Eleusis Trilogy

This post elaborates on a series of three paintings that illustrate a theme from Robert Bridges' 1905 mythological play Demeter, which is a retelling of the story of Persephone's abduction by Hades and the efforts of her mother, Demeter, to rescue her from the underworld. The Eleusinian Mysteries were the secret rites in which Demeter and Persephone were worshipped in Ancient Greece. Bridges' play provides a kind of origin story for these rites. Its plot is based on the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, but its concerns are more modern, with a strong focus on the psychological and philosophical implications of the myth. The three paintings are a reflection on Bridges' idea of the Mysteries.

Disclaimer: as always, the following explanation is not supposed to exhaust the meaning of the paintings. On the contrary, it is merely a framework for approaching them. Ultimately, words and paintings perform different functions and have unique communicative capacities, which work in tandem but do not overlap to any great extent.

In the play, the Mysteries are imagined as incorporating both a heavenly and a hellish vision, revealing the world to be fundamentally good and bad in turn. Demeter devised the first element during her time on earth when, searching in vain for her lost daughter, she takes pity on suffering humanity. The second element derives from Persephone's experiences in the underworld, where she is introduced by Hades to the Cave of Cacophysia, a concentrated vision of evil. Demeter's planned Mysteries do not seem to reconcile these two vision. As in Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience there is an irresolvable dichotomy between two worldviews, one naively optimistic and the other grimly pessimistic.

This emerges in the style and substance of the paintings. Stylistically, there is an uneasy marriage of Kleeish naivety (innocence, otherworldliness) and Cezannesque fussiness (experience, hard won realism). In their substance, the three paintings are abstracted 'views' of an imaginary Eleusis-citadel and mountainous surroundings, with a progression that also comments on the dichotomy of the underlying theme. In the first painting, the orange triangle of the Eleusinian temple is in the 'background.' The black chasm and gate-like forms indicate the pessimistic perspective. In the second, the temple/city is in full view. The style is the most ordered, the geometry most rectilinear and the forms most easy to parse, but as a consequence there is a sense of sterility in the central section. There are mountains rising in the background, and the foreground falls away precipitously, indicating that we are here at a mid-point, not an end. In the third, we have ascended into the mountains. There are suggestions of the original chasm and vertical structures of the first two paintings, but more naturalistic, and the style is messier.

The thematic and stylistic progression in the series forms a kind of dialectical sequence. The third painting is a synthesis of the first two. On one level, it is a middle ground - stylistically it is the wild, earthy reality in between the hellish and heavenly perspectives of the first two paintings, with their elements suggestive of depths and heights. On another level, it is above them and represents an escape from their dichotomy - the orange triangle of Eleusis, with its self-contradictory Mysteries, is 'behind' and 'below' the viewer. In fact, there are no elements suggesting human civilization. The 'moral' of this sequence is difficult to specify - which also seems appropriate to the open-endedness of the play which it is 'illustrating.'

As usual, my work on these paintings was guided by my understanding of their subject matter coupled with spontaneity and intuition in their execution. Initially, my intention was simply to illustrate some aspect of Bridges' play in a series of paintings, though I did not have any specific aspect in mind. My choice of which colours to apply first, and in what way, is always what sets the tone of a new painting. In this case, I began with Cobalt Blue Deep and Potter's Pink, thinned and applied in a loose but delicate manner, both on their own and mixed in different proportions, establishing an ethereal atmosphere which I associated with Persephone. Cobalt Green Deep and a variety of earth pigments, with other blues and yellows, also thinned with a matting agent, then created a sense of landscape and structure finished with carefully composed black outlines. The 'gate-forms' and black areas were completely spontaneous structural additions, but, in the context of my initial intentions, it did not take long for me to identify them with the entrance to Hades. I was still unsure about how to proceed in my interpretation. The traditional subject of 'The Rape of Proserpina' (Persephone being carried off by Hades) occurred to me, but this was not an aspect of the myth I thought worthy of emphasis... The orange triangle was also a mystery. At this stage, I noticed that the naive/fussy stylistic dissonance of the painting pointed a way forwards.

The unstated central concern of Bridges' play is the paradox of Persephone, simultaneously the childlike goddess of spring and the melancholy queen of the underworld. Why did the Greeks unite these opposites in a single member of their pantheon? This problem occupies the climax of the play, following Persephone's return to Demeter. At this point, the concept of the Eleusinian Mysteries is introduced as the outcome of the play's events.

Bridges does not attempt a description of the Mysteries, but does suggest an original conception and purpose for them (see the excerpt below, in which Persephone tells Demeter about the Cave of Cacophysia). Demeter invents the Mysteries as a way to assuage the sufferings of humanity. Her initial plan is to comfort participants with a heavenly vision, showing them that the basis of the world is good and that evil is ultimately powerless. When Persephone returns from Hades and describes the hellish vision to which she has been exposed, however, Demeter is inspired and hints that this too will now become part of the Mysteries. She does not say how she imagines these opposite visions will be incorporated together. The paradox, embodied in Persephone herself, is stated but not resolved. We can only surmise that this paradox is itself the message of the Mysteries, and, by extension, of Bridges' play.

I approached the second painting with all of this in mind. I now intended the whole series of paintings (indeterminate in number) to stylistically express, like the first, the contradiction between 'innocence' and 'experience,' but I also wanted each one to represent a different way of thinking about the same problem. I began painting with roughly the same techniques and palette of colours. As the vertically ordered structures emerged, I identified the scene with a kind of cityscape. The orange triangle began to make an appearance in the form of a blob, so I made it more distinct and mentally identified it with the temple at Eleusis. The second painting thus came to represent Eleusis itself, and I gave it an upward-pointing triangular form, with the help of a mountainous structure above the 'city,' to contrast in directionality with the dark abyss that dominated the first painting. I was careful not to lose a sense of internal contradiction, however, and so allowed the area below the city to suggest a slippery descent which might lead down to the 'gates.'

With this basic contrast between upward and downward perspectives already established, I was unsure about how to approach the third painting. I had no plan for how to integrate it (or any further paintings) into the series. As I painted, again using a similar range of colours, a solution became apparent. This painting was full of earthy and plant-like forms and textures, and there was no suitable place for an orange triangle. I saw it as a secluded spot outside Eleusis. In this context, the black areas suggested not an abyss but rather the deep shadows of an overgrown and rocky slope. This reminded me of the 'mountain' forms I had introduced into the second painting, and I began to conceive the whole set as a sequence of 'views.' I also noticed that, unlike the first two, this 'view' did not have a 'background' suggesting that there might be more to see, and was more like an enclosed resting place or destination. As I started to understand this sequence as a dialectic in which a pair of opposites is overcome through synthesis, I also decided not to attempt a fourth painting - conceptually, the series was complete as a trilogy.

With the paintings finished, I gave them names and thought further about their relation to Bridges' play. In this way, the meaning of the paintings emerged during their execution, clarifying my thoughts about their subject matter, and presenting me with a visual manifestation its meaning. This corresponds precisely with my understanding of art as a way of thinking and communicating, outside language and running parallel to it, as well as the capacity of different art forms to comment upon and supplement one another.

Excerpt from Demeter.


Suppose, dear Mother, there wer' a temple in heaven, Which, dedicated to the unknown Cause And worship of the unseen, had power to draw All that was worthy and good within its gate: And that the spirits who enter'd there became Not only purified and comforted, But that the mysteries of the shrine were such, That the initiated bathed in light Of infinite intelligence, and saw The meaning and the reason of all things, All at a glance distinctly, and perceived The origin of all things to be good, And the énd good, and that what appears as evil Is as a film of dust, that faln thereon, May,—at one stroke of the hand,— Be brush'd away, and show the good beneath, Solid and fair and shining: If moreover This blessëd vision were of so great power That none coud e'er forget it or relapse To doubtful ignorance:—I say, dear Mother, Suppose that there were such a temple in heaven. Demeter:

O child, my child! that were a temple indeed. 'Tis such a temple as man needs on earth; A holy shrine that makes no pact with sin, A worthy shrine to draw the worthy and good, A shrine of wisdom trifling not with folly, A shrine of beauty, where the initiated Drank love and light.... Strange thou shouldst speak of it. I have inaugurated such a temple These last days in Eleusis, have ordain'd These very mysteries!—Strange thou speakest of it. But by what path return we to the Cave Of Cacophysia? Persephone:

By this path, dear Mother. The Cave of Cacophysia is in all things T'ward evil, as that temple were t'ward good. I enter'd in. Outside the darkness was But as accumulated sunlessness; Within 'twas positive as light itself, A blackness that extinguished: Yet I knew, For Hades told me, that I was to see; And so I waited, till a forking flash Of sudden lightning dazzlingly reveal'd All at a glance. As on a pitchy night The warder of some high acropolis Looks down into the dark, and suddenly Sees all the city with its roofs and streets, Houses and walls, clear as in summer noon, And ere he think of it, 'tis dark again,— So I saw all within the Cave, and held The vision, 'twas so burnt upon my sense. Demeter:

What saw'st thou, child? what saw'st thou? Persephone:

Nay, the things Not to be told, because there are no words Of gods or men to paint the inscrutable And full initiation of hell.—I saw The meaning and the reason of all things, All at a glance, and in that glance perceiv'd The origin of all things to be evil, And the énd evil: that what seems as good Is as a bloom of gold that spread thereo'er May, by one stroke of the hand, Be brush'd away, and leave the ill beneath Solid and foul and black....