Romanticism or Romantic Era refers to a philosophical or creative movement of the literary style of criticism that commenced around 1800s and gained momentum round 1850. It started mainly as an inventive movement in Europe, France, and Britain in the early decades and persevered until mid-century. Romanticism emerged as a response and opposition to Neoclassicism, as it emphasized on feelings, emotion, and creativeness rather than reason and records as the latter did. Early Romanticism was promoted mostly by using artists trained by Jacques-Louis David, including Baron Antoine Jean and Jean Dominique Ingres. Even although the Romanticism movement had its roots in the German campaign, which focused on emotion and instinct to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the beliefs, and events of the French Revolution were also contributing factors. Other than passion, imagination, and feelings, Romanticism is also characterized by glorifying nature that has uncontrollable power and individuals that stood out in the society. Intense beauty is also exhibited in many of the works of art to emphasize what is being portrayed. Myth and symbolism are given great eminence in the Romantic concept of art. In this view, humans are nature’s emblematic representatives.
Priestess of Delphi by John Maler Collier
Priestess of Delphi is a canvas oil painting done by the prominent John Maler Collier in 1891 during the Romanticism Era. It is currently located in The Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA). John Collier was born on January 27, 1850, in London, United Kingdom. At the age of 25, on 14 April 1875, he joined Munich Academy where he studied painting and later on he got married to his first wife, Marian Huxley, in 1879. He married Marian’s sister, Ethel Huxley, in 1889 after the death of Marian. Some of his famous works of art include portrait oil paintings of John Elliott Burns, Sir William Huggins, Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley, the artist’s father in law (Grant & Hazel, 2002). He also painted a self-portrait in 1907 which is kept in Florence.
The Priestess of Delphi painting is from the ancient Greek mythical Delphi Oracle (Connelly, 2010). In the painting, the Pythia, who is the chief priestess of Delphi, is in a moment of trance as she communicates with Apollo, the Greek god of prophecy, as the future is revealed to her. The environment is a sacred temple constructed over a rock with fissures and cracks that lead to the underground. Vapor gasses can be seen emanating from the crevices above the ground. The Pythia, who had undergone training extensively such as fasting, is seated over the fissure on a tripod stool in the adyton, a forbidden area, breathing in the vapors to induce a trancelike state. She holds a sprig of laurel in her left hand, and another piece of the plant lies on the ground. In the right hand, she holds a bowl to keep some of the water from the stream containing the gasses. The Pythia is a woman dressed in orange and red as the Greek style, covering her body and the head. Her facial expression is of a possessed woman, and all her eyes are shadowed and do not seem to focus on a particular item, a clear indication of an illusion.
Romanticism characteristics and values are exhibited in Collier’s painting of Priestess of Delphi in various ways. The art glorifies nature as it shows clearly how the gas vapor rises from the crevices on the ground into the air, which is a natural process and the natural gas is then inhaled by the Pythia, which a sacred vapor (Hale, Zeilinga De Boer, Chanton, & Spiller, 2003). The temple where the ritual is being performed is a natural cave which was considered as a temple for communication with Apollo. The Pythia is also given heroic individualism as she is considered the possessed medium for Apollo. The natural plant which is held on the left hand was thought of as Apollo’s sacred tree.
Symbolism is depicted where the sprig of laurel plant held in the left hand, represents Apollo’s sacred tree in Greek mythology. The plant plays a role in the ceremony. The Pythia, being the main priestess of Delphi, was regarded as the intermediary between the people and the god of prophecy.
The portrait has the mythical feel as the people believed that the Pythia communicated with Apollo after inhaling the vapor when the actual reason for the ecstatic trances is the steam of the caves which was later established to be sulphuric steam. The sulphuric steam combined with the bay leaf made the Pythia get tipsy and have hallucinations (Micheal, 2014). The hallucinations can also be said to be an imagination by the priestess, which is a strong characteristic of romanticism.
Emotion and feelings can be seen from the facial expression of the Pythia. Her eyes show that she has an apparition or fantasy. The painting was done in bright colors of orange and red of the woman priestess. The red color is conventionally considered as the color of passionate love. Orange is used for joy and creativity. This is an indicator of beauty.
Connelly, J. (2010). Portrait of a priestess (1st ed.). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Grant, M., & Hazel, J. (2002). Who’s who in classical mythology (1st ed.). London [England]: Routledge.
Hale, J., Zeilinga De Boer, J., Chanton, J., & Spiller, H. (2003). Questioning the Delphic Oracle. Scientific American, 289(2), 66-73.
Micheal, S. (2014). Delphi: A History of the Centre of the Ancient World. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.