Question of the Week is a new blog series inspired by our Masterpiece of the Week tours, offered daily at the Getty Center at 4:00 p.m. Featuring an open and upbeat discussion among visitors and gallery teachers, the tours feature a new object and pose a new question each week.
Helen of Troy, the subject of this week’s object, a Renaissance plate (full object here), was the most beautiful woman in the world. But beauty makes trouble. Rivalry to possess Helen, say the Iliad and the Odyssey, led to the decade-long Trojan War.
In Renaissance Italy, beautifully painted ceramics were decorated with favorite stories of the day. Francesco Xanto Avelli depicts the fateful moment in which Helen is abducted by the Prince of Troy and his strongmen (despite their comparatively puny biceps). In this detail, she’s dragged onto a ship, perhaps against her will; some say she gladly abandoned her husband and daughter, but maybe those people were just gossips. Does she look willing here?
So, beautiful reader: what is your experience: Is beauty a gift or a curse? Does the subject of the Renaissance plate shed light on your answer?
I think beauty can be both a gift and a curse — depending on who you’re talking about! Beauty can definitely be a curse for those who have it. I’m picturing paparazzi pushing and pulling celebrities to “possess” their beauty (and fame) through their image, like Helen is being pulled here. But beauty can also be a curse for those who admire, covet, resent, or envy it. That seems to be the case with the Trojan War.
On the question of whether Helen is going willingly, I can’t tell — her arms say no, but her legs say yes.
Interesting your comparison between paparazzi and Paris, both intent on “stealing beauty” for their own gain, and both choosing their targeted subjects based on fame and beauty. (After all, what more did Paris know about Helen than that she was “the most beautiful woman in the world?”)
In this artist’s depiction of the moment, Helen’s arms may be saying no, and the legs yes, but what about her face? She’s not exactly kicking and screaming … like she is in Giovanni Francesco Susini’s sculpture of The Abduction of Helen by Paris, 1627, also in the Getty collection. (Check it out on line, or better yet, come to the museum and compare both the sculpture and the plate in person.) Which begs the question, why not? Could she be faking resistance and secretly wanting to be captured? Like some celebrities who hold their hands up to the paparazzi’s lenses?
Helen appears to have features that are quite masculine. Her build seems similar to the “strongmen” taking her away. It’s almost as if the artist wanted to give her agency in her “capture” like, if she wanted to fight them off and get away she could, but she didn’t. From this jumping point it’s conceivable that beauty is powerful, and therefore it really doesn’t matter if it’s a “curse” or a “blessing.” It’s how you use it?
She does look quite strong, doesn’t she? She reminds me of ancient marble sculptures of Venus, the type that were inspiring Renaissance artists to adopt a classical ideal of strong female beauty that can also be described as somewhat masculine. I agree with you that she looks as if she could put up more of a fight if she wanted to, especially with that left arm that seems more to be holding onto Paris than trying to push him away.
A visitor in the galleries yesterday (thanks, Kawika) suggested that Sparta may not have been such a fun place for a woman, what with all the emphasis on war preparedness, and that Helen was probably drawn to the prospect of love and romance with dreamy Paris in a faraway land. If that were the case, it would be smart of her to feign resistance (hair pulling?) while enabling the capture.
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss…
Her lips suck forth my soul; see where it flies!”
Ay, Marlowe, there’s the rub. Is one’s soul the price paid for beauty? If so, is that price paid by the beautiful one herself or by the beholder of the beauty, who is held by its power? To me, beauty is much like many other pleasures in life, fraught with complexities — yet that doesn’t make it inherently bad. Whatever the perceived “curse” of beauty, I think most who live without it would be more than willing to pay the price…
Bekka’s comment brings to mind a story i once heard and have never forgotten. It is said that the great Ella Fitzgerald confessed in an interview she’d have gladly given up her musical gift to have been born a “beautiful” woman. I remember being profoundly saddened by this comment, as I felt my own life had been so enriched by her music. If indeed this were true, and she’d have had her wish, then the price for beauty in this case would have been paid by a world of music lovers deprived of her amazing voice.
Of course it is both, and that’s why we like stories about beautiful people.
Jeanette is right that there is a universal draw to stories about “beautiful people”, as evidenced in the enduring quality of much classical art and literature, right up to today’s popular media. The maiolica plate that’s sparking our discussion was created for this very purpose: to give a visual image to a story of compelling human drama, inspiring contemplation and conversation about the larger issues of our shared humanity, such as the rise and fall of beautiful people.
I think beauty is an advantage, things are just obtained more easily and I really don’t believe in the whole “beauty is a curse” idiom.
Beauty is a curse for those who are only remembered and admired for their face, and not their mind. For those who are only loved for the thought of them, and not who they really are. For those who question whether they have captivated hearts, or only eyes. Those with undeniable beauty are only loved for a period of time, because physical beauty is not permanent. And all their life, the only love they have ever known would be the fantasy of them.
The reason for Helen’s masculine appearance and the masculine appearance of most women in renaissance paintings, sculpture, and decorative objects is rather simple. Most artists were unable to obtain women for models. In many cases it was either an issue if legality or social decorum that prevent women from posing in artists’ studios. So, artists would have a male model pose for the female image and the artist would just make the hair longer and place to round orbs on the men’s chest for breasts. As for Helen desiring to live Sparta because of its military based society, Sparta, at least in the classical age, was one of the more progressive Greek city-states allowing women to have a formal education unlike Athens or Corinth.
Great points, Chad. The image of Helen we see in Avelli’s plate was actually created by Raphael in a drawing that was later made into an engraving by his student and collaborator, Marcantonio Raimondi, Avelli then used that engraving as a template when painting his plate. It’s true that most live models in artist’s studios at that time were male, but it’s also true that these artists were drawing their ideal of female beauty from ancient sculpture created when female nudity carried less of a social stigma. Perhaps the physical strength seen in some of those ideal beauties of the distant past is another way of depicting them as powerful.
Beauty like anything else can be a curse or it can be the end of of all pursuits as most of us pursue beauty in our own lives. It is very similar to money for me. I know people that do amazing things with money and others that simply just can’t handle it.
I appreciate Darlene’s point that “most of us pursue beauty in our own lives,” inferring its wider application beyond personal attractiveness to the adornment of our worlds. Is it not this pursuit of beauty that inspired the creation and market for so many artworks that delight us to this day? I imagine the original owners of this maiolica plate depicting the Abduction of Helen were pleased to display it among their treasured objects, not only for their satisfaction at owning something so lovely, and the prestige it afforded them, but for the interesting and potentially enlightening conversations it could inspire.
What an interesting article. Looking at the face of the woman depicted as Helen on this plate, I really thought properly for the first time that there was a very real possibility that she was completely innocent. That got me thinking about women through the ages. Mary Magdalene has been termed a prostitute for hundreds of years, yet according to ancient sources she was merely demon-possessed; in our time, this translates as simply ‘ill’. (Maybe she had schizophrenia or epilepsy). It seems those who would like to consider themselves experts at history have always liked to portray women as wilful sinners or harlots, simply because they possessed the mystique and beauty that is a woman’s special attribute. Maybe Helen was no different. I once read that beauty/art is a mirror. She brings out the parts of us that are hidden but most central to our being. Thus the brave find their courage, the sadistic find their cruelty and so on. It is worth noting that Achilles acted in a very different way to Paris in the face of this beauty, and that this ancient hero became the inspiration of the world’s greatest military conqueror, Alexander the Great.