precedents from the Hellenistic Grecian period (Fig. 8).


Figure 8. Earrings in gold and mother-of-pearl, Villa of Crassius, Teritus, Oplontis, date unknown.

This style continued until the third century AD—well after Pompeii was destroyed.[14] In Western society, we often associate jewelry with femininity, so it is interesting that Omphale wears not only her feminine clothing but also jewelry, which emphasizes her femininity instead of when she cross dresses and takes on the masculine role. In the previous section with the sculptures, no jewelry or hair accessories were shown, which presents something unique here that reflects Pompeii beauty practices and emphasis on the feminine beauty in contrast to other Roman women.

The labors of Hercules are frequently depicted in Greek and Roman art, but this section on mosaic will examine a depiction of Hercules with Omphale in the center of a floor mosaic found in Llíria (i.e., Valencia), which is now in the National Archeological Museum of Spain in Madrid (Fig. 9).[15]


Figure 9. Twelve Labors of Hercules, Llíria (Valencia), Spain, third century AD.

Spain was part of the Roman empire at this time of the third century AD. Figure 10 shows a close up of the mosaic, and Hercules is shown holding a ball of wool and dressed in women’s clothing; although most of the dress is damaged, the bottom reveals different colors of blue limestone that represent the dress. Omphale wears the lion skin, which is difficult to tell, except for the two pointy ears sticking out. She holds the olive-wood club of Hercules, as well, while reclining on a throne, which had been damaged with several tiles missing.

The figures are not proportionate because if Omphale stood up, she would be considerably taller than Hercules. Additionally, there appears to be drapery of sorts covering the bottom half of her body, but her breasts and navel are uncovered. The bubble-looking object in Omphale’s right hand is unknown. In this mosaic, no setting is shown with white and cream-colored tiles being the only background. The piece is more abstract than the sculptures and frescos; for example, Omphale’s fingers as rows of brown and white tiles.


Figure 10. Central panel showing Hercules and Omphale from the mosaic of the Twelve Labors of Hercules, Llíria (Valencia), Spain, third century AD.

Facial expressions are difficult to determine, given the nature of mosaic tiles and the relative level of abstraction here, making it impossible to determine whether, for instance, Hercules is embarrassed or Omphale is empowered. Their direct gaze towards each other is at the same level, suggesting a type of equality. This mosaic shows the cross-dressing of both Hercules and Omphale together at the same time, which marks ambiguities concerning gender roles in Roman society. Because of the abstraction, the psychological and emotional impact on both of this change in roles and clothing is indeterminable, making this mosaic unique when compared to the sculpture and fresco examples.

This paper has considered various representations of Hercules and Omphale in mediums, such as sculpture, fresco, and mosaic. Sometimes only Omphale or Hercules is portrayed or only one cross dresses. A strength of sculpture is that the viewers are able to walk around and examine the work from multiple angles, while mosaic and fresco present only one perspective. However, for fresco, it is easier to present more of the narrative, multiple figures, and setting, which is how the viewers understand more of what is happening in the story. In contrast, the mosaic appears to be the most limited, given the damages and abstraction. These mediums reveal what is emphasized in Roman aesthetics, not only the ideal versus the real, but also the representation of interactions between men and women. Sculpture presents strong, powerful women as having Beauty, while the mosaics focus on feminine beauty for Omphale. However, Omphale is depicted as serious when wearing Hercules’ clothing, while Hercules is humorous to look at or looks preposterous when wearing women’s clothing.

Plotinus believed that if the whole is considered Beautiful, the parts must also be beautiful because the whole could not be made of ugly parts; hence, the masculine parts of women and feminine parts of men—often shown by clothing—are not actually ugly but have Beauty because the whole is beautiful. These depictions justify representing women in masculine clothing, which presents a less rigid view of gender and gender relationships recognized in contemporary Roman society.



Brilliant, Richard. Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art. London: Cornell University Press, 1984.

D’Ambra, Eve. Roman Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

D’Ambrosio, Antonio. Women and Beauty in Pompeii. Trans. Gram Sells. Naples:<<L’erma>> di Bretschneider, 2001.

D’Avino, Michele. The Women of Pompeii. Trans. Monica Hope Jones and Luigi Nusco. Napoli: NA, NA.

“F26.1 Herkales & Omphale.” Theoi. Accessed February 18, 2016.

Fantham, Elaine, Helen Peet Foley, Natalie Boymel Kampen, Sarah B. Pomeroy, and H. A. Shapiro. Women in the Classical World: Image and Text. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Kleiner, Diana E. E. and Susan B. Matheson. “‘Her Parents Gave Her the Name Claudia.’” Claudia II: Women in Roman Art and Society. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000.

Koortbojian, Michael. Myth, Meaning, and Memory on Roman Sarcophagi. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

McManus, Barbara F. “Index of Images, Part XIV.” Vroma. Accessed February 15, 2016,

Pomarède, Vincent. “Hercules and Omphale.” Department of Paintings: French painting.

Louvre Museum. Accessed March 28, 2016.

Ravasi, Thea. “Displaying Sculpture in Rome.” A Companion to Ancient Aesthetics. Eds. Pierre Destrée and Penelope Murray. Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

Silberberg-Pierce, Susan. “The Muse Restored: Images of Women in Roman Painting.” Woman’s Art Journal 14 (1993): 28–36.

Tertullian. De Pallio. Ed. Vincent Hunink. Tertullian website (2005). Accessed March 28, 2016.

Tuck, Steven L. A History of Roman Art. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015.


[1] Diana E. E. Kleiner and Susan B. Matheson, “‘Her Parents Gave Her the Name Claudia,’” I Claudia II: Women in Roman Art and Society, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000), 11.

[2] For example, Augustus’s wife, Livia, wore her way in order to contrast to their Egyptian enemy Cleopatra and her intricate hairstyle because Livia sought to promote simple Roman values and morality and Roman-ness. See ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 12.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Barbara F. McManus, “Index of Images, Part XIV,” Vroma, accessed February 15, 2016,

[6] Like Achilles, Hercules is often shown on Roman sarcophagi. One of the most renowned myths, of Hercules retrieving Alcestis, is commonly depicted. See Michael Koortbojian, Myth, Meaning, and Memory on Roman Sarcophagi, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 112. Another example of Hercules depicted on Roman sarcophagi includes the Velletri sarcophagus. See Steven L. Tuck, A History of Roman Art, (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015) 264.

[7] Susan Silberberg-Pierce, “The Muse Restored: Images of Women in Roman Painting,” Woman’s Art Journal 14 (1993), 35.

[8] “F26.1 Herkales & Omphale,” Theoi, accessed February 18, 2016,

[9] Eve D’Ambra, Roman Art, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 109.

[10] Michele D’Avino, The Women of Pompeii, translated by Monica Hope Jones and Luigi Nusco, (Napoli: NA, NA) 72.

[11] Barbara F. McManus, “Index of Images, Part XIV,” Vroma, accessed February 15, 2016,

[12] Antonio D’Ambrosio, Women and Beauty in Pompeii, translated by Gram Sells, (Naples: <<L’erma>> di Bretschneider, 2001) 16.

[13] Ibid., 38.

[14] Ibid., 40.

[15] The Twelve Labors of Hercules is shown on the metopes of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. See Richard Brilliant, Visual Narratives: Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art, (London: Cornell University Press, 1984) 37. On the Roman Velletri sarcophagus, Hercules is shown performing the twelve labors. See Steven L. Tuck, A History of Roman Art, (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2015) 264.

A Postcolonial Analysis of Carmen Herrera’s Untitled (c. 2012)

Near the end of the twentieth century, revisions concerning postcolonial theories of Said and Nochlin occurred. Rather than focusing on strict binaries, theorists considered that issues of postcolonialism were more complicated because the colonial experience is not only complex but also ambiguous. The colonized and the colonizer were plays in various locations—psychological, philosophical, geographical, social, political, and economic—and these theorists desired to examine the space in between the colonized and colonizer. This paper will provide a postcolonial analysis of Carmen Herrera’s Untitled (c. 2012), using the theories of Homi Bhaba, Gaytri Chakravorty Spivak, and David Carven to reveal the hybridity that occurs in this piece of art.

Figure 1. Carmen Herrera, Untitled, c. 2012, acrylic and pencil on paper, 50 x 70 cm.

Homi Bhaba wrote “Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse” in 1984, which focused on mimicry, or how the colonized are compelled to imitate the colonizer through language, religion, and so forth in order to be considered civilized. Bhaba believes that there is a place of empowerment for the colonized—to talk back or to mimic—which becomes a form of mockery. For Bhaba, he wants us to consider what it means for both parties, the colonized and the colonizer, to exhibit mimicry. Carmen Herrera’s Untitled (c. 2012) shows this mimicry happening. The painting has strong diagonal lines, creating a dynamic, exciting work to look at. The bottom left is red, while the other half is crisp white. The strong diagonal line does not meet at opposite corners but slightly before, which creates a balancing type of effect. Then we see two rectangular shapes in the center of the painting, both interrupting the blocks of color; on the white area, there is a prominent red box, and on the red area, a white box appears. It looks like cut outs—a cookie cut out—and then the reversal of colors in their respective areas. However, the blocks still connect, making the line continue on, otherwise uninterrupted.

This painting has a Bhaban influence of mimicry. Here each colored area could represent the colonizer and the colonized. Each box mimics the other, just as the colonized mimics the colonizer and vice versa. Yet each can never fully become the other, which is why there is no pink in the painting or the boxes. The colonized can never truly be white because of their skin color; similarly, the colonizer can never be fully native because of their Western traditions, religion, birth, etc.

Gaytri Chakravorty Spivak, an Indian theorist, wrote “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in 1988, which is one of the most popular essays in postcolonial readings. The subaltern is inferior and the colonizer cannot even imagine the subaltern existing or acknowledge them as a discrete, autonomous entity. She uses a geographical metaphor here and has an Indian perspective because of the Indian social castes and the specific expectations of how to conduct life for each caste. Spivak wonders if there is any way for the subaltern to be heard or if they can make a difference if the subaltern are not acknowledged, are not cohesive, are scattered and fragmentary, and do not have a social, political, or economic presence. Therefore, if the subaltern has no history, then they cannot speak. The way of being in the West includes a history—something visible or written—which in turn creates identity. Because Westerners have a history, then they can be acknowledged and heard. Yet so many of these subaltern peoples do not become registered because they lack the forms and abilities of visibility that Westerners claim are necessary to be seen and heard.

In this painting, there is tension between the red and the white blocks. If the red area represented the subaltern, the red block could represent a section of that society who wished to be heard and acknowledged. However, as mentioned before, there is no pink in this painting; if there were any pink, then we could assume that the subaltern was heard and acknowledged. Instead, the red is isolated and alone, continuing in its in-acknowledgment. Additionally, the painting is outlines with a gray line; there continues to be white surrounding the painting and then the frame. This suggests that the subaltern (i.e., the red area) could be ignored because it is surrounded and overlooked by the colonizers (i.e., the white areas). Yet the red actually stands out in this painting, and even though the colonizers can attempt to ignore the subaltern, the colonized can still find a voice and demand to be heard.

David Carven, an art historian, wrote about Pollock and Abstract Expressionism, which was seen as the great, American movement. Yet Carven saw this as problematic because the First Nation People were not acknowledged and neither was their art. If Native American art is acknowledged, it is re-colonized or re-appropriated. Additionally, Carven found the focus on the very closed-knit circle of male, heteronormative, white men based in New York problematic, since it did not recognize the international element of this movement, which occurred in South American and other places. This movement was much more global than we acknowledge, yet we continue to only focus on those artists and the cannon that we have formed. The movements themselves and the way that we define these movements shows colonialism. Carmen Herrara was largely ignored during her life time and now, over 100 years old, she is finally receiving recognition.

Herrara’s obscurity as a painter has been the case for most of her life. She is a Cuban-American artist who also lived in Paris, which shows hybridity. She trained at New York’s Art Students League and would later have exhibitions at four different times at the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris from 1949 to 1953. In 1954, she moved to New York, where she continues to live and work today. She has works in the following collections and museums: Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Tate Collection, London; the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington DC; The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. In the article “Carmen Herrera on Her Centennial,” published 19 November 2015, it reads, “Herrera’s body of work has established, quietly but steadily, a cross-cultural dialogue within the international history of modernist abstraction.” Despite her successes, she is finally receiving recognition. Herrera, as an artist, could represent the subaltern, or even a hybrid of Cuban and American cultures, who is finally being heard.

The artist, Carmen Herrera, shown here.

Foucault and Power

Michel Foucault considers the subtle, influential power over everything and how power is consolidated and expressed. The power of language—verbal or visual—is critical. Reason not only controls but also puts the productivity in power. Foucault suggests the quest for truth is neither completely disinterested nor isolated. Truth becomes part of a network, suggesting the encouragement of questions to be asked.


Michel Foucault

In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), Foucault discusses the prison system and Panopticism, where there are guards in the center tower and prisoners who do not know when they are being watched. The Panopticon, which is a system as well as an architectural building, becomes an important metaphor about discipline, punishment, and all-seeing power. This example of the Panopticon “is the disciplinary form at its most extreme, the model in which are concentrated all the coercive technologies of behavior” (Foucault 1490). Therefore, no guard would need to be in the tower because the possibility of being watched would be in the minds of the prisoners, who are isolated, alienated, and exposed. It is the potentiality of being surveyed and watched that is emphasized here.


The Panopticon

Foucault argues that this model can be used for other institutions (e.g., the government, technology, the internet) or applied to anyone who needs to be watched or handled. Vision is central because prisoners are (1) under the impression of constantly being watched, but they are also (2) a part of being involved with spectacle. This display, performance, or show is spectacle. In societies, there is the potential to be looked at as well as the potential to look. However, it should be noted that surveillance and spectacle become more and more meshed in contemporary society.

There is a shift in the basis of power from Marx to Foucault. For Marxists, economics is the foundation that is determinant of everything else in culture. For Foucault, economics has no priority; no single discourse exists among human. Therefore, we go from a base and superstructure model to discourse as a basis of everything. Foucault thought about prisons, sexual activity, schools, religion (e.g., the confessional), medicine, and politics, expanding what could be included in discourse. Literature and art could become another discourse, but they do not necessarily become a separate aesthetic realm, for Foucault.


The Prisoner

With Foucault’s analysis of discourse, the subject of the novel or art can fit into the discussion of discourse. It is not just an intellectual field of power that shapes subjectivity. Viewers realize that literature and art shape who we are; therefore, we see literature and art not only as artistic expression or entertainment but also as a social or political work. Foucault’s emphasis on the plurality of discourse could lead to the following question: what new discourses could the future hold? His cultural criticism and theories have changed the way readers and viewers see the world and consider their lives within the societal structures they are born into.

A Formalist Analysis of Mary Cassatt’s Five O’clock Tea

Mary Cassatt is famous for her portrayals of mothers with their children, but this oil painting, Five O’clock Tea (c. 1880), depicts two women sitting together with no children in sight. One woman sips out of a porcelain cup, delicately raising her pinky finger and holding the saucer with her other hand. The woman on the other side sits close by on the same sofa, hand on chin in the thinking position, similar to Rodin’s The Thinker. Her cup and saucer is placed back on the tray before the two. The room is snug, with the sofa, table, mantelpiece, and wallpaper all close together, reinforcing the closeness of the two women who appear to be friends. By focusing on the form of this artwork, a brief formal analysis of Mary Cassatt’s Five O’clock Tea reveals the importance of female companionship and friendship through the use of the following five formal properties presented by Heinrich Wölfflin: (1) “painterly,” (2) “recession,” (3) “open,” (4) “unity,” and (5) “relative clarity.”

First, this piece is quite painterly, especially when analyzing the sofa design. Rather than having delineated firm outlines, there is greater emphasis on the atmospheric, shifting appearances seen in the artwork. Not much of the sofa is viewable, but what is seen reveals coral splashes of flower-like entities on a cream-colored surface. These flowers are not sharply outline but rather present a fluid, natural movement, even though they are not out in nature but inside, perhaps embroidered or printed, on a sofa. However, this painterly style encircles the women, bringing them seemingly closer together.

Second, rather than presenting a planar composition, this artwork is recessional. The order of the piece is not parallel; instead, the viewers are pulled into the background. The eyes follow the slopping shoulder and roundness of the arm towards the table, then to the shiny teapot and tray, then back towards the mantelpiece and framed artwork, and finally to the striped wallpaper. The viewers’ gaze zigzags while looking at the picture space into the back rather than analyzing the painting side-to-side. The viewers start with the woman on the left and end with the woman sitting on the right, emphasizing the central focus of this piece on the two friends and their connection.

Third, an open form, relating to how the artwork is framed and placed in relation to the viewer, is shown. No clear spatial indicators are here because the women are not specifically defined before the viewer. There is no clear delineation of lines and the rectangular shape of the picture. Instead the table creates a slanting diagonal line, while the woman’s arm creates another diagonal line in the opposite direction. The woman sipping her tea is believed to be further away from the viewer, while the contemplative woman’s elbow is foreshortened, as if protruding out into the viewers’ space. Therefore, this piece is composed more ambiguously and opens to enable the viewers to have different positions of perspective.

Fourth, Five O’clock Tea presents unity rather than multiplicity. Here the viewers do not see multiple unified forms that are separate and distinct. Instead the viewers experience “the whole as a whole” (Wölfflin 169). Taking away one figure or item from the piece would make the piece not unified but rather incomplete. The piece would become incomplete without the the teapot or the second cup and saucer on the table. Additionally, the piece would be incomplete without both women, suggesting the significance of depicting these women as friends instead of isolated individuals.

Fifth, Cassatt uses relative clarity in this painting because she uses painterly techniques for their own atmospheric effect instead of using optical effects to present a specific subject (Hatt and Klonk 80). Cassatt does not care about material illusion. The viewers are not confused into thinking that it is a real vase or real picture frame but rather mimetic imitations. On the wall, the horizontal stripes are not perfectly segregated but vary in width between one another. However, Cassatt does employ changes in color, which capture light reflections, for example, bouncing off the teapot and tray. Additionally, she employs juxtapositions in tone, contrasting the coral of the horizontal stripped wallpaper and flowered sofa with the darker browns, blacks, and greys of the women’s dresses. The tone of the surroundings is more bright and jovial, while the women’s darker clothing presents a more serious, contemplative tone and reiterate the connection between the two friends.

In conclusion, the familiarity of the women together with their surroundings reveals the central focus of this piece of art—female companionship. The title of the painting, Five O’clock Tea, could suggest the banality of daily living. This piece is neither a religious nor a historical painting, and the women are not royalty or nobility. However, the closeness of the two figures in relation to the room emphasizes the need for female companionship—especially in modern society. Although neither woman is breathtakingly beautiful, the formal elements of the painting connect the viewer with the two regular-looking friends, suggesting the potential to look past the superficial and to consider the deeper human connections in life.



Figure 1. Mary Cassatt, Five O’clock Tea, 1880, oil on canvas.


Hegel was a German philosopher who lived from 1770 to 1831 and even today continues to influence discussions about aesthetics and art history. Despite his sometimes closed-minded judgments concerning art, he knew a remarkable amount about as well as a wide variety of art. The following paragraphs will examine Hegel’s dialectic and Geist theories.



First, Hegel believed in the dialectic. His theory “entails the confrontation of any thesis with its opposite (antithesis), and the resultant synthesis of the two through a process of ‘overcoming’” (Leitch 537). Therefore, there are two conflicts and then a compromise between the two; then there are two more conflicts and another compromise. This process continues onward, suggesting that Hegel’s theory stresses change.


Second, Hegel was interested in the Geist, meaning Spirit. Hegel uses the terms Universal Spirit or Absolute Idea interchangeably. Thus, Hegel thinks platonically. The Idea is not only a concept but also its own embodiment in reality. This Idea is the blueprint for the world in realization, thus becoming what it was meant to be, but the Idea is also realized in expressions over time, since it is constantly occurring in history. The over spirit is constantly pushing the world towards this final Idea, and art plays an important role in this process and change. However, the Idea is not wholly Platonic because it occurs through a historical development.

How can we understand where humans are in this quest towards the Absolute Idea? We must look at the art of humanity across time. Art not only reflects where the artists are but also works towards the Absolute Idea. Therefore, art gives us evidence of progress in history and presents cultural expression. According to Hegel, art serves specific purposes, and in Aesthetics, he writes, “[I]t is the vocation of art to find for the spirit of a people the artistic expression corresponding to it” (603).

In each era, a particular category of art presents the most authentic form of expression and maximizes the possible journey with and towards the Idea. This process occurs not through individual artists but many artists following their way, which becomes part of the human experience of working towards the Idea. Thus, the individual artist becomes part of a larger process of change.

The Idea makes it possible for each era of art history to be distinct. Yet the Idea also makes it possible to show a connection between the diverse forms of artistic expression throughout time and various societies. Finally, the Idea provides the ability of progress and development. The past and the present become connected through artistic expression and the Idea driving it.

Birth of the Field of Art History

The birth of the field of art history is largely due to Winckelmann (1717–68), a German art historian called “The Father of Art History and Archaeology.” He was the first scholar to write a history of art rather than artist biographies and wrote The History of the Art of Antiquity, published in 1764. His book impacted the field of art history because Winckelmann redefined this field, contrasting the differences of ancient and modern cultures. Therefore, his text is seen as foundational during a time when art history was becoming an established discipline.



The objects he focuses on are Greek sculptures, which he molds as the cultural ideal and foundation of antiquity that seemed at odds with modern perspectives. As an eloquent writer, Winckelmann analyzes these ancient sculptures. Of course, he is a product of his time, reflecting the Enlightenment concern of the progress and decline in ancient and contemporary culture.

Winckelmann’s writing differs from earlier writings about ancient art. First, his writing is ambitious because he was concerned with art history in relation to external circumstances. His writing contributed to not only the wealthy buying masterpieces but also the less wealthy pilgrimaging for aesthetic education in Italy.

Second, his text emphasized on analyzing the visual and style. This approach would influence later art historians attempting to understand the aesthetic qualities of artworks depending on the social and cultural circumstances of the time when they were created. Winckelmann sought to distinguish true Greek art versus Roman and modern copies. However, now some of these are seen as Greco-Roman copies.


Apollo Belvedere statue

For example, the Apollo Belvedere statue, claimed by Winckelmann to be the finest surviving examples of the Greek ideal, is actually Roman. Therefore, art of antiquity was seen as part of the history and the development of various styles.

Although Winckelmann stands out as a unique figure in the birth of the field of art history, other figures from 1650 through 1830 also impacted this emerging field. Fellow German scholar and writer Lessing also loved antiquity.

Lessing critiques Winckelmann’s analysis of the sculpture Laocoon and his sons created around 25 BCE and argues his own thoughts, which presents “entering the conversation” about a specific artwork from the beginning of art history. Although both Lessing and Winckelmann have Neoclassical and Platonic tendencies, their theories present unique German perspectives because of the events occurring in Germany and the country’s separate states. By looking back to antiquity, these German scholars paved the way for the future of art history as a field of study.


Laocoon and his sons statue

Both Kant and Burke became central figures in the history of art during the Romantic period. Kant, a German philosopher, reflects the culmination of the debate of Beauty and Taste in the eighteenth century as well as the target for later perceptions of aesthetics. Kant’s concept of the artist genius—who could express, enrich, and communicate understanding and experience in such a way that normal discourse could not—would continue throughout the Romantic period. The Irish-born British statesman and writer Edmund Burke acknowledged the aesthetic value of art, which was based not from imitation or idealization alone but also from emotions. Also, he explored the sublime, the impressions of awe and how tranquility was shadowed with horror. As a result, Burke expanded the art cannon of what could be considered to have Beauty.

The Earl of Shaftsbury, Reynolds, and Diderot influenced the birth of the history of art, as well. As the “Father of Aesthetics,” the Earl of Shaftsbury considered aesthetics as a separate branch of human experience that presented an interrelationship of morality and beauty. He believed that the development of an interest in fine arts would result in the improvement of the general level of British morality and politeness. Therefore, in order to develop interest in art, creating a history of art would be necessary.

Reynolds argued that studying great ancient art was more important than natural talent. Once again, in order to study art from the past, a history of art would be needed.

Lastly, from 1759 to 1781, Diderot wrote critical writings about the Salon exhibitions organized by the Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. In his writings, Diderot takes his reader beyond mere description and judgment in order to discuss art as well as truth, nature, and morality. Thus, Diderot’s writings present a study of art, its history, and the questions that we continue to ask today.


Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture

Various Meanings and Representations of the the Virgin Eleousa During the Byzantine Empire

There are multiple representations and titles of Mary, the mother of Christ. Such representations include the Hodegetria (i.e., the one who shows the way), the Regina angelorum (i.e., a regal Virgin Mary accompanied by angels),[1] and the Virgin Eleousa (i.e., tenderness or mercy), in which she is shown holding the Christ child and pressing her cheek against his. While drawing attention to her son, the two become cocooned in a reciprocal, cherished bond of love between mother and son.[2]

The title of Eleousa uniquely describes Mary’s qualities rather than merely stating an action or an event. While this title differs from the others, people interpreted the meaning of this icon in various ways during the Byzantine era. Some of these meanings included the Virgin Eleousa icon as the mother of God; as the mother to all humanity; as a figure foreshadowing the sacrifice of Christ; as a sorrowful mother at Christ’s death; and as an advocate or intercessor. Additionally, Eleousa with St. Stephen represented the triumph over iconoclasm, and Eleousa with symbolic stars represented Mary’s virginity and relation to the Trinity. This paper focuses on the importance of the Virgin Eleousa in Byzantine society; even though Mary was viewed politically as a protector of the capital, the Virgin Eleousa was venerated by religious leaders and citizens of the empire because the icon represented her tender, merciful side with which people connected.

Eleousa as spiritual protector of Constantinople
Constantinople, also known as “Queen of Cities,” was the religious and political center of the Byzantine empire.[3] The state regulated the production of art rather than art being controlled by artistic guilds, suggesting that art could work for nationalistic purposes. Additionally, Christian images were even considered powerful because, according to various accounts, art could supposedly heal viewers who were sick, protect those in need, and even hurt those who mocked it.[4] Therefore, Byzantine art, most often being controlled by the state or wealthy patrons in the capital, influenced how the viewer perceived the power of Christianity as well as the empire.

Figure 1. The Virgin Glykophilousa, Triglia, Bithynia, thirteenth century.

Figure 1. The Virgin Glykophilousa, Triglia, Bithynia, thirteenth century.

The leaders of Constantinople adopted a woman, Mary, as the protector of the city,[5] and military leaders devoted themselves to her for protection from intruding armies. Alexios I Comnenos, who was devoted to the Virgin, is told to have waited to fight against the Norman invaders because he wanted to see Mary appear at the Church of the Virgin Blachernai before going into battle.[6] Coming from the same iconographic tradition, Virgin Glykophilousa is similar with the Eleousa type, just with different names that mean “sweet-loving” or “merciful” Mary, in that order (Fig. 1).

[7] The inscription on the icon Virgin Glykophilousa reads ΜΗ(ΤΗ)Ρ Θ(ΕΟ)Υ Η ΕΠΙCΚΕΨΙC, which essentially stresses Mary’s role as protector of the people.[8] Hence, the Virgin was not only a political protector of Constantinople but also an important religious figure.

Eleousa as Mother of God and mother of humanity
Even before the Council of Ephesus in AD 431, people were significantly devoted to the Virgin.[9] As Theotokos, which is Greek for “Christ-bearer,” Mary was the considered the person who bore Christ, but the term avoided anything about who she was as as person and did not imply any other relationship between the two. During the sixth century, there were only a few images of Christ being held by Mary.[10] It was not until after iconoclasm that the motherhood of Mary was promoted and became explicit in texts and images.[11] In the Church of the Buckle (Tokali Kilise), there is an early example of the Eleousa icon that is also commonly called Mary, the Mother of God (Fig. 2).

tokali kilise

Figure 2. Virgin Eleousa, Göreme, Turkey, early tenth century.

This church, a cave that was carved into the soft, volcanic stone, was a sanctuary and a large monastic center in the Byzantine Cappadocia, which is now central Turkey. Surprisingly, this icon is one of the few that actually survives from the early tenth century, and this image would become standard, appearing more often during the Byzantine empire. In the niche in the sanctuary corridor, the fresco icon of the Virgin Eleousa is shown.[12] The Virgin holding Christ closely against here, and both of their checks touch affectionately. We see Christ’s arms around Mary’s neck. The image is tender and is supposed to evoke an empathetic reaction.[13] While this image is emotionally charged, it is clearly an iconic type, meaning the image was meant for private and communal prayer and devotion.[14]

Second, the Virgin Elousa has also been seen as a mother to humanity, which places less emphasis on the divine characteristic of Mary. Using the same example as in the previous paragraph, the fresco icon of the Virgin Eleousa has been seen as representing motherhood in general because she is eye-to-eye with the viewer (Fig. 2). She was called the mother of all because she was considered the skenoma, or the abode, for Christ. As a mother to all humans, she possessed a rare quality of affection and devotion—connected to her maternal feelings and character.[15] The Virgin Eleousa could be seen as an Eve figure since she becomes the mother of all those who enter the Christian Church and are born again.

Eleousa as a figure foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice
This section will analyze the Eleousa as a figure foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice by comparing the large icon of Our Lady of Tolga, which is called Tolga I or Tolgysky I, and the small icon of Our Lady of Tolga, which is also known as Tolga II or Tolgsky II (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4).

Figure 3. A large icon of Our Lady Tolga (so-called Tolgsky I or Tolga I), Yaroslavl, Russia, last quarter of the thirteenth century.

Figure 3. A large icon of Our Lady Tolga (so-called Tolgsky I or Tolga I), Yaroslavl, Russia, last quarter of the thirteenth century.

Figure 4. A small icon of Our Lady of Tolga (so-called Tolgsky II or Tolga II), Yaroslavl, Russia, around 1314.

Figure 4. A small icon of Our Lady of Tolga (so-called Tolgsky II or Tolga II), Yaroslavl, Russia, around 1314.

While these icons were created in Russia, it is believed that the icons were influenced by the Theotokos of Vladimir (Fig. 5). Both icons were created in the Tolga convent near Yaroslavl, which is how both received their nicknames. The large icon shows the Virgin Eleousa seated on a throne with the Christ child, grabbing his mother’s neck, on her left knee. Above the throne, two angels are shown with hidden hands. The Virgin Eleousa shows a sophisticated, direct expression and is considered to be one of the most emotional Russian icons from the thirteenth century.[16]

Figure 5. Theotokos of Vladimir (also known as Our Lady Vladimir, Vladimir Mother of God, or Virgin of Vladimir), Moscow, Russia, 1130.

Figure 5. Theotokos of Vladimir (also known as Our Lady Vladimir, Vladimir Mother of God, or Virgin of Vladimir), Moscow, Russia, 1130.

In contrast to the large icon of Our Lady Tolga, the small icon has significant changes that emphasize the Eleousa as a figure foreshadowing Christ’s sacrifice. Legend has it that the Virgin miraculously appeared to the Bishop Prokhor during the same time as the creation date of this icon, 1314. Here no throne is depicted, and the Christ child is sitting instead of standing, as in the large icon. Mary’s face has a much more mournful expression, which is seen with strong lines. The texture becomes more lush, while white coloring on the figures, such as on the forehead, neck, eyes, nose, and chin, emphasize the connection between mother and child. The smaller icon is considered to be more intense and dynamic than the larger icon because we see a pitiable Virgin Eleousa lamenting the fact that her innocent baby will one day die and sacrifice his life for all humanity.

Additionally, Mary’s hands are in a different position, which are seen as holding the Christ Child even closer to her than as seen in the larger icon.[17] Therefore, the later, smaller version of the Our Lady Tolga seems to present a more powerful image of the Virgin Eleousa, who clearly loves her son and suffers at the thought of his sacrifice that will one day occur.

Eleousa as sorrowful mother at Christ’s death
After the iconoclastic period, Byzantine artists added a new subject, the Lamentation of the Virgin. The earliest Lamentation scenes come from the eleventh century where we see Mary lamenting over the body of Christ, which occurs after the deposition of the cross but before the placement in the tomb.

The Lamentation scene is not described in the canonical Gospel texts, but it is described in Byzantine hymns and sermons as well as in the Apocrypha. In the ninth century, George of Nicomedia wrote what he imagined the Virgin to say: “I am now holding him without breath whom lately I took in my arms as my own dearest one.”[18] In the fresco of Lamentations over Christ’s Body from the St. Panteleimon, Mary is shown in a kind of kneeling or sitting position with her son in her lap (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. The Lamentation over Christ’s body, Nerezi, Serbia, twelfth century.

Figure 6. The Lamentation over Christ’s body, Nerezi, Serbia, twelfth century.

Byzantine artists and citizens would have connected the lamenting Mary with the Eleousa type, since both depict Mary with Christ in a loving embracing and touching cheek-to-cheek. The connection between both is even more apparent in the literary writings of the time of what Mary said: “I raised you in a mother’s arms . . . . Now I raise you up in the same arms, but lying as the dead.”[19] Therefore, even though the Christ is no longer a child but an adult man, Mary is still seen as the Virgin Eleousa in the Lamentation portrayals.

Eleousa as intercessor
During the Byzantine period, the Virgin Eleousa was often seen as an intercessor or advocate.[20] Mary’s role was an important one on behalf of humanity, which probably even furthered the popularity of icons depicting the Virgin with Christ child. Additionally, this cult of the Virgin could have created more depictions of an affectionate relationship between Mary, as the intercessor, and Christ, as the judge.[21] In connection to the depictions of Mary being joyful over the birth of Christ and being sorrowful as foreshadowing the death of Christ, the emotional element of the icons would enhance the role of Virgin as intercessor.[22]

Byzantine people would feel connected to the Virgin in her role as intercessor because they would probably hope that her sensibility would have her advocate on their behalf. Liz James describes the icon of Mary in the Church of Pangia Arakiotissa in Cyprus as a Virgin Eleousa, even though there is only Mary and no Christ depicted in the same area (Fig 7).

Figure 7. The Virgin Eleusoa, Lagoudera, Cyprus, twelfth century.

Figure 7. The Virgin Eleusoa, Lagoudera, Cyprus, twelfth century.

However, Mary’s head is tilted, as we have seen so often with the Virgin Eleousa, and Christ is shown on the other side (Fig. 8).[23] Most importantly, the depiction reveals a tender and merciful Mary advocating on behalf of humanity.

Figure 8. Christ Antiphonitis, Lagoudera, Cyprus, twelfth century.

Figure 8. Christ Antiphonitis, Lagoudera, Cyprus, twelfth century.

In this icon of Virgin Eleousa as intercessor, the text written describes the conversation between Mary and Christ. While Mary’s left hand rests on her chest, her left hand, which is covered, presents the scroll with the petition to her son. The words of Mary are in black, while Christ’s are in red. Additionally, the names of neither Christ nor Mary are explicitly mentioned, but context reveals who says which lines:

  • [Christ]            What do you ask, Mother?
  • [Mary]             The salvation of mortals.
  • [Christ]            They have provoked me to anger.
  • [Mary]             Be compassionate, my Son.
  • [Christ]            But they have not repented.
  • [Mary]             And preserve for them your grace.
  • [Christ]            Atonement is possible.
  • [Mary]             I give you thanks, O Logos.[24]

Here we see a dialogue[25] with a vengeful, angry Christ and a benevolent, sympathetic Mary. Her pleas appear to convince Christ that his suffering and grace is sufficient to save imperfect souls. Icons were believed to be performative because of the rituals associated with them and because of the miracles that occurred through the icons themselves.[26] With this depiction of the Virgin, the icon is performative, since the Virgin Eleousa performs as an advocate on behalf of humanity by speaking with her son.

Eleousa with symbolic stars, representing Mary’s virginity and connection to the trinity
Icons sometimes depicted three crosses, whether on icons showing Mary or saints. While depicting only one cross would represent Christ’s sacrifice, three crosses would be symbolic of the Trinity. This correlation could be why Catholics cross themselves in order to show their faith in the Trinity as well as draw strength from the cross of Christ. During the middle Byzantine period, sometimes the crosses were replaced with stars and could continue to be symbols of the Trinity, which would become even more popular in the late and post-Byzantine periods. Many variations in how the stars were depicted developed during this later time (Fig. 9).

Figure 9. Stars, late Byzantine period.

Figure 9. Stars, late Byzantine period.

However, these stars have been also associated as symbols of Mary’s virginity—before, during, and after the birth of Christ. This symbolism could be connected to how Byzantine hymns and chants described Mary’s virginity as luminous and how “she is exalted in astral symbolism as the star that heralds the sun.”[27] Therefore, the stars could be symbolic of Mary’s virginity, which would be emphasized by showing the Christ Child on Mary’s lap.

Unfortunately, there is no longer an icon of Mary and the Christ Child with the stars that survives. However, George Galavaris uses the example of Our Lady of the Don, which shows Eleousa and Christ Child, that may have been created by Theophanes the Greek during the fourteenth century. Galavaris uses this Eleousa icon to show a comparison of an ekphrasis, or literary description, that John Eugenikos published in the fifteenth century of a similar-looking icon that had the stars shown (Fig. 10).

Figure 10. Our Lady of the Don, Theophanes the Greek, Moscow, Russia, the fourteenth century.

Figure 10. Our Lady of the Don, Theophanes the Greek, Moscow, Russia, the fourteenth century.

It is possible that this ekphrasis could be describing an Hodgetrai type or a Glykophilousa type actually, since it is difficult to tell based on the description. Nonetheless, Eugenikos writes that “the three shining stars appearing on the forehead and the shoulders should not be considered as having a secondary significance. They are symbols of the Grace of the luminous Trinity which as soon as it dwelt in her caused the One to be revealed from here.”[28] Thus, these stars could be symbolic of not only Mary’s virginity but also Mary’s relation to the Trinity.

Eleousa icon with St. Stephen the Younger, representing triumph over iconclasm
The monastery of St. Neophytos, or Enkleistra meaning “place of reclusion,” is located in Cyprus, and on its west wall, a frieze shows twelve saints, including St. Stephen the Younger as the twelfth saint depicted (Fig. 11).[29]

Figure 11. St. Stephen the Younger, Tala, Cyprus, twelfth century.

Figure 11. St. Stephen the Younger, Tala, Cyprus, twelfth century.

His name is inscribed on both sides of his halo, and he is painted at a lower level than the other saints because of how the cave bulges. This St. Stephen the Younger has brown hair and a pointed beard, a halo with rows of pearls, an ochre tunic, a scapular with strips, crosslets, and rosettes, a mantle with cords that hangs down around his knees, and a black belt with rosettes.

Here we see St. Stephen holding a depiction of an Eleousa icon as well as a scroll both in his left hand. The inscription on the scroll says the following: “If a man does not reverence our Lord Jesus Christ and his spotless Mother depicted on an icon, let him be anathema.”[30] The Christ child grabs his mother’s neck and extends his right foot while the left foot’s sole is seen. Both halos on Christ and Mary are gilded, while Christ’s halo has a cross. In comparison to the other saints, St. Stephen the Younger was a martyr during the Byzantine Iconclastic period and is the only one shown holding an icon. It is possible that this portrayal of the Eleousa icon was meant to represent another icon also in this monastery.[31] However, choosing an iconophile saint implies that the artists, who would mostly likely also be inconphiles, used the Eleousa and St. Stephen the Younger together to represent the triumph of venerated, religious icons over the destruction of iconoclasm.

The Virgin Mary was venerated by citizens, no matter their socioeconomic status, and was believed to be able to protect the great Byzantine empire and the city of Constantinople. However, that was not her only purpose, and the Virgin Eleousa was revered by many because viewers saw the mother of Christ as the mother of humanity and an advocate on their behalf. While showing her incredible selflessness and love towards the Christ child, the face of the Virgin Eleousa portrays a knowing mother who knows the trials her perfect son would one day face for the salvation of the world.

When this icon was presented with St. Stephen the Younger, it represented the triumph over iconoclasm. Additionally, seeing stars and this icon together represented not only Mary’s virginity but also the trinity. Although the mother of Christ was seen as a political protector, especially in Constantinople, people also revered the Virgin Eleousa as an icon of reverence and sincere religious belief, representing beauty and spiritual truth.


[1] Robert P. Bergman, “The Earliest Eleousa: A Coptic Ivory in the Walters Art Gallery,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 48 (1990): 46–47.

[2] Cecily Hennessy, Images of Children in Byzantium (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2008), 202.

[3] Annabel Jane Wharton, “Tenderness and hegemony: exporting the Virgin Eleousa,” World art: Themes of unity in diversity, edited by Irving Lavin (University Park: Pennsylvania Stat University Press, 1989), 71.

[4] Hennessy, Images of Children . . ., 72.

[5] Although never officially declared as the spiritual protector of the city of Rome, the Virgin Mary played a significant role for Romans, as well. (See John Osborne, “Images of the Mother of God in Early Medieval Rome,” Icon and Word: The Power of Images in Byzantium, ed. by Antony Eastmond and Liz James [Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003]: 135–136.)

[6] Wharton, “Tenderness . . .,” 73.

[7] Pamela Z. Blum, “A Madonna and Four Saints from Angers: An Archeological Approach to an Iconographical Problem,” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, 34, no. 3 (Winter 1973): 48.

[8] “Virgin Glykophilousa (‘The Visit’),” Byzantine Museum, accessed November 30, 2015,

[9] Bergman, “The Earliest Eleousa . . .,” 46.

[10] Ioli Kalavrezou, “The maternal side of the Virgin.” Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine art (New York City: Abbeville Publishing Group, 2000), 41.

[11] Ibid., 42.

[12] Wharton, “Tenderness . . .,” 74

[13] Bergman, “The Earliest Eleousa . . .,” 48.

[14] Kalavrezou, “The maternal side of the Virgin . . .,” 43.

[15] Ibid., 42.

[16] Viktor Lazarev, Russian icon painting from its origins to the beginning of the 14th century, accessed November 22, 2015,

[17] Ibid.

 [18] Henry Maguire, Art and Eloquence in Byzantium (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 102.

[19] Ibid., 102–103.

 [20] Images of the Virgin Paraklesis, or the Virgin as Intercessor, are sometimes also labeled as the Virgin Eleousa. (See Nancy Patterson Ševčenko, The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, s.v. “Virgin Paraklesis,” [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005], accessed November 29, 2015, /10.1093/acref/ 9780195046526.001.0001/acref-9780195046526-e-5759?rskey=u60AVV&result=7.)

[21] Bergman, “The Earliest Eleousa . . .,” 52.

[22] Henry Maguire, “The Depiction of Sorrow in Middle Byzantine Art,” Dumbarton Oaks 31 (1997): 166.

[23] Robert S. Nelson, “Image and Inscription: Please for Salvation in Spaces of Devotion,” Art and Text in Byzantine Culture, ed. Liz James (Cambridge: Cambridge Un. Press, 2007), 112.

[24] Ibid., 112.

[25] Dialogues were considered to be “a well-established rhetorical device of Byzantine homilies” (See Robert S. Nelson, “Image and Inscription: Please for Salvation in Spaces of Devotion,” Art and Text in Byzantine Culture, ed. Liz James [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007], 112.)

[26] Averil Cameron, Byzantine Matters (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 84.

[27] George Galvararis, Colours, Symbols, Worship: The Mission of the Byzantine Artist (London: The Pindar Press, 2012), 136.

[28] Ibid., 139.

[29] Cyril Mango and Ernest J. W. Hawkins, “The Hermitage of St. Neophytos and its Wall Paintings” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 20 (1966): 121.

 [30] Ibid., 156.

[31] Alexander Kazhdan and Nancy Patterson Ševčenko, The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, edited by Alexander P. Kazhdan, s.v. “Stephen the Younger” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), accessed November 29, 2015, /9780195046526.001.0001/acref-9780195046526-e-5135?rskey=u60AVV&result=16.


Bergman, Robert P. “The Earliest Eleousa: A Coptic Ivory in the Walters Art Gallery.” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 48 (1990): 37–56.

Blum, Pamela Z. “A Madonna and Four Saints from Angers: An Archeological Approach to an Iconographical Problem.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, 34, no. 3 (Winter 1973). 30–57.

Carr, Annemarie Weyl. “Donors in the Frames of Icons: Living in the Borders of Byzantine Art.” Gesta 45, no. 2 (2002): 189–198.

Cameron, Averil. Byzantine Matters. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Chatzidakis, Nano. “A Fourteenth-Century Icon of the Virgin Eleousa in the Byzantine

Museum of Athens.” Byzantine East, Latin West: art-historical studies in honor of Kurt Weitzmann. Ed. Doula Mouriki. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Cotsonis, John. “The Virgin and Justinian on Seals of the ‘Ekklesiekdikoi’ of Hagia Sophia.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 56 (2002): 41–55.

Galvararis, George. Colours, Symbols, Worship: The Mission of the Byzantine Artist. London: The Pindar Press, 2012.

Hennessy, Cecily. Images of Children in Byzantium. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2008.

Kalavrezou, Ioli. “The maternal side of the Virgin.” Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine art. Ed. Maria Vassilaki. New York City: Abbeville Publishing Group, 2000.

Kazhdan, Alexander and Nancy Patterson Ševčenko. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Ed. Alexander P. Kazhdan. s.v. “Stephen the Younger.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Accessed November 29, 2015.

Lazarev, Viktor. Russian icon painting from its origins to the beginning of the 14th century. Accessed November 22, 2015.

Maguire, Henry. Art and Eloquence in Byzantium. Princeton: Princeton Un. Press, 1981.

Maguire, Henry. “The Depiction of Sorrow in Middle Byzantine Art.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 31 (1977): 123–174.

Mango, Cyril and Ernest J. W. Hawkins. “The Hermitage of St. Neophytos and its Wall Paintings.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 20 (1966): 119–206.

Nelson, Robert S. “Image and Inscription: Please for Salvation in Spaces of Devotion.” Art and Text in Byzantine Culture. Ed. Liz James. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Nersessian, Sirarpie der. “A Psalter and New Testament Manuscript at Dumbarton Oaks.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 19 (1965): 155–183.

Osborne, John. “Images of the Mother of God in Early Medieval Rome.” Icon and Word: The Power of Images in Byzantium. Ed. Antony Eastmond and Liz James. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2003.

Ševčenko, Nancy Patterson. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Ed. Alexander P. Kazhdan. s.v. “Virgin Paraklesis.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Accessed November 29, 2015.

Talbot, Alice-Mary. “Epigrams of Manuel Philes on the Theotokos Tes Peges and its Art.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 48 (1994): 135–165.

“Virgin Glykophilousa (‘The Visit’).” Byzantine Museum. Accessed November 30, 2015.

Wharton, Annabel Jane. “Tenderness and hegemony: exporting the Virgin Eleousa.” Worldart: Themes of unity in diversity: acts of the XXVIth International Congress of the History of Art. Edited by Irving Lavin. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.

Giorgio Vasari—The Father of Art History

Giorgio Vasari (a.k.a. the Father of Art History) lived from 1511 to 1574 and wrote The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, which was first published in Florence in 1550 and then revised and expanded in 1568. Some criticized Vasari for focusing on and praising Tuscan and Roman artists. Yet his book influenced others who generated similar artist biographies.

Giorgio Vasari

Giorgio Vasari

Vasari’s Lives includes biographies about artists and his version of the history of Italian Renaissance art. This book is divided into three parts, each with its own preface. The first part focuses on the fourteenth century and its artists, such as Cimabue and Giotto. The second part focuses on the fifteenth century and its artists, including Masaccio, Ghiberti, Donatello, and Botticelli. Finally, the third part focuses on sixteenth century, which Vasari considered the highest point of the Renaissance, and the works by Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Therefore, Vasari presents the progress of art, which has its own internal cycle of birth (e.g., development in antiquity), perfection (e.g., peaks in Greek and Roman empires), death (e.g., fall of empires), and rebirth (e.g., the Renaissance), for his audience—primarily artists and patrons.

Vasari had two major goals in his book. First, he desired to distinguish the best artists and to help readers understand the causes and origins of artistic styles. Second, he wrote about the lives of artists in order to ensure their fame and to save them from a “second death”—oblivion. For Vasari, the purpose of history was to teach humans how to live. His prefaces, therefore, contain moralizing introductions and end with poetic epitaphs.

Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, c. 1490.

Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvian Man, c. 1490.

We must acknowledge Vasari’s Christian background. In the 1550 edition of the preface for the first section, Vasari begins with God creating the world and ends with Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. Consequently, Vasari presents a history of art by using a Christian paradigm.

Vasari’s disegno—both a concept and a practice—applies not only to design but also to drawing. Artists achieve this skill (1) by imitating the most beautiful things in nature and (2) by combining the most beautiful parts of different human bodies to create one, ideal figure. After the idealized figure has been created, it becomes the model for all the figures the artist creates henceforth.

Disegno is important because it is seen as the foundation, which then leads to painting, sculpture, and architecture. Its origin rests in the intellect; therefore, disegno enables the artist not only to perceive numerical relationships between things but also to create mental images of abstract forms. Additionally, disegno is a source of artistic judgment. Conversely, in Aretino, Dolce provided a different interpretation of disegno, suggesting that invention and color were equally important in the act of painting.

Vasari was a prolific artist and contributed to founding one of the earliest art academies in Florence in the 1560s. However, his fame is connected to his extensive writings concerning art. Remarkably, Vasari’s writings remain the primary source for students and scholars alike when studying Renaissance art.

Agnes Block—Mother Figure, Property Owner, and Working Woman: Comparing Netherlandish Female and Male Artists’ Family Portraits in the Seventeenth Century

Agnes Block[1] was an eminent paper artist, illustrator, horticulturalist, and patron of the arts in Amsterdam.[2] In 1649, Block married for the first time to Hans de Wollf, who was a silk merchant. She reportedly studied, read, drew, painted, and sculpted, and when she drew, she preferred flower beds and arbors because they were important to her.[3] In fact, Joost van den Vondel wrote poems about how she could draw and paint beautifully.[4] Jan Weenix painted a portrait of Block and her family titled Agnes Block, Sybrand de Flines and two children in the outdoor courtyard Vijverhof,[5] presenting Block, her second husband, and two children (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Jan Weenix, Agnes Block, Sybrand de Flines and two children in the outdoor courtyard Vijverhof, 1674 (?).

Scholars argue concerning who these children are, since no offspring resulted from either of Block’s marriages. It is important to consider how portraits present perspectives of the individuals portrayed, sending a message about their socioeconomic background, elegance, and family to the viewers. Although these children could be Block’s stepchildren or her niece and nephew, the children could be allegorical of Block’s ability to be not only a mother figure but also a working woman and property owner. The portrayal of Block and her family portrait subverts societal expectations of women and the identity of the family, which are also portrayed in other family portraits of Netherlandish male and female artists.

Block’s Family Portrait
The date of this family portrait is debated. Albert Blanken believed the painting was created much later in Block’s life.[6] In contrast, Catharina Van de Graft, the biographer of Block, argues that the painting was created in 1674 because Block married de Flines, who was a silk merchant like her first husband, during this year; therefore, this portrait could be commemorative of their wedding. On the actual portrait, the third number of the year is not readable, explaining the differences in scholarly opinions.[7] Block’s second husband had two daughters from a previous marriage: Elizabeth (1662–1717) and Anna (1661–1713). However, in 1674, the two daughters would have been twelve and thirteen years old, which is older than the two children shown here (Fig. 1). Nevertheless, if Jan Weenix did paint the portrait at a later date, it would still be problematic because the girls would have either been depicted as adults or shown as prepubescent teenagers, not children.[8]

While the children could be de Flines’ daughters, the portrait could be depicting a girl and a boy rather than two girls. If this is the case, then the children are probably not de Flines’, since he only had two daughters. It is possible that the children are a nephew and a niece of either Agnes Block or de Flines.[9] Block, not de Flines, determined who would become heirs and continue her legacy; however, throughout her life, Block struggled with creating a will, changing it over ten times. During this time, family members entered and fell out of favor with their aunt. In her will from 1694, Block required that her heir must purchase Vijverhof, the property she owned with the garden depicted in the family portrait (Fig. 1). However, after Block died on 20 April 1704, none of the cousins wanted to buy it. As a result, Vijverhof was sold, the gardens disappeared, and the house destroyed in 1813.[10]

Although the children’s identity are unknown, we see an amalgamation of Block’s material successes. Block, a skilled botanist and breeder of rare and exotic plants, was the first person to successfully grow the foreign fruit of pineapple in the Dutch Republic. In the left hand corner of the painting, a spiky, squat pineapple is depicted in addition to a cactus.[11] Her plants and flowers in Vijverhof came from all over the world—some seeds came from America or Asia. Educated male visitors, including a professor of botany and a German physician, observed her gardens.[12] In the painting, we see poinsettia-looking flowers with long red leaves and smaller white blossoms on either side of the sitting child. In the background, an orange tree and a pomegranate tree are shown. During the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, domestic scenes were commonly depicted in art because “the domestic interior . . . was a reflection of Christian principles in an ordered setting and the roles of women in the home.”[13] Additionally, Laurinda S. Dixon argues, “[D]omesticity was a moral imperative imposed on women from without.”[14] This portrait is one of the few from the seventeenth century that portrays the client’s yard rather than inside of the home, subverting the traditional portrait and expectations of women. Block is not portrayed as being amoral, even though the scene is portrayed outside. Therefore, the background of the portrait could represent what Vijverhof actually looked like.[15]

When the painting was created could influence whether or not this is an actual portrayal of how Block’s property looked. After her first husband’s death in February 1670, Block bought her own land along the River Vecht in July of that same year. The beautiful Vijverhof included an orangery, buildings, orchards, gardens, and areas of water. However, the work was delayed in 1672 because of war. We do not know how much of Block’s property was completed or when the construction began again. If the painting was dated 1674—a mere two years after work was stopped, it is possible that Vijverhof was still not finished. Block’s home was fortunately spared from the damages of war, but her flower beds were empty, and her joy was marred by broken statues in the spring of 1674.[16] If some of Block’s gardens were not constructed or were damaged from the war, the painting could represent what Block hoped the rest of her property would look like one day.[17] Just as the background of the portrait could represent an imagined, hoped-for Vijverhof, the children in the portrait could also represent hoped-for children.

With Block’s property, works of art, and plants all portrayed, it could seem that the inclusion of family would make the painting overflow with figures and details. However, we see two children, a husband, and a wife, representing what was expected for a “traditional” family unit. De Jongh argues Block adopted the view that imperfect nature had to be perfected by human ingenuity.[18] We see Block’s ingenuity here at work to create a perfect image of herself. Block presents herself as a woman who could have it all, so she would be seen as the hard-working, independent woman, the devoted wife, and the caring mother—or mother figure—even if she never had any children of her own.

The Perception of Widows
The mystery children in the portrait could represent Block’s hope of the future or her mourning of the past she never had. Block was approximately forty-five years old when she remarried. Dating the portrait at 1674 would suggest the possibilities of the future—a new marriage, a new life, and a new legacy. Menopause can affect women at various ages; although we do not know when Block experienced menopause, some women can bear children in their forties. By extension of the portrait, it could suggest the hope “which children were to fulfil in the future”[19] or the hope of conception. On the other hand, dating the portrait around 1694 could represent the fact that the elderly Block knew, near the end of her life, she would never have any children of her own.

Jacob Cats’s Houwelyck, which was published originally in 1625 and was the second bestseller after the Bible, discusses the stages of a woman’s life and includes a chapter on widowhood. This book represents commonly held beliefs and opinions of the day. In the Dutch Republic, portraits of elderly women often focused on their spirituality. Widows were expected to bridle their passions because the elderly were expected to be better at controlling themselves than the younger generation.[20] However, in Block’s family portrait, Block—although not a young woman—is a widow; nevertheless, she is not portrayed as overly pious (e.g., she is not depicted as praying or reading scripture). Additionally, widows were examples not only to young women who were about to marry but also to married women on how to interact with their husbands and rear their children.[21] The words widow and mentor were synonymous in the perspective of the Dutch, yet Block would not have completely fit that mold. Yes, she was a widow and did not bear any children, and thus she had no experience raising children.

Whoever the children are in the portrait, Block appears to accept and take on the appearance of role model and mother figure. Nevertheless, she complicates the role proscribed by patriarchal values and expectations in early modern Europe and re-fashions herself into who she is and how she wants to be seen. Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare centers around how people believed they had malleable roles and identities in life during sixteenth-century England.[22] Similarly, Block sees herself as having malleable roles and how that influences the depiction of her family and her in the portrait (Fig. 1). The following sections will compare and contrast Block’s family portrait with other portraits of Netherlandish male and female artists during the seventeenth century.

Male Artists’ Family Portraits
In contrast to the portrait of Agnes Block, we see family portraits of artists, sometimes with or without children. The Artist with his Family (c. 1646–47), a self-portrait by Karel van Mander III, depicts no children—only his wife and mother-in-law are shown (Fig. 2). His wife reads the Bible, while her mother does needlework. Both women appear to be pious and respectable. In contrast, family portraits of other artists do include children in the picture. In Cornelis Dusart’s Jan Steen and Family, we see a nagging wife, while Jan Steen, the artist, tries to work (Fig. 3). A boy kneels before the father with a puppy in hand, trying to distract the father who is turning away from the wife, pestering him from behind. Additionally, there is another child in the background who appears to be riffling through the father’s paintings. This portrayal suggests that the wife should be taking care of the children so the husband can focus on his work, the painting resting on the easel.

Figure 2. Karel van Mander III, The Artist with his Family, 1646–47.

Figure 3. Cornelis Dusart, Jan Steen and Family, date unknown.

Figure 3. Cornelis Dusart, Jan Steen and Family, date unknown.

The family portraits of Karel van Mander III and Jan Steen are different from Block’s family portrait. Block’s family portrait includes the children in the painting, but Block is not shown as being distracted or unable to complete her work, as in Steen’s family portrait. Children are portrayed in her family portrait, unlike van Mander’s, while Block efficaciously displays her accomplishments from her collection, such as shells and butterflies, without overcrowding the painting with too many knick knacks. Block appears to be more successful than the male artists because she seemingly can do both with neither her work nor the children suffering. The children appear to be happy (e.g., the smiling faces of both children) and loved (e.g., the girl and Block’s affectionate interaction). Additionally, the children do not rummage through her things or interrupt her, showing that she has been able to work, create drawings, and establish her own home in a peaceful environment. Although she may not be the ideal role model (i.e., a woman with children of her own), Block is still portrayed as a successful mother figure.

Figure 4. Peter Paul Rubens, Rubens, His Wife Hélène Fourment, and Their Son Peter Paul, probably late 1630s.

In other family portraits of Netherlandish artists, we see the portrayal of blending new families together, such as if one spouse died and the remaining spouse remarried. For example, Rubens’s first wife died, and he remarried a woman named Hélène Fourment. The painting by Rubens called Rubens, His Wife Hélène Fourment, and Their Son Peter Paul shows him at a new stage of his life (Fig. 4).[23]

There is no attention shown here to children from the first marriage[24] or other children from the second marriage. Rather, the focus is on the new family Rubens has created; Hélène Fourment was only sixteen and Rubens was fifty-three when they married. They are shown together, Rubens staring at Fourment, who is looking down at the child, who is gazing up at his mother. Rather than painting all of his children from both marriages, he painted only his youngest son. This painting does not represent a blending of the entire family; rather, it represents a specific portrayal of Rubens with his second wife and youngest son.

Figure 5. Michiel van Musscher, Portrait of Michiel Comans (d. 1687), calligrapher, etcher, painter and schoolmaster, with his third wife Elisabeth van der Mersche, 1669.

Another example of an artist’s family portrait without children is Portrait of Michiel Comans (d. 1687), calligrapher, etcher, painter and schoolmaster, with his third wife Elisabeth van der Mersche by Michiel van Musscher, which was painted in 1669 (Fig. 5).

We see no children in this family portrait because both figures are older. The woman represented here is the artist’s third wife. Therefore, because of their age and time of life, it is possible that no children resulted from this marriage. As with Rubens, rather than showing a portrait of the entire family with children from previous marriages, we see Comans and his third wife together, perhaps commemorating their new union. Additionally, we see Comans’s work as an artist, with his brushes, palette with color swatches, and painting on an easel in the background. In contrast, his wife is shown reading, perhaps the Bible, which would be similar to van Mander’s wife in that family portrait (Fig. 2). As a result, Comans proudly presents his work and gazes directly into the viewers’ eyes, while the wife merely sits to the side and piously looks up to her husband. At this time, the Netherlandish tradition was to portray no children or show only one child rather than all the children. If the children in the Block’s family portrait would not have been included, it would not have been considered extraordinary. Rather it appears that the inclusion of children is a deliberate decision.


Figure 6. Wallerant Vaillant, Maria van Oosterwyck, 1671.

Female Artists’ Family Portraits
Female artists who are married or single portray themselves differently in portraits. To begin with, the Netherlandish, unmarried female artists are at greater liberty to represent themselves for three reasons. First, they do not have to include husbands in their paintings. Second, they do not have to include children because having children out of wedlock in a Protestant society would be scandalous, perhaps even detrimental to their careers. Third, they can focus on representing themselves in association to their profession. For example, Wallerant Vaillant’s Maria van Oosterwyck (c. 1671) depicts a representation of this female artist, van Oosterwyck (Fig. 6).

While she never married nor had any children, we see a pallet with paint colors and several brushes in her left hand. Additionally, in her lap, we see a book, which could possibly be the Bible, and her right hand is in the process of turning to the next page. Therefore, we, as the viewers, learn how van Oosterwyck wanted us to perceive her. She is portrayed as an educated, pious woman who identifies as an artist and is proud of her work. Because she is single, she does not have responsibility or societal expectation to portray herself as a wife or a mother.


Figure 7. Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait, 1630.

Another female artist from the Netherlands is Judith Leyster, who painted a portrait of herself while she was a single woman. Her Self-Portrait (c. 1630) depicts Leyster in the middle of her work with a painting, turning around with numerous brushes in hand (Fig. 7).

Because she is an unmarried woman, she does not have to conform to societal expectations and portray herself as a mother or wife. In contrast, Jan Miense Molenaer’s The Duet (c. 1635–36) depicts a marriage portrait of a couple who are believed to be Leyster and her husband (Fig. 8). Nothing is shown here of Leyster’s work as an artist. Instead, Molenaer is significantly taller, and the hat exaggerates his height in comparison to Leyster, even though both are sitting down. Molenaer was an artist, like his wife, so there is the possibility he felt he was in competition with his wife.

Figure 8. Jan Miense Molenaer, The Duet, 1635–36

Figure 8. Jan Miense Molenaer, The Duet, 1635–36.

Figure 9. Juriaen Pool II, Self-portrait of Juriaen Pool with Rachel Ruysch and their son Jan Willem Pool, 1716 or first quarter of 18th century (1700–1724).

Figure 9. Juriaen Pool II, Self-portrait of Juriaen Pool with Rachel Ruysch and their son Jan Willem Pool, 1716 or first quarter of 18th century (1700–1724).

Another example to consider is Rachel Ruysch (c. 1664–1750), a famous still-life painter. Juriaen Pool II’s Self portrait of Juriaen Pool with Rachel Ruysch and their son Jan Willem Pool (c. 1716 or first quarter of 18th century) is a self-portrait painted by Ruysch’s husband (Fig. 9).

We see a pyramid structure with Pool at the apex and Ruysch at a lower level than her husband. The child, a son, appears to be standing or kneeling, but since he is a child, he is smaller than both parents. We still see a hierarchy with the tallest figure being the man as husband and father, while the woman is placed at a lower level as wife and mother. However, there is still a subtle reference to Ruysch’s work as an artist. Because Ruysch leans away from Pool and rests her arm on the table, the focus is drawn towards the floral arrangement to the side of her. We may not see paintbrushes or any specific representation of her artwork. However, the positioning still shrewdly draws attention to Ruysch’s identity as an artist, since she was well-known for her still-life paintings, specifically of floral arrangements.

Figure 10. Anthony van Dyck, Family Portrait, 1621

Figure 10. Anthony van Dyck, Family Portrait, 1621.

Male artists and female artists are depicted differently in family portraits. Male artists are depicted as taller or larger than everyone else. In van Dyck’s Family Portrait (c. 1621), van Dyck’s wife appears to be sitting with a child on her lap; in contrast, van Dyck does not seem to be sitting but sort of leans awkwardly forward (Fig. 10).

However, van Dyck’s wife and child are still lower in comparison. Additionally, the child looks up to the father in complete adoration.[25] This portrayal contrasts to Rubens’s family portrait of the mother and child looking at one another (Fig. 4). By showing van Dyck’s young child staring devotedly up to the father, the focus is on van Dyck, and the eye immediately is drawn to that corner of the painting. Another example to consider is Jacob Jordaens’s Portrait of the Artist’s Family in the Garden (c. 1623) (Fig. 11). The wife, servant, and child seem to be separated from Jordaens by an invisible line, creating a clear distinction between the man, standing taller above the others, and the rest of the household. With the family portraits of van Dyck and Jordaens, there is no direct representation of themselves as artists (e.g., no brushes or paint is depicted). Yet these two male artists were more well-known—van Dyck, internationally, and Jordaens, in Flanders—perhaps than some Netherlandish female artists and, therefore, did not need to depict their identity as artists.

Figure 11. Jacob Jordaens, Portrait of the Artist’s Family in the Garden, 1623

Figure 11. Jacob Jordaens, Portrait of the Artist’s Family in the Garden, 1623.

Unlike the male artists, these three female artists discussed in the previous paragraphs had to compensate. As an independent woman, van Oosterwyck could work as a painter but was never a wife or mother and could not identify as either (Fig. 6). Leyster seems less independent and confident in the portrait with her husband because her identity as artist is not portrayed, and she is placed physically lower than her husband (Fig. 7). Ruysch’s position is more complicated because although her work is hinted at, she is still placed lower than her husband (Fig. 8). In contrast to these three female artists, Block’s portrait of her family is different. Block herself was an artist and that is shown dominantly in the painting. We see a drawing of a bird, and since she is the one holding the painting or drawing of the bird in her left hand, that seems to suggest a connection between Block and the drawing. Although we do not know for certain if this specific drawing is an exact replication of one of her pieces, it could generally represent her work and study. The book that is bound with two leather straps could be a portfolio of her drawings of plants and animals, suggesting that perhaps this drawing of the bird was one selected from amongst her collection. In the family portrait, depicting children shows Block as a mother figure and role model, while depicting her work reveals her identity as a botanist and an artist.

In the Dutch Republic, if the boundaries of the world and the home were not strictly observed, people expected trouble within the family and in society.[26] But this strict distinction does not seem to be a problem with Block and de Flines. De Jongh claims that de Flines and Block’s marriage must have been in the minority of seventeenth-century marriages because their view of the position of women, in many respects, was not inferior to that of men. Block and de Flines appear to have had a unique relationship built on greater equality and encouragement. Although her husband is shown standing, it is Block who is center stage, and she plays the prevailing role in this family portrait.[28] She is not merely some woman, but she is the mother figure, the wife, the role model as well as the property owner, the artist, and the botanist.

Family portraits represent the identity of the family as an essential unit in society, especially in the Netherlands. Sometimes children are shown, sometimes a single child is included, or none are depicted. If the artist is a female, her work may or may not be suggested in the painting, which could depend on her marital status. Yet Block’s family portrait is unique when compared to the others because Block challenges societal expectations of women of the Netherlands. We see a woman who takes on her role as a mother figure, while also embracing her pride of her property and of her work as a botanist and an artist.


[1] Agnes is sometimes called Agneta Block instead. However, in this paper, she will consistently be referred to as Agnes Block.

[2] Jennifer M. Killian, “Weenix: (2) Jan Weenix,” Oxford Art Online, 22 October 2015,

[3] Marioes Huiskamp, “Block, Agneta (1629–1704),” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, 22 October 2015,

[4] John Landwehr, De Nederlander Uit En Thus: Spiegel van het dagelijkse leven uit bijzondere zeventiende-eeuwse boeken, (Amsterdam: A. W. Sitjthoff, 1981), 114.

[5] This painting is also known as Portrait of Sijbrand de Flines, Agnes Block and two children. Another title for the piece is Agneta Block and her garden Flora Batava at Vijveho.

[6] Eddy de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Zwolle; Haarlem: Waanders; Frans Hals Museum, 1986), 265.

[7] Marioes Huiskamp, “Block, Agneta (1629–1704),” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, 22 October 2015,

[8] “Portrait of Sijbrand de Flines (1623–1697), Agnes Block (1629–1704) and two children Amsterdam, Amsterdam Museum, inv./ SA20359,” Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, 21 October 2015, explore/images/record?query=Agnes+Block&start=0.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marioes Huiskamp, “Block, Agneta (1629–1704),” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, 22 October 2015,

[11] In Amsterdam’s Glory: The Old Masters of the City Amsterdam, Norbert Middelkoop and Tom van der Molen believe that the pineapple is believed to originate from Brazil and the cactus from Curaçao. (See page 84.)

[12] Marioes Huiskamp, “Block, Agneta (1629–1704),” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland, 22 October 2015,

[13] Katherine Hoffman, Concepts of Identity: Historical and Contemporary Images and Portraits of Self and Family, (New York: IconEditions, 1996), 31.

[14] Laurinda S. Dixon, Perilous Chastity: Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine, (London: Cornell University Press, 1995), 9.

[15] Eddy de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw, (Zwolle; Haarlem: Waanders; Frans Hals Museum, 1986), 265.

[16] C. Catharina Van de Graft, Agnes Block: Vondels Nicht en Vriendin, (Utrecht: A. W. Bruna & Zoon’s Uitgevers-Mij, 1943), 66.

[17] Loughman writes, “Dutch depictions of the interior from the seventeenth century provide a skewed impression of what domestic dwellings looked like and how families conducted themselves in these spaces.” Therefore, it is not surprising that artists presented a representation rather than a reality of a particular scene. See John Loughman, “Domestic Bliss? Images of the Family and Home in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Art,” Images of Familial Intimacy in Eastern and Western Art, ed. by Nakamura Toshiharu (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2014), pp. 102–103.

[18] The original statement reads, “Agnes Block lijkt de opvatting te hebben aangehangen dat de onvolkomen natuur door het menselijk vernuft vervolmaakt diende te worden” and comes from Eddy de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Zwolle; Haarlem: Waanders; Frans Hals Museum, 1986), 266.

[19] Mirjam Neumeister, “Changing Images of Childhood: The Children’s Portrait in Netherlandish Art and Its Influence,” Images of Familial Intimacy in Eastern and Western Art, ed. by Nakamura Toshiharu (Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2014), pp. 114–115.

[20] Wayne E. Franits, Paragons of Virtue: Women and Domesticity in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 161.

[21] Ibid, pp. 188–189.

[22] Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980), xiii.

[23] Rubens painted numerous paintings of Hélène Fourment with their children or of Rubens and Hélène together. However, this family portrait is unique because we see Rubens, Hélène, and a child all together. See page 39 of Janice Anderson’s Children in Art (London: Bracken Books, 1996) for information on the attractive painting, Hélène Fourment and Two of Her Children (c. 1635).

[24] Rubens and Isabella Brant, his first wife, had three children, who were named Clara, Nikolaas, and Albert.

[25] This depiction of the child looking up adoringly could be compared to his portrait of James Stuart, Duke of Richmond and Lennox (c. 1634–35), where the greyhound looks up, idolizing its master.


Anthony van Dyck, James Stuart (1612–1655), Duke of Richmond and Lennox, ca. 1634–35.

[26] Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 400.

[27] The original statement reads, “De echtver- bintenis van De Flines en Agnes Block moet tot die minderheid van zeventiende-eeuwse huwelijken worden gerekend waarin de positie van de vrouw in velerlei opzicht niet voor die van de man onderdeed.,” which comes from Eddy de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Zwolle; Haarlem: Waanders; Frans Hals Museum, 1986), 266.

[28] Eddy de Jongh, Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Zwolle; Haarlem: Waanders; Frans Hals Museum, 1986), 266.


Anderson, Janice. Children in Art. London: Bracken Books, 1996.

De Jongh, Eddy. Portretten van echt en trouw: Huwelijk en gezin in de Nederlandse kunst van de zeventiende eeuw. Haarlem: Frans Hals Museum, 1986.

Dixon, Laurinda S. Perilous Chastity: Women and Illness in Pre-Enlightenment Art and Medicine. London: Cornell University Press, 1995.

Franits, Wayne E. Paragons of Virtue: Women and Domesticity in Seventeenth-Century Ducth  Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Hoffman, Katherine. Concepts of Identity: Historical and Contemporary Images and Portraits of Self and Family. New York: IconEditions, 1996.

Huiskamp, Marioes. “Block, Agneta (1629–1704).” Digitaal Vrouwenlexicon van Nederland. 22 October 2015,

Killian, Jennifer M. “Weenix: (2) Jan Weenix.” Oxford Art Online. 22 October 2015.

Landwehr, John. De Nederlander Uit En Thus: Spiegel van het dagelijkse leven uit bijzondere zeventiende-eeuwse boeken. Amsterdam: A. W. Sitjthoff. 1981.

Loughman, John. “Domestic Bliss? Images of the Family and Home in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Art.” Images of Familial Intimacy in Eastern and Western Art. Edited by Nakamura Toshiharu. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2014.

Middelkoop, Norbert, and Tom van der Molen. Amsterdam’s Glory: The Old Masters of the City of Amsterdam. Amsterdam: Thoth Publishers Bussum. 2009.

Neumeister, Mirjam. “Changing Images of Childhood: The Children’s Portrait in Netherlandish Art and Its Influence.” Images of Familial Intimacy in Eastern and Western Art. Edited by Nakamura Toshiharu. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2014.

“Portrait of Sijbrand de Flines (1623–1697), Agnes Block (1629–1704) and two children Amsterdam, Amsterdam Museum, inv./ SA20359.” Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie. 21 October 2015. explore/images/record?query=Agnes+Block&start=0.

Schama, Simon. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Vintage Books, 1997.

Van de Graft, C. Catharina. Agnes Block: Vondels Nicht en Vriendin. Utrecht: A. W. Bruna & Zoon’s Uitgevers-Mij, 1943.

One for All, and All for One: Animal Communication and Unity in “The Story of the White Pet”

“The Story of the White Pet, Performed by Mrs. MacTavish” was one tale collected by John Francis Campbell to document Scottish oral traditions. This tale follows the genre elements of many fairy tales: the action progresses quickly, the story ends optimistically, certain lines are repeated, and an omniscient, third-person narrator tells the story.

John Francis Campbell

Although this tale does follow some traits of a fairy tale, it also differs from the genre. Fairy tale characters are often not developed; however, in this tale, the humans are the flat characters, while the more complicated characters are the farm animals. By portraying the animals as both peaceful creatures and violent protectors, MacTavish brings two conflicting modes of description alongside one another. Therefore, this paradoxical portrayal suggests that the animals are more developed characters because they communicate effectively, therefore outsmarting the humans by uniting together.

The animals are sometimes peaceful or violent, which reveals the importance of both traits when protecting the group. To save their lives, the animals run away from the farmer who wants to “kill [them] for Christmas” (303) rather than attacking him. Also, instead of fighting each other, they are peaceful and “went forward” (304) as a group, since the cat does not try to eat the birds, and the dog does not attack the cat.

Although the animals are sometimes peaceful, we also discover that they can be violent protectors. When one of the thieves “returned to look in to see if he could perceive if anyone at all was in the house” (305), the animals attack him to protect their home and themselves. Therefore, the animals are peaceful, in order to unite when escaping from the farmer, or violent, in order to protect their group and safe location.

The paradox—the animals being both peaceable and violent—is shown by the before and after events of the thief returning for the money. The animals act violently towards the thief who returns, but he is not harmed seriously. Although he is neither wounded nor killed, the worst damage is psychological because the thief believes that the animals were humans, vaguely describing each as “a man,” “a big black man,” or “a big man” (305).

However, the readers know that these fierce warriors were just animals all along because we first learn how the animals protect the group and then read the thief’s explanation of what happened. The tale ends, “[The thieves] did not return to seek their lot of money; and the White Pet and his comrades got it to themselves; and it kept them peaceably as long as they lived” (305). The word it seems to refer to the money. The animals keep the money among themselves amiably, perhaps because this newly-acquired money would have no value to any of the animals, since they would not use it anyways.

Because MacTavish emphasizes the word peaceably in the concluding line, it is possible that the thieves, unlike the animals, would not have kept the money peaceably among themselves. Therefore, the animals are more developed characters because we learn what was of true importance to these creatures: communicating with each other in order to stay alive and to protect the group.

Since the animals communicate effectively with one another, they are able to outwit the humans. The animals’ repetitious dialogue (e.g., “Where art thou going” [303–304] is repeated five times) follows the fairy tale tradition. However, the repetitious dialogue also emphasizes the fact that the animals are able to outwit the humans. Leaving separately would have been more advantageous to each animal because if the farmer caught and killed one, perhaps the farmer, having satisfied his appetite, would not chase the others. Additionally, the animals speak honestly, such as when each animal straightforwardly explains that “they were going to kill me” (304). In contrast, the thief exaggerates, saying that a man “thrust ten knives into my hand” (305).

In actuality, the cat struck the man with her claws, but if the claws had been knives, the thief would have been more seriously injured. Furthermore, the thief describes the sounds, such as “GREE-AS-ICH-E” (305), that he hears to the thieves. Although humans do not understand animal language, the animals are able to communicate so they understand each other, regardless of being different species. Since the animals communicate well as a group, they outsmart the thieves who do not support each other.

Because of effective communication, these seemingly simple animals are able to unite together, unlike the humans. The animals speak respectfully to each other; for example, they use the words hail, art, and thou (304). Since these sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent animals elevate each other by their language use, they recognize the significance of all creatures, thus creating a stronger, more cohesive unit. One animal is not better than the other, even if the bull is larger than the cat, or the goose can fly while the dog can only run. By using respectful language, the animals are able to unite their abilities to protect their camaraderie. Another example of the animals using language to band together occurs when the animals come to the house, they say in one shout “GAIRE” (304)—meaning laughter in Gaelic—to scare and defeat the group of thieves. Only one thief, instead of the entire group of thieves, returns to the house later to retrieve the money. If all the thieves had gone, perhaps the animals would have lost. However, the animals are united from start to finish because they use respectful and unified language to create a cohesive group.

The animals, paradoxically peaceful and violent, are better communicators and more developed characters than the humans. Since these animals are able to communicate effectively with one another, they are able to outmaneuver the humans.

Additionally, by uniting as a team of animals that supports and protects each other, they create their own happily ever after, free from human domination. When we see animals consolidate over humans, we as the readers understand that we do not have to be like the human characters but that we should strive to be like the animals, who establish a cordial group because of their communication.