Minerva and Arachne. Transformation in the Book Metamorphoses and Velasquez’s Painting
Minerva and Arachne Metamorphoses
Art and literature are two very powerful ways of portraying stories. Interpretation has a huge impact on stories as well, depending on how the audience and the artist interpret the work. Through stories in the book Metamorphoses we see the use of enargeia, or ‘vividness’. This visual sensory detail allows for mental pictures to be formed rather than looking at a physical picture of the story. Art was highly contested because it was made with the hands, so this raised the question if paintings were really a form of art. Stories in art and literature go hand in hand, but it can often be confusing sometimes when it comes to deciphering what exactly they mean. Through in depth analysis we can derive meanings, although often subjective, through text and art.
Specifically, through the story of Minerva and Arachne, we see an example of a transformation. Arachne was from a poorer region in Lydia, but an excellent weaver. She was so well known for her weaving that she became boastful, claiming that she was even a better weaver than Minerva. Minerva hears this and appears at Arachne’s house in form of an old woman; she tells Arachne she must basically mend her ways and honor the goddess. Arachne responds boastfully and Minerva transformed back into her normal state ready to beat Arachne in a weaving challenge. This marks the first minor transformation that occurs in this story.
Minerva’s tapestry she weaves depicts heroic, epic scenes of the gods and the border contained images that represented the displeasure of the gods; which can be interpreted as a warning for Arachne to give up. Arachne’s piece however depicted explicit scenes of the gods, with a more sinister approach. After the weaving is complete there is a mutual agreement that Arachne’s work is flawless. Minerva is outraged by this and proceeds to tear Arachne’s work to shreds, and then begins to beat Arachne. Arachne attempts to hang herself, and Minerva decides that if she wants to hang that she can help her. She then transforms Arachne into a spider, so she can hang for eternity. Ovid describes this metamorphosis in the following way “her flowing hair fell to the ground, and left her temples bare; her body lessen’d all, but most her face. Her slender fingers, handing on each side with many joynts, the use of legs supply’d. “ Through this description of the transformation we can see the vividness and how even though Arachne is becoming a spider, there are still some human aspects to this transformation.
This weaving contest represents two very different perspectives; especially with Minerva’s work glorifying the gods while Arachne’s work shames them by depicting various scenes of rape and wrongdoing. As Minerva torments her, she commits suicide, eliminating the possibility for a clear victory. We then see Minerva, punishing Arachne, because as her tapestry depicted, it is a god’s right to do so. And vice versa, Arachne is tormented by a goddess, as also depicted in her tapestry, which conveys that mortals should be wary of the gods and their deceitful actions.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez was a Spanish Baroque painter who painted a scene of the fable of Arachne. At first glance one might not realize what this scene depicts, seeing as this painting is sometimes also referred to as ‘The Spinners’. However, we can immediately tell that the picture depicts two women weaving. The scene in the foreground has been painted with a darker set of colors than the separate scene in the background of the portrait. It has been speculated that the foreground represents before the weaving contest has begun and the background represents the end of the tale of Arachne. The background scene depicts just moments before Arachne was transformed into a spider by Minerva. This can be considered the most important scene in the picture because it represents the transformation that relates the tale back to the entirety of the book.
We can see similarities in the painting and the text of Metamorphoses, but at first glace one might not automatically know what the painting is of unless some background information was provided. However, the different perspectives of both Minerva and Arachne in the weaving contest can be seen throughout the painting by Velazquez, especially in the form of the use of the drastic difference in the foreground and background, which basically depicts light and dark. Also the ideals that Minerva and Arachne hold also represent a dark and light aspect. We see Minerva take on a more balanced approach, while Arachne has more of a dark, cynical view on the world. These foreground and the background of the painting provide a sense of balance throughout the piece of art.
More specifically, the background depicts a woman dressed in an antique helmet who is believed to be Athena and to her right we can see a very youthful Arachne. This scene is to be borrowed from another well-known piece of art by Titian. The background image depicts when Athena committed the sacrilegious act of deeming her work better than a god’s. There are an equal amount of women in the foreground and the background, which could lead us to believe that they are in fact the same women in both scenes. In the background we can see Minerva’s anger emphasized, with her arm extended in a ‘striking’ position. The light source coming from the upper left of this scene, falls directly on Minerva in her armor as well.
Through the strategic highlighting we see throughout Velazquez’s piece of art, we can basically determine the highlights of the story. Arachne is portrayed with much more highlighting than Minerva is, so we can assume she is the main subject of this story, especially in the means of the transformation. However, Arachne’s face is not shown in the foreground of the picture as she weaves. The piece that really pulls both pieces of this painting together is the woman in the background who is intently gazing into the foreground scene.
While the piece of work by Velazquez does not depict the actual metamorphosis of Arachne into a spider, it accurately reflects the events that are detrimental to the metamorphosis overall. The events that Velazquez decided to focus on highlight the characters and their overall values. Arachne views the gods as deceitful and unbalanced and this is reflected in the piece in the terms of ‘good versus evil’, which is a common theme found throughout literature and art. The good versus evil is exemplified in the use of the incredibly dark foreground and light, luminous background. In the end, Minerva proves what Arachne wove into her tapestry, that the gods are vengeful and take advantage of mortals in the world. These events are ironic in the sense that Minerva’s actions prove Arachne to be not only the winner of the contest, but also correct in her views on the gods. Once again, the tapestries themselves represent the depiction of good versus evil in the myth. All of these light and dark themes are illuminated in Velazquez’s piece of art, which visually create a dramatic difference.
In conclusion, we can see many parallels in the story of Arachne that are reflected through Velazquez’s piece of art, not only in literal characters, but also certain artistic elements that were used to provide emphasis on aspects of the story. The visual emphasis helps define the importance, mood and details about the characters. While the painting does not literally depict the actual metamorphosis of Arachne into the spider, it emphasizes the events pertaining to the metamorphosis itself. We can pull these ideas out, first off, by the background scene, which is very bright with Arachne in the center of the scene. This scene depicts Minerva in a striking pose, angered by Arachne’s boastfulness. This scene is detrimental to the competition that ensues afterwards, in order to determine who is the better weaver. The foreground, which is much darker, depicts the actual event of the weaving contest, which is the bulk of the story. It introduces a theme of good versus evil and the picture effectively ties that in with its color schemes and painting styles.
The attention to detail that Velazquez used in his painting is what really brings it to life, and makes it reflective of the myth Ovid told in Metamorphoses. When we analyze the two works separately, many of the elements do overlap, making it true to the story of Arachne and Minerva. Velazquez translates the use of enargeia by Ovid in his stylistic choices he used in the painting. Both of the works are done in two completely different elements, yet when further analyzed, there are a lot of similar parallels between the two that really link them together. The human elements Ovid did use to provide imagery were literally translated by Velazquez into the form of art. Overall, this painting accurately depicted the story of Arachne, especially by depicting two different scenes in the composition. It’s a different approach that includes a lot more of the story rather than Velazquez just using one scene.
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