mythological art, women of literature, women of mythology

Penelope

Penelope is one of the most remembered characters of Homer’s Odyssey. Her name has always been associated with marital fidelity. She is the wife of Odysseus, well known for her fidelity to her husband while he was absent, despite having a legion of suitors.

Her name has been understood as combination of the Greek word pēnē (πήνη), “weft” in English, and ōps (ὤψ), that means “face”, which is considered very appropriate for a cunning weaver whose motivations are hard to decipher.

Gold ring representing Penelope waiting for Odysseus, 5th century BC – Musée du Louvre

Penelope in the Odyssey

Penelope is the wife of the main character of the book: Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. They have only one son, Telemachus, who was born before Odysseus was called to fight in the Trojan War. And she waited twenty years for her husband return home after the war, throughout this time she developed several strategies to delay marrying one of her many suitors (108!).

Embroidered panel: Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night, 1886

One of her tricks was to pretend to be weaving a burial shroud for Odysseus’s elderly father Laertes and claiming that once she finished the shroud, she would choose a suitor to marry. For three years, she undid part of the shroud at night. Until an unfaithful slave woman, called Melantho, discovers and reveals to the suitors. When Odysseus return, disguised as an old beggar, he finds that she has remained faithful to him.

Penelope – Vatican Museums

In Art

In Art, most of the references to Penelope revolved around her loyalty to Odysseus and to the tranquillity of the worthy family. And for efforts to put off remarriage, she is often seen as a symbol of connubial fidelity.

Penelope by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1869

As several characters of Greek mythology and literature, Penelope is present in several works of art, from Attic vase-paintings to Roman sculptures. It is easy to recognise Penelope in Greek and Roman works, her seated pose, her reflective gesture of leaning her cheek on her hand; and by the protectively crossed knees which reflected her long chastity in the absence of Odysseus, this pose probably would be considered unusual in any other figure.

She is a reference in literature too, being mentioned by classical authors such as Plautus, Horace, Ovid among others.

It seems that Penelope is not a popular subject among women artists, the only work of art representing her that I could find is this painting by Angelica Kauffmann.

Penelope is woken by Eryclea by Angelica Kauffmann, 1722

Curiosities:

  • In Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, a retelling of the Odyssey. Penelope is the subject and speaker, telling the story and backstory of Homer’s epic from her own perspective.

References:

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