Lord Frederic Leighton, The Return of Persephone, ca. 1890-91, Leeds Art Gallery, Leeds, oil painting on canvas.
Marley Anika Salgado Smith
Lord Frederic Leighton's painting The Return of Persephone depicts Persephone rising from the underworld to reunite with her mother, Demeter after being captured by the greek god Hades. This illustration gives insight into the mythic narrative of persephone, as well as providing a lens to better understand various themes like motherhood and the ideology around seasons.
In the homeric hymn to Demeter, Persephone is abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. Confused and distraught, her mother Demeter wanders the earth in search of her. While looking for and mourning over her daughter being missing, the harvest is neglected. Thus, leaving the earth to decline. In addition, a drought was created by Demeter to try to convince the gods to release Persephone from Hades. In some versions of the myth, before Persephone is released from the underworld, she is forced to eat pomegranate seeds. Consequently by taking the seeds, she is lured to Hades in the underworld for part of the year ( La Fond 9:14-11:15).
Symbolically, this story represents changing seasons. When Persophone is in the underworld, the land suffers and is not fertile (Cartwright). This is a representation of Autumn and Winter. Upon return to her mother in Olympus, as shown in Leightons piece, joy and happiness is shown as a result of her return. This leaves the land fruitful and nature abundant, alluding to the seasons spring and summer when vegetation begins to appear.
This painting illustrates the cycle of the seasons, as well as themes of a parent and child relationship. It explains the triumphs and defeats of motherhood, and the interchange of being separated and reconnected. In greek mythology, the story of Persephone goes to explain the hardships and sorrow that goes along with letting your child go, and perhaps the lesson that sometimes that is the only way they can grow. Not only is Demeter letting go, but Persephone is as well, she must spend time apart, and live a life of her own at some point. They must live separate lives, and let eachother go, so at some point they can reconcile again.
The portrayal of Persephone in the homeric hymn explains Persephone shifting from life in Olympus to a land of death in the underworld. This mirrors changing seasons, as agriculture is lively in summer months, while crops are less ample during the winter reflecting mortality and death. In addition to this symbolism in the story, the painting The Return of Persephone visually exemplifies the relationship between a mother and daughter, the turmoil that comes with being separated, and the relief and joy that comes with reunification.
Madison Taylor Stewart
Comparing artistic work in connection to Persephone has always been fascinating because the artist depicts their interpretation of the myth in various ways. When looking at the correlation between Lord Frederic Leighton’s Victorian painting, ‘The Return of Persephone’ and Hades and ‘Persephone Banqueting’ by The Cordus Painter they are unique yet similar in many ways. It is important to compare these pieces not only mythologically, but also their ability to invoke emotion, and how they relate to one another.
Both paintings connect in a way that builds the foundation to where Persephone is condemned to the Underworld to spend part of her year with Hades. When looking through pieces both bridge themselves to the story of ‘Homeric Hymn to Demeter’ (Morford, 341) where both these artworks entangle themselves. ‘Persephone Banqueting’ is most likely a predecessor of ‘The Return of Persephone’ because in the Classical Mythology textbook Persephone explains to her mother, Demeter, “Hades swiftly put in my mouth the fruit of the pomegranate, a honey-sweet morsel, and compelled me to eat it by force against my will.” (Morford, 342). This begins to set the stage for how both pieces of artwork are closely related.
When reviewing both these pieces it’s evident that the emotions this invoke are powerful. In “The Return of Persephone” and page 342 in the textbook paints a clear picture, where Demeter the goddess of harvest and fertility is looking over her daughter Perspehone and pulling her from the depths of the Underworld. It feels like a transition from the Underworld to the living realm. This symbolic feeling of resurrection shows the strength of mothers who not only bring life into this world but will go above and beyond to protect their children. This complements the notion that Persephone and Demeter represent “the death and rebirth of vegetation as a metaphor or allegory for spiritual resurrection”(Morford, 344). “Persephone Banqueting” gives a new perspective of her time in the Underworld and when she is seen taking pomegranate- a simple fruit has a lot more meaning in this piece of art. Pomegranate to the ancient Greeks meant “funerary rituals, beliefs, death” (Witte, Art in Ancient Greece). It adds layers to the myth where Demeter had told Persephone not to eat anything from the Underworld or else she may be tied to it. Her eating the fruit demonstrated the “death” of the old life she once lived in the living realm and where she came from. Although Hades and Persephone appear as the center stage in this work, the pomegranate becomes the catalyst that inevitably pushes Persephone into a new chapter.
Both pieces tie into one another beautifully and although it wasn’t something that was easily noticed until further research, these two pieces felt like a transition in themselves. They highlighted the importance of the evolution between life and death. To add another layer, Greeks often believed in immortality and these pieces dance with that idea. Persephone moves from the Underworld into her mothers open arms in “The Return of Persephone'' and in the Underworld “Persephone Banqueting'' she takes the pomegranate and although she is now tied to the Underworld, she is not subject to its domain forever. Demeter tells her daughter that “if you have eaten anything, you will return again beneath the depths of the earth and live there a third part of each year” (Moford, 342) and plays into the idea that life and death are not absolute. Both works of art invoke emotion as viewers are taken on a journey through of a mother and daughter as well as husband and wife in a mythological transcendence.
In Lord Frederic Leighton’s Victorian painting, The Return of Persephone, Leighton depicts the goddess Demeter joyfully reuniting for the first time with her stolen daughter Persephone who is aided by an unmistakable Hermes who has helped Persephone escape her abductor Hades and his realm the underworld. Leighton’s work is highly aesthetic, focused on emotion rather than a direct depiction of the homeric hymn.
Leighton’s choices are much more about suggesting through color, pose, symbols and other aesthetic choices, themes of rebirth and reunion after separation. There is in fact very little from the original hymn to give away this is in fact Demeter and Persephone other than the joyful reunion of a mother and a lost daughter. Indeed only Hermes carries his obvious attributes in Leighton’s rendering, helping us know this is indeed Demeter and Persephone reuniting for the first time.
Scholars Zavoïkin and Zhuravlev observe Persephone was in Greek mythology typically depicted with a torch or torches when reuniting with Demeter who is almost always also seen with her unique attributes (33). So, given Leighton’s depiction does differ wildly from Greek pieces during the period the Eleusinian Mysteries were performed and the Homeric Hymns, how does Leighton achieve his narrative with the viewer?
Leighton builds a clever visual cycle within the painting, Demeter stands on the edge of the ground at the edge of the underworld blue sky and pink clouds behind her. Hermes in blue and Persephone mirror the heavenly spring colors of the sky and Demeter’s colors mirror the deeper earthen shades which frame Persephone and Hermes emerging from the underworld. Spring abounds in the visual metaphors of pastels, a sun low in the sky (dawn!), color bursting from the earth (Persephone and Hermes), and the first blooms of almond branches.
“The almond is the first tree to flower in spring and therefore a sign of rebirth.” (Casas-Agustench 2298). Two years earlier, Leighton’s contemporary Vincent Van Gough wrote his brother Theo from southern France observing, “Down here it is freezing hard and there is still snow in the countryside.” “I have... 2 small studies of an almond-tree branch already in flower in spite of it.”  incidentally also painted in pastels with the sun lower in the sky as evidenced by the length of the shadow. Echoing again the colors of and solar cycles of spring.
Leighton makes it clear to us this is not just reunion but the triumph of rebirth or life over death. Persephone is depicted with the pale green hued countenance of death and a body both limp but jumping back into the arms of her welcoming mother and the world.
Finally, Leighton was not just producing during the Victorian age but was also a product of that age’s broader and specific fascination with the Greek mysteries (Louis 3340. He was also President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London when he produced this work and so we can expect his fascination with the classical world was broadly accepted if not celebrated by social circles of the time.
We can add another observation: in the myth of Persephone there are two possible reconciliation moments, one between Mother and a returning lost Child (Demeter and Persephone) and reconciliation between Spouses (Hades and Persephone).
The surviving Greek myths and Leighton appear to have deeply set down the only reconciliation that *emotionally* was between Demeter and Persephone and yet mythically, both are important to produce the full cycle of the seasons.
Lord Frederic Leighton’s oil painting The Return of Persephone features Persephone, the daughter of Greek gods Zeus and Demeter, as she is guided into her mother’s arms from the Underworld with the assistance of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Leighton’s depiction of this moment and his intentional choices regarding how to portray each of the individuals present reveal vital aspects of Persephone’s story in Greek mythology.
The myth of Persephone, which is told within the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, begins with the young girl picking flowers with her friends. Distracted by the sheer beauty of the narcissus flower, Persephone strays from those she is with and reaches to pluck the flower from the ground. However, as she does this, “the wide-pathed Earth [yawns]” and Hades snatches Persephone into his chariot and takes her away with him (Morford et al. 335). Persephone screams for her father Zeus, but these cries are futile as it is Zeus who offered his young daughter’s hand in marriage to the god of the Underworld. Distraught by the abduction of her beloved child, Demeter withdraws to the land of mortals and abandons her duties as the goddess of agriculture (Morford et al. 335-336). Zeus, upon realizing that a famine among humans also causes issues for the immortals on Olympus, sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone from the Underworld and reunite her with Demeter. Hades allows Persephone to leave, but not before she eats the fruit of the pomegranate. This seemingly insignificant gesture actually forces Persephone to return to her husband in the Underworld and stay with him for a third of every year. During this time, Demeter is repeatedly fraught with grief and ignores her godly duties, thus resulting in the creation of seasons (Morford et al. 340-344).
Leighton’s painting highlights the moment in which Persephone is finally reunited with her mother after going to the Underworld for the first time. The most prominent facet of this art piece is the contrast between light and dark. At the base of the painting, viewers can see the pitch-blackness of where Persephone is being led out of, presumably the Underworld. This dark theme continues up the entire right-hand side of the painting where Hermes and Persephone appear to be in a cave-like structure. The sky behind Demeter in the small upper left-hand corner is the only portion of landscape with light, bright coloration. Even more important to note, though, is the depiction of Persephone, which is almost angelic in nature. Her pale skin and glowing aura make Persephone the initial visual focal point of the painting.
This employment of stark color contrast is no mistake, and it speaks to the broader narrative of contrast between good versus evil, bounty versus scarcity, and innocence versus corruption that is woven throughout Persephone’s myth. Within the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Persephone and her mother are consistently portrayed as the bearers of both goodness and life, primarily through their agricultural contributions to the mortal world. These attitudes of praise are also upheld through the mother-daughter duo’s worship as part of the Eleusinian mysteries. Leighton’s painting – and each artistic choice made within it – serves as a reflection of both Persephone’s and Demeter’s roles in Greek myth and yet another form of well-deserved reverence for the two important figures.
The reunion of the Greek goddess Persephone and her mother Demeter after Persephone returned from the underworld was first depicted on a vase early in 350 B.C. and later portrayed by Sir Frederic Leighton in 1891. There is ample evidence suggesting that the return of Persephone accounts for seasonal changes perceived by the ancient Greeks, and delving into the painting The Return Of Persephone allows us to see the early Greek’s understanding of the cyclicality of nature (agriculture and seasons) and life (initiation and cessation).
The Return Of Persephone by Frederic Leighton is vividly emotional and dynamic: Persephone, accompanied by Hermes, is standing on her tiptoe and leaning forward to reach for her mother; while Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, with her knees bent and arms wide open, is ready to embrace her daughter. Leighton’s painting greatly emphasizes the contrast in this scene — Persephone walks in the dark, muddy cave while Demeter bathes in the golden sunshine; the earth looks barren but few white flowers bloom right next to Persephone.
In the mythic narrative, Demeter, Zeus, and Hades strike a deal that allows Persephone to be by her mother’s side for six months out of the year. Persephone was by Demeter’s side from spring, and Demeter makes the harvest thrive. After six months, Persephone goes back to the underworld with Hades, which depresses Demeter and the land becomes less fertile. The Homeric hymn says specifically that Persephone will return “when the spring blooms” (La Fond 12:15-12:18). Leighton’s work seems to suggest that the rising of Persephone symbolizes the flowers that rise from the earth in spring or shoots of grain that sprouts from dormancy in spring. From the perspective of life and death, Persephone’s pale face glowing in the sun represents her rebirth from death. Demeter’s rescue of Persephone from the underground (death) parallels the phenomenon that seedlings break through the soil for sunlight to survive. Kathie Carlson sees the return of Persephone as the shift from the barrenness and stillness of death, or dormancy, to the initiation, or life: “For at the darkest point of winter, the light returns, and life begins to stir again, breaking forth from its hiddenness under the earth, re-emerging in the miracle, the utterly dependable sequel to death: the season of spring. She [Persephone] returns and, with her, the dead are reborn, blossoming forth like flowers and grain… only to begin and repeat the whole cycle again” (Carlson).
While some scholars argue that Persephone’s absence does not represent winter because the Mediterranean grain is sown in the autumn and grows throughout the wet winter months, flowering plants do return in the spring after winter dormancy (La Fond 12:21-12:25), and flowers could be a representation of Persephone as she was abducted into the underworld when she was lured by a special flower during a flower-gathering event with her friends.
The painting by Leighton captures the essence of the scene: the joy of life and reunion, and stresses the emotional perspective of this scene, as a contrast to the ancient Greek art on a vase. The latter focuses on illustrating the scene as described in the hymn. One major difference is that Hecate is missing in Leighton’s work. “Hecate is a goddess of roads in general and crossroads in particular” much like Hermes (Morford et al. 230), but she is involved mostly in “ghostly activities, particularly in the dead of night”(Morford et al. 230). The goddess is also described as terrifying, triple-faced, and belongs in the realm of Hades. Perhaps Leighton did not want to distract people from the central theme of reunion, perhaps he believed that the presence of Hecate would be ominous and contradictory to the idea of rebirth, or perhaps he thought that the presence of Hermes alone should be sufficient to indicate the transition from “death” to “life”. According to the Theoi Project, “Hermes is also the herald of spring as the god of animal husbandry and fertility, and animal manure was used to fertilize the fields,” (“Persephone and Hermes”) so the pairing of the goddess of grain-seed and the god was natural and makes more sense to the common audience.
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