Now I admit that I’m currently on an orientalism kick at the moment – actually I’ll go further admit I’ve always liked these sorts of paintings, and in the days of Athena posters would have covered the walls of my bedsit with copies of them.
Recently I happened across a picture I didn’t know – Hypatia by Charles William Mitchell. And it’s certainly a powerful image – wild, naked, wanton, speaking of sex and exoticism. (The real Hypatia of course would not have looked like this, certainly would certainly never have run naked through the Library of Alexandria. Raphael’s much more conservative view was probably much closer to reality.)
However the thing which struck me most about Mitchell’s Hypatia was the way it pushed the buttons in the same way as a recent Isis cover, again with its suggestion of uninhibited Oxbridge parties with wit, intellect and more than a little nude frolicking. Oxbridge of course having a reputation for such things as it historically provided a bubble where the clever and the intelligent could be uninhibited together. Other universities, Hull, for example, even when Phillip Larkin was librarian, never convinced in the nude frolicking stakes.
However, the point about Mitchell’s painting is that it borrowed the clothes of a faux Antiquity to legitimise a painting of a naked, quite possibly wanton, woman and as such these paintings exercise a powerful hold on our imaginations of antiquity being full of such goings on before the christians slammed down the shutters. Eroticism made respectable by being clothed in a false antiquity.
Strangely enough you see the same use of false antiquity in some Victorian Christian churches as a result of the Anglo-Catholic movement making high church colour and robes legitimate again after the grey of previous decades. Especially so in Australia, where nothing was venerable, you get some fine examples on mock Byzantine decoration such as St Paul's in Melbourne. Of course Catholicism proper was not immune from the bug - just look at Westminster Cathedral in London.
Antiquity as a golden dream of gold spires, mosaics, and just a hint of eroticism and decadence.
It wasn't of course. Late Antiquity and the early Byzantine centuries may have been full of colour, drama and golden icons but the reality was rather more prosaic – political instability, inflation, the collapse of the old assumptions, in fact just like the revolutions in eastern europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union – moment of high drama certainly, but interspersed with long periods of grey grimness.
As such art is always more attractive than reality …