Helen of Troy
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In Greek mythology, Helen, better known as Helen of Sparta or Helen of Troy, was the daughter of Zeus and Leda, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta and sister of Castor, Polydeuces and Clytemnestra. Her abduction by Paris brought about the Trojan War. Helen was described by Christopher Marlowe as having "the face that launched a thousand ships."
The sublime and the beauty of women
The Sublime cannot identify itself only to what is simply beautiful, but also to what is so upsetting to cause “bewilderment” (ΕΚΠΛΗΞΙΣ), “surprise” (ΤΟ ΘΑΥΜΑΣΤΟΝ) and even “fear” (ΦΟΒΟΣ). It could be said that Helen of Troy will surely have been the most beautiful woman in the world, but she has never been sublime in Greek literature, although Edmund Burke cites the scene of the old men looking at Helen's "terrible" beauty on the ramparts of Troy -- he regards it as an instance of the beautiful, but his imagination is captured by its sublimity. Hecuba in Euripides’s The Trojan Women is certainly sublime when she expresses her endless sorrow for the terrible destiny of her children.
From Antiquity, depicting Helen would be a remarkable challenge. The story of Zeuxis deals with exactly this question: How would an artist immortalize ideal beauty? The ancient world starts to paint Helen's picture or inscribe her form on stone, clay and bronze by the 7th century BC. Helen is frequently depicted on Athenian vases as being threatened by Menelaus and fleeing from him. This is not the case, however, in Laconic art: on an Archaic stele depicting Helen's recovery after the fall of Troy, Menelaus is armed with a sword but Helen faces him boldly, looking directly into his eyes; and in other works of Peloponnesian art, Helen is shown carrying a wreath, while Menelaus holds his sword aloft vertically. In contrast, on Athenian vases of c. 550–470, Menelaus threateningly points his sword at her.
The abduction by Paris was another popular motive in ancient Greek vase-painting; definitely more popular than the kidnapping by Theseus. In a famous representation by the Athenian vase painter Makron, Helen follows Paris like a bride following a bridegroom, her wrist grasped by Paris' hand. The Etruscans, who had a sophisticated knowledge of Greek mythology, demonstrated a particular interest in the theme of the delivery of Helen's egg, which is depicted in relief mirrors.
In Renaissance painting, Helen's departure from Sparta is usually depicted as a scene of forcible removal (rape) by Paris. This is not, however, the case with certain secular medieval illustrations. Artists of the 1460s and 1470s were influenced by Guido delle Colonne's Historia destructionis Troiae, where Helen's abduction was portrayed as a scene of seduction. In the Florentine Picture Chronicle Paris and Helen are shown departing arm in arm, while their marriage was depicted into Franco-Flemish tapestry.
In Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (1604), Faust conjures the shade of Helen. Upon seeing Helen, Faustus speaks the famous line: "Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium." (Act V, Scene I.) Helen is also conjured by Faust in Goethe's Faust.
In Pre-Raphaelite art, Helen is often shown with shining curly hair and ringlets. Other painters of the same period depict Helen on the ramparts of Troy, and focus on her expression: her face is expressionless, blank, inscrutable. In Gustave Moreau's painting, Helen will finally become faceless; a blank eidonon in the middle of Troy's ruins.