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Figures of Absence in the History of Art

Figures of Absence in the History of Art

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Published by Pino Blasone
Ariadne abandoned, the penitent Magdalene, the Virgin Advocate and Annunciate, John of Patmos, are all frequent themes in the history of art. In one sense, they are figures of absence at once. By relevant samples, here the aim is to make clear which kind of absence: abandonment, loss or expectation, but also – mainly in sacred art – the paradoxical effort to represent the presence of an absence. Something, what has to do not only with the past, but maybe with our future too.
Ariadne abandoned, the penitent Magdalene, the Virgin Advocate and Annunciate, John of Patmos, are all frequent themes in the history of art. In one sense, they are figures of absence at once. By relevant samples, here the aim is to make clear which kind of absence: abandonment, loss or expectation, but also – mainly in sacred art – the paradoxical effort to represent the presence of an absence. Something, what has to do not only with the past, but maybe with our future too.

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Published by: Pino Blasone on Sep 09, 2009
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02/26/2013

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Pino Blasone
Figures of Absencein the History of Art 
 1 – 
The Finding of Ariadne by Dionysus
, Greco-Roman mosaic; Hatay Archaeological Museum,Antakya (ancient Antioch), Turkey
 
Ariadne Abandoned
Figures of absence, especially in the sense of loss or abandonment, were not lackingin the Greek mythology and Latin literature. Let us think of the fables of Orpheus andEurydice, or of Eros and Psyche, in the former case; of the characters of Medea, Ariadne or Dido, in the latter. What difficult to perceive today is that often those myths were expression
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of a pagan religiosity. By merging different versions, here we will resume that of Ariadne,also famed as the “Mistress of the Labyrinth” with a Minoan appellation, or identified asLibera by the ancient Romans. Notoriously she was a Cretan princess, daughter of KingMinos and half sister of the beastly Minotaur, who had been interned in the Labyrinth.Ariadne helped the Athenian prince Theseus to penetrate the maze and escape from it, after he slew the anthropophagous monster, thanks to the proverbial thread she had given him.Perhaps since it does not include what usually thought to be a happy end, thecontinuation of this story – in part, narrated by the Latin poets Catullus and Ovid – is lessknown. Sailed from Crete to Athens, Theseus, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra halted at Diaor Naxos (isles as Cyprus, Naxos, Ithaca and Patmos, were variously important in the Greek imagery). Albeit engaged with her sister, the ungrateful hero fell in love with Phaedra. They plotted to forsake Ariadne on that wild island, while she was sleeping. So late she awoke, asto discern beloved Theseus’ ship disappearing at the horizon. So long she complained of such a desertion as much as of their betrayal, that at last felt worn out falling asleep again.Meanwhile, the god Dionysus landed at Naxos too. He discovered and admired the youngwoman, sunk in a sleep as sound as death. Then he took pity, woke up and married her. Asad variant tells that she committed suicide, hanging herself maybe with her golden thread.
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 2 – 
 Dionysus Discovering Ariadne Asleep
, Roman wall painting;Villa di Arianna, Stabia
 
The exordium of Propertius,
 Elegies
, I 3, where the Latin poet likens his beloved to asleeping Ariadne, is rightly celebrated for its iconic pregnancy:
Qualis Thesea iacuit cedente carina/ languida desertis Cnosia litoribus,/ […]/ talis visa mihi mollem spirarequietem/ Cynthia consertis nixa caput manibus
(“As languid as the girl from Knossos lyingon desolate shores/ while Theseus’ vessel sails into the distance away,/ [...]/ just so Cynthiaseemed to me, softly breathing a quiet sleep/ with her head reclined on her folded hands”).Yet an appeal by Ovid, in his poem
The Art of Love
, is not less meaningful and revealing atonce: “Fear no longer, Knossian maid. You will be Dionysus’ bride./ For your gift take theheaven. You shall be gazed at as a star up in the sky” (I 555-56). Something alike will be proclaimed by the archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation account, Luke’s Gospel: “Fear not,Mary, for you have found favour with God...”. With the due distinctions, such an analogysuggests that in the former case we are on a border line between profane and sacred love.Quite obviously, a lot of literary or musical “Laments of Ariadne” have beencomposed in the past. Since Pompeii and Herculaneum frescos, pictures of an abandoned
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