Essay for Bachelor of Fine Art and Visual Culture 2017
According to Greek mythology, Helen of Troy, the legendary ‘face that launched a thousand ships” was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. In Homer ‘s Iliad, which covers only a short period of the siege of Troy, Helen represented an understated but essential part of the story. Plato, who both admired and ridiculed Homer for his writing of the Iliad, wrote about his standards for beauty and character especially for the ‘ideal individual’ in a city-state, and it is by the employment of these principles that continuing admiration of the beauty of Helen of Troy will be analysed. Examples of visual art will support this investigation, but it is her portrayal in the Iliad that will underpin the argument for and against her beauty. A broad investigation of Helen’s complex character, and how she has been depicted for centuries, will result in a better understanding of her by exposing her inward and outward beauty, or lack thereof, according to the ideals expressed in Plato’s The Republic and Symposium.
Figure 1. Pierre Puget. (1620-1694). The Abduction of Helen of Troy. 1683-1686. Bronze. 97.2×48.3cm.
The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Michigan, USA.
According to myth, Helen was the daughter of Zeus, and it was this relationship that prompted the first of her abductions. Her first abductor Theseus, king of Athens wanted her as a sexual conquest before leaving her to attempt to steal Persephone from Hades. On her return to Sparta, a number of suitors pursued Helen, until Menelaus was chosen to marry her by her father (Bell 1996). This foundation to her story reveals Helen as a chattel or prize to be won and conquered, which at a young age could explain her behaviour in later years. It leaves unanswered, however, the question of how much Helen used her beauty to manipulate those around her and how complicit she was in her ‘abduction’ to Troy. The story of Helen, which continues through several ancient Greek myths, presents an ambiguous character that seems to change from one story to another.
Figure 2. Drinking cup with the departure and recovery of Helen, late Archaic Period. Ceramic. 5th Century BCE. 21.5cm.
Greek. Museum of Fine Art, Boston.
Although not the central character in Homer’s Iliad, Helen is portrayed as the main cause for the Trojan War. In it, she sometimes appears to regret her actions whilst simultaneously ready to relieve herself from responsibility by blaming the gods (Groten 1968). In Book 3 of the Iliad where the most significant hint of the character of Helen is indicated, Ryan in his paper Helen in Homer points out how she used her beauty to sway the opinions of Priam and of the elders of Troy. Helen later confronted Paris wishing he had died in battle with Menelaus, before allowing him to seduce her. Even at her most noble, she regularly turned events to her advantage by using her beauty to sway men (Ryan 1965). Homer never makes clear Helen’s complicity in her abduction or how genuine her sorrow was for the consequences of her actions.
Figure 3. Gerard de Lairesse. Helen arriving at Troy, where she is led by Paris to Priam’s palace. 1685-90. Oil on Canvas.
Musée Du Louvre, Paris, France.
Visual artists, beginning in ancient Greece, have shown us many faces of Helen of Troy, either as the victim or the defiant woman who runs away with a younger lover but generally outwardly beautiful. Whether her character was flawed, or Aphrodite beguiled her, is often irrelevant to how she is rendered (Blondell 2009). In the accompanying examples Helen appears both complicit and victim in her relationship with Paris indicating artist’s varying views of her. These contrary viewpoints that have persisted into 21st-century movies continue to confuse viewers about Helen’s place as victim or conspirator in the Iliad.
Figure 4. Jacques-Louis David. (1748-1825). The Loves of Paris and Helen. 1788. Oil on Canvas. 70.87×56.69”.
Musée Du Louvre, Paris, France
Figure 5. Antonio Molinari. (1655-1704). The Abduction of Helen. Undated. Oil on Canvas. Size Unknown.
Northampton Museums & Art Gallery, UK.
In The Republic 378a Plato places ethics above all, saying that deceit, cowardice, and ungoverned passions should not be in the place of good character. HIs objection to Mimesis in the Iliad is because those playing parts, like that of Helen, will become like them in real life making them intolerable to the ideal state. Plato goes on in Book X of The Republic to justify his call for the banishment of Mimetic poetry and art, by stating that it is dishonest or removed from Truth. Aristotle, in contrast, saw the Mimetic as a useful method of learning about the human experience. For him, poor character and moral choices were methods of instructing the audience about the consequences of life decisions (Cannatella 2006, 10-11). Plato, however, required the characters in poetry such as Helen to lead by example, instructing high moral standards rather than being imperfect copies of transcendental Forms of Beauty and Truth.
Figure 6. Paris and Helen. 2004. Directed by Woflgang Petersen. Still from the Movie Troy. Warner Bros. USA.
Plato’s theory of Forms, further states that whatever humans create is only an imitation of the True Form. The characters in Homer’s Iliad were poor copies of the Truth, driven by extreme emotion and able to corrupt the rational and decent part of the human soul (Republic 605c). Not unlike modern day mass media and the cult of personality, in the form of the Kardashians for example, Plato was concerned with outward appearance, dubious character and emotive rhetoric displayed by characters like Helen in the Iliad replacing proper thinking and analysis.
Figure 7A. top: Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (1828–-1882). Helen of Troy. 1863. Oil on Canvas. 31x71cm. Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany
Figure 7B. Below: Kim Kardashian. 2016. Photograph. © Celebrity Gossip and Entertainment News.
Plato insists that the results of arts should be didactic, seeking to serve humanity. In this regard, the representation of Helen as a central character to the Trojan War both in the Iliad, and in the arts since then, often reveals a character that is shallow by highlighting physical charisma, and incomplete by lacking balanced Beauty (Homer 1987, 68). Beautiful pleasures are free of pain, based on things that are beautiful and are always Beautiful, and are moderate, or measurable and according to the Oracle at Delphi, ‘the most beautiful is the most just’ (Eco 2010, 37). Therefore, Helen’s description in the Iliad aligns more to a contemporary definition of physical attractiveness rather than Platonic Beauty.
Figure 8. Evelyn De Morgan. (1855-1919) Helen of Troy. 1898. Oil on Canvas. 38.75×18.75”. De Morgan Foundation Storage.
An important point is that Plato’s definition of Beauty is not how it is understood today. Kalon, or Fineness according to Plato translated as pleasing through hearing and sight (Plato 1997). The Beautiful, or Devine Beauty or Eternal Beauty is unchanging, only accessible to the intellect. Consequently, any representation of beauty in a tragic poem like the Iliad would be a poor and untruthful imitation of the real Form of Beauty (Symposium 211d). In Symposium 211e Plato describes Absolute Beauty as beyond the physical or mortal and more akin to True Virtue, which he saw as Authentic Beauty. Symposium 210a-220b goes on to include the Ladder of Love that raises humanity from love of superficial beauty to the understanding of true heavenly Beauty (Plato 360BCE). Pythagoras’ theory of a cosmic harmony was influential on Plato’s assessment of Kalon (Beauty). The concepts of the Golden Ratio, or Ideal Measurements, were important in Classical architecture and sculpture in Athens during the 5th and 4th C BCE in regard to beauty. The Parthenon is the best example of this theory. Harmony, Proportion and Justice were underlying principles for Plato’s ideal city, state and population (Janaway 2005). These concepts that defined and measured Kalon (beauty) according to Plato, are on a philosophical level beyond the physical allure of Helen of Troy.
Figure 9. Athanasios G. Angelopoulos. 2011. Parthenon: the Geometry of the Facades.
Socrates’ three versions of beauty were: as a suitable or fitting thing, beauty as something that is fitting or suitable for a good purpose, or that which is pleasing to the eye or the ear (Grube 1927). In The Republic, Plato responds by stating that beauty can be relative and ugly in comparison to Absolute Beauty, which is akin to the mind, and not the senses, existing outside the changing experience of mortal humans. According to Plato to be Beautiful there must be proportion and balance in the body and the mind (soul). A beautiful body cannot hold a corrupt or inferior soul. If the soul or mind is corrupt, then the individual cannot be Beautiful.
Figure 10. Helen of Troy (Die Schone Helena). 1956. Written by Bill Wrobel. Movie Poster. Warner Bros. USA.
The myth of Helen as the beautiful victim in the Iliad has persisted into modern folklore without substantial analysis of her character in many cases. She deserted her husband and family with an already married Paris, taking substantial wealth with her. She also stood by whilst war raged because of her actions, bewailing her situation and selfishly thinking about how everything reflected on her (Soble 2006, 87). Absolute Beauty that co-exists with virtues like courage or wisdom, and higher levels of Love and Truth in the realm of the unchanging eternal, are sadly lacking in these examples, underpinning her characterisation as sexually desirable and emotionally puerile but not Beautiful according to Plato.
Figure 11. Sandys, Anthony Frederick. (1829-1904). Helen of Troy. 1867. Oil on Panel. 34.8×30.5cm.
Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool
The image of Helen of Troy has persisted into the 21st Century and concepts of beauty have changed many times (Maguire, 2009). Quintus and Isocrates related beauty to a symbol rather than a physical thing or person, so the beauty of Helen represented the beauty of Greece. Johann Winkelmann (1717-1768) later described the cultivation of Platonic Ideal Beauty in his model for an emerging national identity, and as the origin of Classical Greek greatness. Plotinus (204-270CE) perceived beauty as something that exists apart from the Beautiful, as it is forever changing, and possible through the achievement of oneness within the self (Hall, 2013). Later arguments by David Hume (1711-1776) and Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) about standards of taste and subjectivity during the Enlightenment would further confuse concepts about beauty (Gracyk 2004). This led to contrary modern impressions of the beauty of Helen of Troy
Ultimately, various descriptions from philosophy and the visual arts provide various depictions of the beauty of Helen of Troy. Plato, when describing his thoughts about True Beauty imparts a vision of Helen as a complex character who used her attractiveness to beguile and manipulate men for her own purposes. According to him, when condensed to a simple formula, True Beauty exists as a Form which the physical can only imitate; it must be balanced and incorruptible and always Beautiful. Therefore, if Truly Beautiful and incorruptible, the character of Helen in the Iliad could have resisted any cajoling or beguiling by the gods. Additionally, if the gods had nothing to do with her actions, by lacking virtues such as wisdom, truth, and courage, she proved she was an inferior and mortal copy of Authentic Beauty. That being the case, according to Plato’s The Republic and Symposium, the mythical Helen of Troy characterised in the Iliad by Homer was physically alluring but cannot be considered Truly Beautiful.
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Figure 1. Pierre Puget. (1620-1694). The Abduction of Helen of Troy. 1683-1686. Bronze. 97.2×48.3cm. The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Michigan, USA. ww.davidrumsey.com/amica/amico751757-40671.html#record.
Figure 2. Drinking cup with the departure and recovery of Helen, late Archaic Period. Ceramic. 5th Century BCE. 21.5cm. Greek. Museum of Fine Art, Boston. http://www.bridgemanimages.com.
Figure 3. Gerard de Lairesse. Helen arriving at Troy, where she is led by Paris to Priam’s palace. 1685-90. Oil on Canvas. Musée Du Louvre, Paris, France. https://artstor.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/the-many-faces-of-helen-of-troy/armnig_10313469901/.
Figure 4. Jacques-Louis David. (1748-1825). The Loves of Paris and Helen. 1788. Oil on Canvas. 70.87×56.69”. Musée Du Louvre, Paris, France. http://www.jacqueslouisdavid.org/The-Loves-of-Paris-and-Helen-1788.html.
Figure 5. Antonio Molinari. (1655-1704). The Abduction of Helen. Undated. Oil on Canvas. Size Unknown. Northampton Museums & Art Gallery, UK. http://www.artuk.org/artdetective/propose-a-discussion/painting/the-abduction-of-helen-49922.
Figure 6. Paris and Helen. 2004. Directed by Woflgang Petersen. Still from the Movie Troy. Warner Bros. USA. http://theredlist.com/wiki-2-24-224-267-view-fiction-profile-helen-paris.html.
Figure 7A. Dante Gabriel Rossetti. (1828-1882). Helen of Troy. 1863. Oil on Canvas. 31x71cm. Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. http://www.bridgemanimages.com.
Figure 7B. Kim Kardashian. 2016. Photograph. Celebrity Gossip and Entertainment News. https://www.thehollywoodgossip.com/2016/08/kim-kardashian-wants-to-turn-into-a-human-barbie/.
Figure 8. Evelyn De Morgan. (1855-1919) Helen of Troy. 1898. Oil on Canvas. 38.75×18.75”. De Morgan Foundation Storage. http://www.demorgan.org.uk/Helen%20of%20Troy.
Figure 9. Angelopoulos, Athanasios G. 2011. Parthenon: the Geometry of the Facades. http://athang1504.blogspot.com.au/2011_05_01_archive.html.
Figure 10. Helen of Troy (Die Schone Helena). 1956. Written by Bill Wrobel. Movie Poster. Warner Bros. USA.
Figure 11. Sandys, Anthony Frederick. (1829-1904). Helen of Troy. 1867. Oil on Panel. 34.8×30.5cm. Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool. http://www.bridgemanimages.com.
Copyright 2017 Janice Mills. Reproduction is prohibited without written consent by the author.