Orpheus in the underworld | Jan Brueghel the Elder | 1594

Orpheus in the underworld | Jan Brueghel the Elder | 1594

Orpheus in the underworld | Jan Brueghel the Elder | 1594

In Greek mythology, Orpheus inherits from his parents the gift of music and poetry. He was married with Eurydice, who dies after a snake bite. Heartbroken, Orpheus start to play sad songs with his lyre, until the gods and the nymphs cry because of his wail. Empathizing with his grief, they advice him to go to the underworld to rescue her. With the music as his weapon, Orpheus softens the hearts of Hades and Persephone, the rulers of hell, who allow him to take Eurydice back to her with the sole condition of going in front of her and never looking back to her until they reach the earth. So Orpheus starts the journey complying with the conditions of the gods until he reaches the earth. The pressure to see how she was doing was irresistible and Orpheus turns. As Eurydice still had a foot on the underworld, she vanishes to never come back. Greek tragedy 101.

Jan Brueghel shows us the character of the story in the underworld itself. The dark scene is full of human beings tortured in forced labors, next to creatures as reptiles throughout the whole composition. At the background, we’ll see some kind of port, probably to let the boatman enter the new souls. Below left, we can see the noble Orpheus with his lyre playing to soften Hades and Persephone’s hearts. Brueghel contrasts the strong colors of the underworld with the pastel colors of Orpheus, which make him angelical; completely out of place with the landscape surrounding him.

Given like this, I think that the possibilities that Orpheus had to come out alive from hell were scarce. Really scarce. I think it is more likely for the demons to eat Orpheus in one bite, considering the pastel colors of his clothes and the playing of the lyre. Pessimistic as it sounds, Plato seems to confirm my point of view, as he thinks that Hades and Persephone never allowed Orpheus to have his wife as they think he was mannered and coward.

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~ by Álvaro Mazzino on March 29, 2011.

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