Friday, September 24, 2010

The Colossus of Rhodes: Visions of a Vanished Wonder

The Colossus of Rhodes (1914) by the Spanish painter Antonio Muñoz Degrain (1840-1924).

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes was a giant bronze statue of the Greek sun god Helios that towered over the busy harbor of the ancient Greek island of Rhodes.

The painting above by Degrain is an example of "history" painting - a staple of old-world art, in this case an imagined scene from mythology. An earthquake destroyed the Colossus in 226 BC, just over 50 years after it was built - so artists over the years have used their imaginations to picture how it might have looked.

Certainly it was big - at
107 feet high, it was the largest statue in the ancient world. A full-grown man couldn't get his arms around one of the fallen thumbs. The Oracle of Delphi advised against rebuilding it, so the pieces remained where they fell, visible all the way from the ships in the harbor, for the next 800 years, until the bronze was finally melted down and used elsewhere. That hasn't stopped artists from depicting it in the most delightful ways ever since.

"The brazen giant of Greek fame, with conquering limbs astride from land to land..." was a figment of the medieval imagination. It's been proved that something that big could never have straddled the harbor.

Stop-motion animation pioneer Ray Harryhausen said he used his memory of one these engravings, reproduced in a childhood book of classical mythology, when modeling a climactic moment for his bronze giant Talus in the film Jason and the Argonauts - a film near and dear to art historians, classicists, and fans of mythology, imaginative literature and fantasy cinema everywhere.