Cadmus, a prince of Tyre, travelled to the Delphic Oracle after his sister was stolen away by Zeus, chief of the Greek gods. There he was told that, instead of searching for his sister, he should ‘follow the cow outside and wherever it rests, build a new city’.
When the cow stopped Cadmus’s followers went in search of water. A dragon was guarding the spring they found; it slaughtered them all. Cadmus managed to kill it, and the goddess Athena told him to sow its teeth in the ground. Armed men sprang from them – and fought each other. Five survived to help Cadmus build the city of Thebes.
Here, the dragon sinks its teeth into a man’s cheek. Its claws seem to tear his flesh, but a closer look reveals that the legs and torso belong to a second person flung across his hips. A glimmer of hope is offered by a distant view of Cadmus fighting the dragon.
Cadmus, a prince of Tyre, travelled to the Delphic Oracle after his sister was stolen away by Zeus. He asked where to find her but was told that, instead of searching for his sister, he should ‘follow the cow outside and wherever it rests, build a new city’.
This Cadmus did. When the cow collapsed from fatigue, he sent his followers to search for water so he could sacrifice it to the goddess Athena. But the spring they found was guarded by a fierce dragon, the son of Ares, and it slaughtered them all. When his men failed to return, Cadmus set out after them and came face to face with the monster. After a fierce struggle he killed it, and was told by Athena to sow its teeth in the ground. Armed men sprang up from the earth as soon as the teeth touched it – and began to fight each other. Five were left alive. They swore allegiance to Cadmus and helped him build the city that later became known as Thebes.
Here, a man reaches up to wrestle the dragon away as it sinks its foul teeth – described by the Roman poet Ovid as shining like gold, though van Haarlem imagines them otherwise – into his cheek. The dragon’s tail curls and clings down past the man’s shoulder, the livid pink tip obscenely probing his curls. Its claws seem to tear his torso and legs, but a closer look reveals that they belong to another person, already dead and flung across his hips. A severed head is on the ground, the throat revealed behind the first man’s muscular back and contorted arm. The bones of other victims are scattered about. The dragon’s black wings are outlined against a thundery sky, but a glimmer of hope is offered by a distant view of Cadmus fighting it to its death. This collapsing of time – showing two scenes from a story in one painting – was a favourite device of artists like van Haarlem, working in the Mannerist style.
The story of Cadmus is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses with as much gory detail as van Haarlem shows in his painting. Biblical and classical stories gave Mannerist painters scope for studies of the nude in contorted poses with exaggerated facial expressions. Karel van Mander, an artist and influential writer on art in Haarlem in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, was van Haarlem’s mentor. Together with the painter and printmaker Hendrick Goltzius, who made a print after van Haarlem’s painting, they furthered the Mannerist style in the city, with Michelangelo and more muscular examples of classical sculpture as their ideal exemplars. Not for them the cosy Dutch interior or elegant flower arrangement. Their ambitions were far wider than the Haarlem market and they sought to align themselves with international developments in painting.
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