Henry Siddons Mowbray, Destiny, 1896, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, oil on canvas
Sung Hyun Eum
Henry Siddons Mowbray’s Destiny, portrays the Fates along with other figures. Clotho is standing on the far right holding a whole web of threads, Lachesis is in the back within the group of three, bringing a thread down from Clotho, and Atropos is on the left holding a pair of shears. Because the Fates only consist of three women, not everyone in this artwork appears to be the Fates, as there are a total of five figures in the artwork (Mowbray). This artwork was created in 1896 and was done with oil on canvas which has the size of 76 x 103 cm. This artwork is currently stored in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. I believe Destiny has a deeper meaning to it than it seems, and that Mowbray was trying to convey a greater message.
The Fates, also known as Morai, are the weaving goddesses that assign destiny to mortals at birth. Their names are Clotho (the Spinner), Atropos (the Inflexible), and Lachesis (The Alloter). These women are often portrayed as the offsprings of Zeus and Themis, while in earlier versions of the myth, they were portrayed as the offsprings of Nyx. In other versions, they are said to have other mothers such as Ananke. Nevertheless, they had powers which made even the almighty Zeus fear. Each of the three fates had different tasks. Clotho spun the thread of life, Lachesis measured the allotted length, and Atropos cut it off with shears, which is how they “weaved” mortal’s destiny. Sometimes, the Fates were symbolized by time: Atropos-- the past, Clotho-- the present, and Lachesis-- the future (GreekMythology.com).
In the artwork, Destiny, there appears to be unidentified figures who can be assumed as mortals since if they were goddesses, they would have been identified. Many people may just assume that these mortals are random figures who are just added into the artwork for no real reason and do not serve great significance, however, I believe that Mowbray was trying to portray something that has a deeper meaning. I believe he was trying to tell us that even though the Fates decide mortal’s destiny, mortals still have the ability to make their own choices and shape their own destiny (at least to an extent), thus being incorporated into the artwork along with the Fates. They even appear to be working alongside the Fates.
I also believe that Mowbray intentionally incorporated the two mortals into the places where they are. The two mortals appear to be standing near Clotho-- who is sometimes represented as the present, and Lachesis-- who is sometimes represented as the future. This could be because people are often focused on their present and their future. Furthermore, the mortals seem to be looking towards Atropos-- who is sometimes represented as the past, just like how people look back at their past in order to shape their present and their future.
This perspective of the artwork means a lot to me. It would all just seem meaningless if I was one of the mortals who is being treated like a puppet by the Fates. It would be so much better if I had control over my own destiny through my own choices and consequences. I believe Mowbray was thinking the same thing which is why he created the artwork the way it is-- mortals working alongside the Fates. Mortals are capable of shaping their own destiny.
GreekMythology.com, The Editors of Website. "The Fates". GreekMythology.com Website, 07
Apr. 2021, https://www.greekmythology.com/Other_Gods/The_Fates/the_fates.html. Accessed 29 July 2021.
Alfred Agache, Les Parques, 1882, Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, oil on canvas.
The Fates, or in Greek, the Morai, are three mythic figures of immense power. The Fates, who spin, measure, and finally cut the thread of each person’s life, mortal or divine, are the Greek incarnation of destiny. The group is made up of three women: Clotho, meaning “spinner”, Lachesis, meaning “apportioner”, and Atropos, meaning “inflexible” (O. et al. 132). In Alfred Agache’s beautiful painting “Les Parques” he breaks conventional form and depicts all three of the Fates as old women. This depiction speaks to not only the power dynamics of patriarchal societies, while the Fates engagement, or lack of, with their work leads the viewer to ponder their autonomy in the fabric of the universe.
One thing that sets the Fates away from other divinities, is that they are the only characters of myth that operate outside of Zeus’s sphere of influence. Whether Zeus has the power to influence the Fate’s work is unclear, but in myth we never see him try to interfere with their decisions, and respects that their word is final. Whether or not that power dynamic influenced Agache’s choice to depict the Fates as old women, I can’t say, but I do think the choice highlights the gender politics present in Zeus and the Fates dynamic. Women in patriarchal societies are constantly at the mercy of how men, and thus society as a whole, view them. When a woman does anything her perceived femininity, or lack thereof, bleeds into how people in that society will treat her. However, with old age comes a sort of liberation. As women get older, their adherence to female beauty standards, which are usually tied to youth or the appearance of it, becomes less important as they mature instead into elders, deserving of respect. This is of course not to say that older women do not still feel burdened by the need to conform to beauty standards or body image issues. However, like the Fates, elderly women occupy a space that not many younger women are allowed to inhabit. The Fates are not at the mercy of Zeus’s power like other divinities, much like elderly women are not at the mercy of societal expectations that younger women are.
Another striking component of the painting is Agache’s portrayal of the Fate’s at work. Only two of the three Fates are engaged with the task at hand. Clotho, who focuses on the loom and keeps the threads from tangling and Lachesis, who studies a section of thread and perhaps a portion of someone’s life. Atropos, on the other hand, is perhaps dozing off, letting the others work until it is her time to cut the thread of someone’s life. Her scissors are difficult to spot, nearly hidden in shadow and resting on her hip, we are instead drawn to her illuminated neck and head, which rests casually on her hand. Does this posture speak to a monotony that plagues the Fates work? The thread of our life is the most important thing to us, but to them it is just another thread that needs cutting. Or maybe Atropos’s relaxed posture speaks to the arbitrary nature of fate. Is one person’s thread longer, because she wanted to rest a little longer? While we strive to create autonomy in our own lives we will always be at the mercy of chance, of the Fates, and depicting a somewhat careless Atropos illuminates our ultimate powerlessness in the face of a universe governed by randomness.
O., Morford Mark P, et al. Classical Mythology. 11th ed., Oxford University Press, 2019.
Jacek Malczwecki, Saint Francis of Assisi, 1908, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland, oil painting.
Saint Francis of Assisi is a 1908 oil painting by Polish artist Jacek Malczwecki. Malczwecki was known for using syncretism as a theme throughout his art and uses this piece to make a statement on universal truth by combining figures from Greek myth and Christianity. This painting was analyzed by Michał Haake—a faculty member at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland—who explores the question of whether this painting, which depicts a saint surrounded by mythological creatures, is a statement on the issues of religious integration (Haake 1). This essay will comment on Haake’s critique and hone in on the role of the Fates as the mediators of mortality between myth/literature and religion.
The Fates are a prominent trio in classic Greek mythology representing a hallmark of humanity: life and death. Originally called “Moirae” (meaning “portion”) in Ancient Greece, the Fates were known as the Apportioners of mortal life, deciding when and how individuals died (“Fates”). Clotho (nicknamed “the Spinner”) spun the thread of life and represents the present; Lachesis (“the Allotter”) measured each thread and represents the future; Atropos (“the Unturning”) cut the thread and represents the past (Morford et al. 132). The Fates were sometimes depicted as attractive, youthful ladies in some texts, but are typically described as ugly, old women in traditional Greek literature.
In his commentary, Haake first focuses on the positioning of the Fates. Clotho is to the right of Saint Francis wearing a pink apron; Atropos sits to the right of her in a light purple apron, holding a pair of scissors; Lachesis is to the left side of Saint Francis in a light blue apron. The separation of past/present and future hints at the invincibility of Saint Francis. The Fates were known for holding power over all gods, creatures and beings, including Zeus (Morford et al. 137). The atypical placement of the Fates accentuates the almightiness of Saint Francis, implying that his fate was determined by no one but himself. This is interesting, considering the fact that the Fates were infamous for rarely making exceptions for their actions. Furthermore, aside from the color of their clothing, the Fates look practically identical. In ancient Greek myth, Atropos was often depicted as the smallest, ugliest Fate as her power was the most loathed (Morford et al. 132). The fact that the three are nearly indistinguishable downplays their presence, and perhaps their influence, on the painting as a whole.
In the 19th century, people generally believed that myths did not answer questions about the meaning of life and turned to human history for insight on the relationship between mortality and immortality (Haake 2). From Haake’s perspective, Malczwecki personifies the epitome of myth: truth that is equally valid for everyone; stories that all people understand and can relate to (Haake 2). Returning to the issues of religious integration, Malczwecki seems to speak more heavily on the integration of religion and literature/mythology. He bridges the gap between literature and religion by portraying notable creatures from Greek myth (such as Chimera, Dionysus, and the Fates) in a painting with deep Christian undertones to tell a story that hints at human immortality. Though human immortality is anomalous in Greek mythology, this strengthens the message that storytelling traditions between literature and religion should be interchangeable. It is through this “breaking of norms” that we can tell stories that mirror the true essence of myth: truths that are valid for, understood by, and relatable to all.
“The Fates.” Greek Mythology, www.greekmythology.com/Other_Gods/The_Fates/the_fates.html.
Haake, Michał. Translated by Monika Mazurek, Sacrum Et Decorum, 2008, pp. 1–2, “Saint Francis” by Jacek Malczewski and the Dionysian Idea.
Morford, Mark, et al. Classical Mythology. 11th ed., Oxford UP, 2019.
The Three Fates by Paul Thumann, c. 1880
The Three Fates, a painting by Paul Thumann, depicts the Three Fates of Greek mythology in a European setting. The painting was made in about 1880, as the exact date is unknown. As many depictions and artistic renditions of the Three Fates, Paul Thumann portrays Clotho and Lachesis as young and vibrant, but Atropos as old and bitter. In the painting, Clotho is standing, dressed in light pink robe, with delicate, feminine features. Lachesis, on the right, is also portrayed with delicate features, dressed in a white robe with a red sash. But Atropos is dressed in brown, and depicted as an old woman with a sour face. Paul Thumann’s The Three Fates offers a classic approach and depiction of the Three Fates, and conveys the demeanor of each of the Fates as well as the job they are destined to perform forever.
Clotho is seen standing in this painting, wearing a light pink robe and delicately holding the thread. As in Greek mythology, Clotho is tasked with spinning the thread of life, which carries the fate of each person from their birth. The first thing a spectator may notice is that she is bare-breasted. I believe that this was a choice made by the artist in order to really show her femininity and her gentle demeanor. Clotho is depicted with many features that would be considered classically beautiful in Europe at the time that this painting was made. She has very fair skin that has no blemishes and no wrinkles, with a little bit of pink in her cheeks. She also has blonde hair and wears a form-fitting robe that shows her perfect body. All of this is to really drive the same point home: Clotho is very feminine because she is content with her task. Clotho arguably has the most pleasant task of all three, she simply spins the thread, and has nothing to do with the end of a person’s fate; she only spins the thread.
Likewise, Lachesis is also depicted as feminine and gentle. Her skin is also very fair and without blemishes. She is dressed more modestly than Clotho, wearing a white robe with a red robe draped over it. She is shown holding flowers and branches of leaves. Because of her dark hair and her more modest clothing, she would not be considered the most beautiful figure of the painting. Though she is not the most beautiful, the artist intentionally made her to be very pretty. This is to symbolize that she too has a pleasant job. However, she is slightly less beautiful because her job is slightly less pleasant than that of Clotho. Lachesis is tasked with measuring the thread, meaning that she measures where the thread begins and ends for a person, when their life begins and ends. Knowing the length of a person’s life may carry a burden, but Lachesis is seemingly unfazed by it.
On the contrary, Atropos is certainly affected by the duty that is asked of her. While Lachesis may know the length of the thread, Atropos is the one responsible for cutting the thread. In the painting, she stands because of how differently she is depicted from her sisters. Atropos is seen in plain brown clothing that covers almost all of her skin. From the little skin that is visible, we can see that she is portrayed in a slightly darker skin tone than the other two, with many wrinkles on her case and her hands. Her hair is ratty and gray and she has a bitter look on her face. Atropos is seen carrying shears, with dying leaves at her feet. Her bitterness is caused by her duty, which has taken a toll on her and affected the way she presents herself.