Biblical events and Western classics, such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, narrate many stories that have been continually retold and reinterpreted throughout the centuries. From full blown discourses to the subtlest of references, these stories can be found in novels, plays, and all types of visual art, such as ancient Greek mythology paintings and sculptures, to contemporary art.
In this short piece, let’s take a look at a painting which recently captured my attention. The painting is titled ‘Helen Recognizing Telemachus, Son of Odysseus’ and the artist goes by the name Lagrenée Jean-Jacques’ (the younger).
Let’s appreciate the context behind the painting.
The painting is depicting a scene from Book 4 of the Odyssey. For the avoidance of doubt, the Odyssey is considered to be a poem of which Homer is regarded as the composer. The poem centres around the main protagonist, Odysseus, a legendary hero, and his difficulties returning home to Ithaca following the Trojan War. This is partly due to the antagonist, Lord Poseidon, constantly hampering his journey.
Prior to Book 4 of the Odyssey, the Goddess Athena had received permission from Zeus, the king of the gods of Mount Olympus, to allow her to assist Odysseus to return home. Athena executes a plan which includes reaching out and giving courage to Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, who, along with his mother Penelope, are at the mercy of the suitors back in Ithaca and are at risk of losing their father’s estate. The suitors, as the name suggest, are also courting Penelope due to their assumption that Odysseus has perished.
In Book 4 of the Odyssey, Athena (in the guise of Mentor, pretending to be an old friend of Odysseus) and Telemachus travel to meet the King and Queen of Sparta, Menelaus and Helen. Menelaus was Odysseus’ companion-in-arms during the Trojan War, so Telemachus sought to ask him about his fathers whereabouts and fate. And yes, this is the same Helen who Christopher Marlowe described as having the face that launched a thousand ships, describing the fact that the massive Trojan War was mounted on her behalf. If our readers want to learn more about this and its impact, check out our other article, The Tragedy of Andromache.
A fun fact to note is the character Mentor looked after and took responsibility for Telemachus during the Trojan War while Odysseus fought. So we find, as in this instance, Mentor now being impersonated by the goddess Athena precisely because other characters would expect to see him accompanying Telemachus. Interestingly, the word mentor as a noun comes from the dialogues between Athena (as Mentor) and Telemachus written by the 18th century French cleric Fenelon. We could devote a whole new article on the mentor/mentee like relationship between Athena (Mentor) and Telemachus during the latter’s travels in search for his father. For now, less we digress, let’s take a look at the painting.
Whilst in Sparta, Menelaus and Helen are celebrating the separate marriages of their son and daughter and they happily host Telemachus. Menelaus initially fails to recognise Telemachus as the son of Odysseus and so expresses his grief concerning the events of the Trojan War, including that which involved Odysseus.
“I miss them all, but one man most. When I remember him, I cannot eat or sleep, since no one laboured like him – Odysseus. His destiny was suffering, and mine the endless pain of missing him. We do not even know if he is still alive- he has been gone so long. His faithful wife and old Laertes must grieve for him, and young Telemachus, who was a new-born when he went away”. (Quote from Page 155 of The Odyssey (Elizabeth Barrett Browning translation’s)
It is this moment that the painting depicts ‘Helen Recognizing Telemachus, Son of Odysseus’. We can see Helen raising her hand towards the sorrowful Telemachus, who has covered his face with his cloak. From the painting, we also see Telemachus’ friend consoling him. And there, standing to the left, is Athena in the likeness of Mentor.
“These words roused in the boy a desperate need to mourn his father. Tears rolled down his face and splashed down on the ground”. (Quote from Page 155 of The Odyssey (Elizabeth Barrett Browning translation)
It is worth pointing out that Telemachus was born just prior to the Trojan War, meaning his father, Odysseus, left to join the battlefield immediately after his birth. Consequently, Telemachus grew up without a father figure. On this account, it is no surprise of the anguish and despair Telemachus must be feeling listening to Menelaus’ sorrowful account of Odysseus.
Menelaus and Helen go on to narrate other incidents to Telemachus, which only serve as potential pre-cursors or foreshadowing of events to Telemachus’ own circumstances. One of these incidents include the cycle of murder in which Aegisthus killed Agamemnon and then Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, killed Aegisthus. For Telemachus, this is relatable because just as Aegisthus took advantage of Agamemnon’s absence to consort with his wife, so too have Penelope’s suitors exploited Odysseus’s presumed death to obtain his estate and pursue his grieving wife. Should this happen, Telemachus stands to lose the most, as he would lose his inheritance, family and pride. Therefore, for Telemachus and Athena at the very least, he must see to the removal of the current suitors, as they in their greed were worthy only of death.
Taking a closer look at the intricacies of the painting itself, one has to admire the beautiful depiction of the type of clothing, architecture and ornamental patterns. Much of the architecture and ornamental patterns can be found in neoclassical buildings throughout the UK. This helps illustrates just how much our history and culture have been influenced by Greek and Roman civilisation.
If you want to read more on the relationship between mythology, art and even politics, then do check out our other articles: Mythology in a Contemporary Age and Ivan Aivazovsky, ‘the Ninth Wave’ and the Russian Mindset.