It was a Friday afternoon and DU Classical Society had provided an opportunity to further procrastinate studying with a classical art tour at the National Gallery. For anyone concerned with their little knowledge of art, this worry was quickly dispelled by the lovely tour guides Emily Hussey and Dearbhla Shirt who ensured the tour was accessible and interactive for all.
We explored eight paintings which ranged from Renaissance to Romanticism, including Italian, French and Irish artists. All the paintings were secular in contrast to the abundance of religious imagery surrounding them. At first glance, with figures in contemporary dress, it is easy to miss the classical influence as it is often tenuous, only revealed by the title or occasional Greek pyre. We began with the Rape of Europa, which sparked a motif throughout the tour of the portrayal of women in these portraits. The Suicide of Cleopatra incited the most controversy in the group discussion, as her suicide by snake bite to evade capture by her enemies, is undermined by the image of a fair and passive woman with a blank impression and a tiny snake scratching her breast. This is in stark contrast to The Death of Milo of Croton, by Jean Jacques Bachelier, where death is portrayed as gruesome rather than dainty and in less idealised terms. Many on the tour speculated renaissance artists employed the classical theme as a guise to allow for sexualised portraits of women.
Each myth was explained in detail, breathing life into the paintings and leading to fascinating insights. The most striking was the tragic tale of Calisto, painted by the Irish Richard Rothwell around 1840. Calisto was a virgin and part of Artemis’ entourage. After being raped by the disguised Zeus she fell pregnant and was banished to the woods; where striking revenge Hera turned her into a bear after giving birth. One day her son, a great hunter, attempted to kill his mother but Zeus intervened casting them as stars in the sky giving us the constellations Ursa Major (Big Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear).
Overall, the tour was an ideal way to spend a rainy afternoon, as it was engaging and informative without being didactic. The atmosphere was relaxed and the group’s eagerness to ask questions or input their knowledge enhanced the experience, leading to lively debate and a group coffee in the art gallery café afterwards. Shirt concluded the tour by observing ‘’classics lives on’ inspiring not only renaissance and romanticism but even modern art and its relevance remains an integral part of the national collection which is well worth discovering.