Saturday, July 29, 2006

Coining a Myth: Titian's Danae and the Shower of Gold

Coining a Myth: Titian's Danae and the Shower of Gold (1554)

Myths are meant to be told and retold. The archetypes they contain, the deeper human patterns of character, action, and circumstance, maintain their essences despite manifold variations. Both the literal and figurative coexist with great comfort. Both have meanings that transcend time and are simultaneously embedded in a particular time and place. The language, the images, and the choices in any teller's presentation are conditioned by prevailing cultural norms along with her or his personal history. With each retelling a myth is given new birth.

The artists of the Italian Renaissance had the joy of rediscovering the art of ancient Greece and Rome. Much of it had been physically buried. Its excavation sparked a merging of a scientific and anthropocentric view of the world, as epitomized in the development of perspectival systems of rendering, with a fascination with the deep and fluid harmony of forms and proportions typified by classic Greek sculptures. In some senses, the duality of spirit and matter became a central question.

In choosing to paint the mythological story of Danae, Titian (c. 1485-1576), Venetian master of the High Renaissance, addressed this duality in a very direct way. The Greek myth goes like this in short. Acrisius, king of Argos, having received a prophecy that his grandson would take over all his power and kingdom, has his daughter and her servant imprisoned in a cave or dungeon. Angered by this, the god Zeus sent down a shower of gold from the heavens from which the virgin Danae conceived her son Perseus. The scene which Titian depicts shows the shower of gold as coins dropping in two directions, one following the path of light in which Danae is bathed, the other falling into the apron held up by the servant. The shower of gold is a metaphysical or alchemical concept in itself. So representing a quality of light that could carry the otherworldly power of procreation and yet have some recognizable (material form) was quite a dilemma. Titian solved this dilemma by setting up a contrast between his approach to rendering the coins and between the tonal and energetic qualities of the two figures. The coins falling toward Danae have a lightness to them; they fall more like feathers. Danae lies bathed in light, vulnerable, unprotected. The coins directed toward the servant's apron move more like projectiles of consistent size traveling with force and focus. The servant figure moves aggressively to gather the coins with the gesture of greed. These coins emerge from the dark clouds as they cast their shadow across the servant and the right portion of the painting.

The purpose of my close analysis is to highlight that fact that Titian could still see and render golden "coins" as linked to the ancient and archetypal past of spiritual power--here the coins are a formal expression of that power. He equates light, gold, and creative consciousness on the one hand, while on the other acknowledges a more adumbrated modern reality of wealth, gold, and greed.

Imprisoned together in the cave, the two characters react as polar opposites to the sudden abundance. It is easy to fall into judgment about the two. But, they are both archetypal characters and as such a reflection of both reside in all of us. For example, in the face of abundance I know I have that selfless part of me that wants to transform it for the good. I also know that part of me that wants to gather it up, hold on to it because there is never enough. Thus is the power of art to tell a mythological story in grand scale that also has all the feeling of being the important news of the day.

John Bloom © 2006