The Story of Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, in Pictures

Persephone (or Proserpina) belongs to Greek (Roman) mythology but is still deeply intertwined with modern society. Her name was, after all, used in popular movie trilogy Matrix and her story still echoes in one of the most popular fairy tales ever - Little Red Riding Hood. Artist loved to portray Persephone in crucial moments of her immortal life, which, it seems, really begins with her abduction.

Hades, who was really her uncle, had fallen in love with her and with a help of Zeus, Persephone's father, organized her capture. Nymphs, who kept her company at that very moment were powerless. Demeter, Persephone's mom, was clueless. Yet her pain, caused by the lost her only child, forced Zeus and Hades to arrange Persephone's return from the underworld.

There is a catch - Persephone had already eaten in the Hades, as the Greek underworld is also often called. When you ate there, you must stay there forever. So she can only leave the underworld for a limited time. Not even for a year. Persephone's return makes Demeter so happy she starts the growth of greenery, it's the time of spring, summer, maybe even autumn, but when Persephone returns, the winter comes.

Allusions to Red Riding Hood are numerous - from the dark strong male kidnapper and rapist in the form of Hades or wolf, the victim in the form of Persephone or Little Red Cap or even smaller details like picking flowers in the decisive moment, when the stronger party gets the definite advantage. We even have a protector in the form of Zeus or hunter and rebirth in the form of return from the underworld or wolf's stomach.

How did the painters saw this breathtaking story? Which scenes were the most important in their opinion?

The Portrait of Persephone

A few artists decided to portay this mythological character out of typical scenography. Yet they used many symbols to give her as much background story as possible.


Arthur Bowen Davies

Arthur B. Davis (1862-1928) painted this picture in 1900 in oil. She is turned away from the observer, what is not the usual choice. In this position her main problem - separation from her live with Demer and sepration from her ruling position in the underworld may be emphasized. The contrasts of light and darkness confirm this theory.


Arthur Hacker

Arthur Hacker (1858-1919) also played with contrasts. Apart from light and dark tones, each dominating part of the painting, he added side characters with different expresions, one joyous, another sad, and othe relements (note the flowers and scythe) to make this almost three meters tall painting even more powerful.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (18282-1882) shared some parts of his life in similar ways as Persephone, or Proserpina, as he titled the painting after the Roman name of this goddess. He actually painted at least eight versions of the same painting between 1874 (the one above) and 1882 (the last below). You'll notice he decorated the picture with verses because he was not 'just' a painter but a poet as well.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This version of Proserpina is very special because it was not done in oil but in color chalks which were very fashionable among Pre-Raphaelits for some time. Yu'll also notice he decided to change the colorof the hair of the goddess - it's red now. Red was Rossetti's favorite color and he was trully obsessed with red heads. By the way, the model is still the same - Jane Morris (1839-1914) who was suggested to the artist by her husband, also very famous William Morris.

She was by Rossetti's standards a perfect model. Not only by her physical looks, but by her personal background too. She was somehow trapped in a cold unsatisfied marriage with Morris and soon became intimate with Rossetti. He lived with the couple for several years, staying alone with her for months while William spent the time elsewhere.

It's obvious Morris presented the dark side to both lovers at first, yet Jane had a chance to meet Rossetti's problematic side too. So he acted as Demeter and Hades to her.


Dante Gabriel Rossetti

This last painting was fiished just a few days before the artists death. It posses somehow magical power thanks to the the use of colors, with symbolic elements like her red har as the hair of fatal women, pomegranate ads the fruit of the dead, and ivy as the herb which is said to be able to erase one's memory.


Anthony Frederick Sandys

Anthony Frederick Augusturs Sandys (1829-1904) used colored chalks on buff paper for this picture too. It was painted in 1896, directly sold to Cyril Flower and is in private hands now. Note pomegranates as her connection with the underworld and grain as the symbol of harvest and life, each in one hand.

The character of Persephone was used as a costume too.


Jeremias Falck

Jeremias Falck (1610-1677) portrayed Marie Louise Gonzaga (1611-1667), the Queen of Poland and Grand Duchess of Lithuania. This engraving, made between 1639-1645 is part of National Library of Poland, but we can find it in British Museum, wher it's part of the series The Times of Day, presenting four mythological figures for four different times of the day.


Carol de Szathmari

Carol de Szathmari (1812-1887), a painter and photograph in Romain court made this photo of Madam Cathrine Cantacuzino, an aristocrat, who attended one of the royal costume balls dressed as Persephone in 1870s.

The Abduction (Rape) of Persephone

More than 90 % of paintings of Persephone are dealing with her abduction which is often equalized with a rape. The abduction was carefully planned by Hades and supervised by Zeus.

It's interesting to compare how different artists took different angles on the situation.


Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) created this etching on iron plate in 1516 (you can see the year in the print above). He decided to focus on sudden and inevitable change which can be related to Persephone's life or seasons of the year.

It would be interesting to guess why he replaced the carriage of Hades with a unicorn. To emphasize the magic of the moment, maybe? Please not this unicorn is not a nice, helpful animal, but wild and dagerous beast in this case!


Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

Rembrandt (1606-1669) painted the painting above in oil on oak panel in 1631. He used almost half of the surface for black. This way it's obvious how life of Persephone as she was accostumed to, ends, and how something completely different awaits her. Light will go off anytime now and it will never be the same.


Paris Bordone

Paris Bordone (1500-1571) had much more simplified approach. his focus is on the predator and his victim. He is, like in most cases of much darker complexion, but otherwise looks pretty similar to a normal person. This, in a way, makes his action even scarier.


Jean Honore Fragonard

Jean Honore Fragonard (1732–1806) made this etching after Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) drawing in 1764. You can see it in Metropolitan Museum in New York.


Sebastiano Galeotti

The drawing by Sebastiano Galeotti (1656-1746) is done in pen and ink on cream laid paper.


Ulpiano Checa y Saiz

Ulpiano Checa y Saiz (1860-1916) always loved the horses in movement and The Rape of Proserpina was a perfect chance to show his skills. The contrast of black and white tones makes an interesting dynamics with the running carriage with the abducted Proserpina and creates extremely powerful picture.

There is another group of painters who decided to add a cupid or cupids to the scene. They can be nicely used to balance the composition because they can fly, they can provide the psychological excuse for the actions of Hades. Plus they somehow soften the otherwise extremely tense situation.


Charles Antoine Coypel

Charles Antoine Coypel IV (1694-1752) used all the major elements: water, horses, nymphs, and added a few cherubs tu support the abductor. It's oil on canvass.