Grey Matters 02

Origins

In geologic and human time, Pontormo’s earthborn Adam and Eve take us back to first origins. “In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora” (“Of bodies changed to other forms I tell.”): So begins Ovid’s poem of eternal flux, of fate and desire, beauty and cruelty. The next verses of the Metamorphoses (8 CE) describe the birth of the universe and the ultimate tale of transformation, that of chaos into order. The earth takes shape from formlessness, the elements separated in finite bounds, land and water populated with life. All that was missing was a “holier creature, of a loftier mind, / Fit master of the rest.” And so

Man was made, perhaps from seed divine
Formed by the great Creator, so to found
A better world, perhaps the new-made earth,
So lately parted from the ethereal heavens,
Kept still some essence of the kindred sky –
Earth that Prometheus moulded, mixed with water,
In likeness of the gods that govern the world –
And while the other creatures on all fours
Look downwards, man was made to hold his head
Erect in majesty and see the sky,
And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.
Thus earth, once crude and featureless, now changed
Put on the unknown form of humankind.[15]

The innocent contentment of the Golden Age was not to last, however, giving way to successive ages of increasing violence, greed, and deceit. Outraged at the degradation of the Iron Age, the Olympian gods plotted to eradicate the human race, “for sin demand fit doom.” And so, at once in wrath and the hope of a new race of more marvelous birth, Jupiter sent down a deluge to drown the world. Thus ended the first age of humankind, as “the waters’ boundless license overwhelmed / The hills, and strange waves lashed the mountainpeaks.”[16] Only two mortals survived the great flood: a husband and wife, Deucalion and Pyrrha, their raft finding high ground atop Mount Parnassus, a precursor to the ark of Noah, which lands atop Mount Ararat. Extraordinary deeds are often performed by the unlikeliest actors, and so it fell to Deucalion and Pyrrha to redeem humankind by means of a miraculous rebirth. It was the former’s father, the Titan Prometheus (“Forethought”), who endowed his clay model of man with the spark of life stolen from Jupiter’s chariot. Deucalion and his cousin-wife Pyrrha (daughter of Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus, “Afterthought,” and Pandora, the first woman) were chosen by the gods not for their divinity but their virtue. “No man was better, none loved goodness more / Than he,” Ovid describes,

“No woman more devout than she. / And when Jove saw the world a waste of waters, / And of so many millions but one man, / And of so many millions but one woman / Alive, both innocent, both worshippers, / He bade the clouds disperse, the north wind drive / The storms away, and to the earth revealed / The heavens again and to the sky the earth.”
– Ovid [17]
Fig. 12 Domenico Beccafumi, Deucalion and Pyrrha, 1520, oil on panel, Museo Fondazione Horne, Florence © Scala / Art Resource, NY

While the earth was thus restored, Deucalion and Pyrrha nonetheless “saw the deep silence of the desolate lands.” While they possessed none of Prometheus’s ingenuity or daring, their wish for the breath of life was ultimately granted; yet it was not by shaping a new race of humans from mud but by the act of sowing the still-wet earth that they repopulated the world. Upon offering a sacrifice in the temple to her Titan-mother Themis, Pyrrha heeded the ghost’s counsel to renew the human race by casting her “great mother’s bones” behind her. First beguiled by the oracle, Pyrrha came to rightly interpret her mother to be the earth and her bones as the stones within the earth’s body. And so, as Themis commanded, Deucalion and Pyrrha veiled their heads and threw the stones gathered in their robes one by one over their shoulders, past their footprints, as they strode forward (fig. 12). Miraculously, each stone gradually gave up its hardness.

Their rigidness grew slowly soft and, softened,
Assumed a shape, and as they grew and felt
A gentler nature’s touch, a semblance seemed
To appear, still indistinct, of human form,
Like the first rough-hewn marble of a statue,
Scarce modelled, or old uncouth images.
The earthy part, damp with some trace of moisture,
Was turned to flesh; what was inflexible
And solid changed to bone; what in the stones
Had been the veins retained the name of veins.
In a brief while, by Heaven’s mysterious power,
The stones the man had thrown were formed as men,
Those from the woman’s hand reshaped as women.
Hence we are hard, we children of the earth,
And in our lives of toil we proved our birth.

Fig. 13 Master of Serumido, Deucalion and Pyrrha (reverse of Raphael, Portrait of Maddalena Strozzi), ca. 1504-7, oil on panel © Scala/Ministero per i Beni e le Attività culturali / Art Resource, NY

Warmed by the sun, the seeds of things in the pregnant soil, “nourished as in a mother’s womb,” proceeded to give rise to all forms of animal and plant life, bringing forth countless species, “some restored in ancient forms, some fashioned weird and new.”[18] Ovid’s verses describe the mutability of both identity and substance. It stands to reason, then, that the poetic image of Deucalion and Pyrrha seeding the earth posed something of an unusual challenge, capturing the imagination of a number of Italian artists. Arguably the most unusual – accompanied by a preceding representation of the Flood, overseen by the council of the gods – was executed in monochrome by the eclectic Master of Serumido on the reverse of Raphael’s double-portrait of Agnolo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi (fig. 13).[19]

notes 15 – 19
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Grey Matters 03

Sight and Belief (or Seeing is believing)

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