Perseus and Andromeda’s wedding feast has been violently interrupted by Phineas, to whom Andromeda was formerly betrothed. Giordano has illustrated the dramatic moment when Phineas and his followers attack Perseus. Heavily outnumbered, Perseus has unveiled the severed head of the gorgon Medusa, who he had recently slain. He averts his eyes, because all those who look on Medusa immediately turn to stone. His attackers have had no time to react, and Giordano has vividly portrayed their flesh turning from pink to stone grey.
Phineas is most likely the figure at the far left wearing the elaborate helmet and breastplate. His head and left side have already turned to stone and his mouth is frozen in a petrified scream, but his right arm and right leg are still pink with life. His two companions are suffering a similar transformation. The poses of Phineas and the figure in front of him are based on famous antique sculptures, a fact which would not have been lost on Giordano’s contemporaries.
This large, dramatic painting is one of Giordano’s most ambitious representations of a mythological subject. He has illustrated a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (V, 1–235), albeit with a certain amount of creative licence. This is the wedding feast of Perseus and Andromeda, which has been violently interrupted by Phineas, to whom Andromeda was formerly betrothed.
Giordano has chosen to depict the moment when Phineas, supported by his followers, attacks Perseus. Heavily outnumbered, Perseus has unveiled the severed head of the gorgon Medusa, who he had recently slain. He averts his eyes, because all those who look on Medusa immediately turn to stone. His attackers have had no time to react, and Giordano has vividly portrayed their flesh turning from pink to stone grey.
Phineas is most likely the figure at the far left wearing the elaborate helmet and breastplate. His head and his whole left side are already stone grey and his mouth is frozen in a petrified scream, but his right arm and right leg are painted with pinkish hues, indicating that the transformation is not yet complete. His two companions are suffering a similar fate. One has already turned to stone, perhaps because he is closest to Medusa’s head. The upper body of the man in the foreground, seen from behind, is grey, but his legs are still pink with life.
The striding figures of the attackers are statuesque, their feet firmly planted in the ground. Their solidity greatly contrasts with Perseus’s graceful pose and the movement suggested by his flowing costume, billowing drapery and the fluttering plumes in his hat. Giordano was no doubt aware of an ongoing debate – or paragone – over whether painting or sculpture was the superior art form. He is making a clear reference to it here, and as a painter he is demonstrating the power of his art. Not only does he show Phineas and his companions from three different angles, as one would be able to view a sculpture in three-dimensions, but he also adopts a witty conceit for the portrayal of the petrified warriors.
The poses of two of them are based on antique sculptures, a fact which would not have been lost on Giordano’s contemporaries. Phineas’s striding figure echoes that of the famous ‘Borghese Gladiator’ (Louvre, Paris), then in Cardinal Scipione Borghese’s collection in Rome. The pose of the foreground warrior derives from the main figure of the Laocoön (Vatican Museums), seen from behind. That sculpture group was the most famous piece of antique sculpture in Rome in the seventeenth century. Giordano may have known both of these sculptures at first hand, or certainly from plaster or bronze copies and engravings.
Giordano painted this vast canvas in the 1680s and, although it is not known who commissioned it, it was acquired in 1709 by Costantino Balbi, Doge of Genoa. Balbi put together a remarkable collection of paintings – among its masterpieces was An Autumn Landscape with a View of Het Steen in the Early Morning by Rubens, now also in the National Gallery’s collection. Balbi bought Perseus together with Giordano’s Death of Jezebel (Galleria Nazionale, Cosenza). The subject of the latter painting is from the Old Testament, while Perseus is based on classical mythology. Both canvases are the same size and each illustrates the heroic punishment of violence, so they were clearly conceived as a pair. They remained together until 1980 when they were sold (separately) at auction, and Perseus entered our collection shortly afterwards.
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