The epic of Theseus according to a mysterious maestro
This painting from the Gustave Eiffel collection tackles the tragic life of Theseus and his son Hippolytus in an astonishing composition.
The panel belongs to a series, broken up in the years 1830-1840, that undoubtedly comprised six works, five of which are now known. In addition to this one, four are in the Petit Palais d'Avignon museum and come from the collections of the Marquis Giampietro Campana, sold from 1857 onwards following his conviction for embezzlement, a significant part of which Napoleon III purchased in 1861. These primitive paintings feature scenes from the "Cretan legend": The Loves of Pasiphae, The Taking of Athens by Minos, Theseus and the Minotaur and Ariadne Abandoned on Naxos. Ours is an impressive panorama telling the story of Theseus based on the writings of Apollodorus of Athens or Ovid but with a typically medieval reinterpretation merging Christianity and ancient mythology. The scene takes place well after Ariadne is abandoned on Naxos. Theseus is now king of Athens. In the background on the left, Phaedra, kneeling to his left, accuses her stepson Hippolytus of trying to rape her. Her husband believes her rather than his son and exiles him. Hippolytus is seen restrained by soldiers in the centre of the painting before leaving the city on his horse on the right. This space-time comic strip ends surprisingly, to say the least, since the painter chose to depict the death of Hippolytus by mixing the mythological character’s story with that of the eponymous Christian saint, the martyred tribune who was quartered in the third century. Assumptions as to the purpose of these works vary. Previously considered panels of cassoni—wedding chests intended for nuptial bedchambers—they are now, given their dimensions ranging from 155 to 183 cm in length, thought to be spalliere, panels inserted in woodwork decorating the spouses' room. Their maker’s identity remains unknown. Called the "Master of the Cassoni of Campana", he may have been either a French painter active in Florence in the early 16th century, or Antonio di Jacopo, known as Antonio Gallo, who came to Tuscany with Benedetto Ghirlandaio around 1505.