The scene shown here is taken from an episode in the sixteenth-century epic poem Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto. The Christian knight Ruggiero has discovered the pagan princess Angelica, who has been abducted by barbarians. Stripped and chained to a rock, she has been left as a sacrifice to a sea monster. Riding a hippogriff – a legendary half-horse, half-griffin beast that can both gallop and fly – Ruggiero saves Angelica by plunging his lance into the monster’s open jaws.
Ingres had previously painted a larger version of this story in 1819 for the Throne Room at the Palace of Versailles. In this smaller version, he emphasises the drama by reducing the seascape setting and placing the monster between Ruggiero and Angelica. He highlights the danger Angelica faces by contrasting her smooth, pale body with the hard armour and rocks and the sharp lance, griffin’s beak and talons, and the monster’s teeth.
The scene shown here is taken from the sixteenth-century epic poem Orlando Furioso, by Ludovico Ariosto. Published in full in 1532, the poem is an epic tale of chivalric romance set against the struggle between Charlemagne’s Christian warriors and the Saracen army invading Europe. Its central story tells of the unrequited love of a Christian knight, Orlando, for a pagan princess, Angelica. Ingres depicts an episode from Canto X when a heroic knight, Ruggiero (translated as Roger or Rogero in English), discovers Angelica, who has been abducted by barbarians. Stripped and chained to a rock on the Isle of Tears, she has been left as a sacrifice to a sea monster. Riding a hippogriff – a legendary half-horse, half-griffin beast that can both gallop and fly – Ruggiero saves Angelica by plunging his lance into the monster’s open jaws.
Ingres had previously painted this scene in a larger painting (now in the Louvre, Paris) that he submitted to the Paris Salon of 1819. In this later version, he recreates the fantasy landscape of jagged rocks and foaming sea illuminated by moonlight and by a small beacon at the top of the picture. However, here he gives greater focus to the principal action by reducing the width of the picture, removing much of the seascape backdrop on either side, and by placing the monster between Ruggiero and Angelica. Although the canvas is small, Ingres paints specific areas – such as the gold armour, silk cloak and griffin’s feathers – in meticulous detail. This, combined with an emphasis on pattern and outline, recalls the style and flat design of icon paintings – religious works made for the Eastern Orthodox Church. The echo is reinforced by the fact that Ruggiero is a Christian knight.
Bathed in moonlight, Angelica’s pale skin stands out against the dark sea and rocks. Ingres creates an almost tactile contrast between her exposed and vulnerable body and the various hard surfaces – the armour and rocks – and sharp objects – the lance, griffin’s beak and talons, and monster’s teeth – that surround her. Angelica’s sinuous outline is modelled on a classical Venus. However, Ingres exaggerates the length of her limp arms and the backward tilt of her neck and swollen throat for greater expressive effect.
The story of Ruggiero and Angelica had parallels with other classical and Christian stories, such as Perseus and Andromeda (Ingres’s initial idea for the painting) and Saint George and the Dragon. However, the picture’s narrative of a chivalric knight also had contemporary political resonance. The original painting had been commissioned for Louis XVIII to hang in the Throne Room at Versailles. It served there as a reminder of the authority of the French monarchy and of Christian values in response to a resurgent Muslim Ottoman Empire. But Ingres’s decision to paint additional versions of the original picture, including this one, suggests that the image of a heroic knight rescuing a defenceless woman also had personal significance for him.
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