Three of my favourite women in paintings

The First: Isolde

Even though she’s always mentioned along with her beloved Tristan, she was a woman in her own right. In medieval Arthurian legend Isolde was an Irish princess betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall. After accidentally drinking a love potion, she became the lover of his knight Tristan, which led to their tragic deaths. The story was popular during the Middle Ages and the name became relatively common in England at that time. It was rare by the 19th century, though some interest was generated by Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Tristan und Isolde’ (1865).


Portrait of Isolde paint by the French artist Gaston Bussière (1862-1928) – Macon:Musée des Ursulines (France)

The second: Empress Theodora

Known for: Theodora, empress of Byzantium from 527-548, was probably the most influential and powerful woman in the empire’s history.

Dates: 6th century: Born about 497-510. Died June 28, 548. Married Justinian, 523 or 525. Empress from April 4, 527.

She is credited with influencing saving the rule of her husband’s (Justinian) when threatened by a revolt and was his intellectual partner.
She started several reforms, including some which expanded the rights of women in divorce and property ownership, forbid exposure of unwanted infants, gave mothers some guardianship rights over their children, and forbid the killing of a wife who committed adultery. She closed brothels and created convents where the ex-prostitutes could support themselves.

Empress Theodora – Jean Joseph Benjamin

The Third: Venus

Venus stands in a traditional “pudica” pose, and distinctly recalls Botticelli’s famous Venus, though DGR’s treatment is more imposing than graceful. The fact that Jane Morris was the model for Venus (and May Morris for the left attendant figure) is surely relevant to an appreciation of the picture.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Astarte Syriaca (Syrian Astarte), 1875-1877, oil on canvas 72 x 42 inches (183 x 106.7 cm) (Manchester City Art Galleries

Rosetti renders Jane as Venus Astarte in the painting. Depicted as an icon of desire and sensual perfection, Venus’s direct gaze, bare shoulder, and strong stance reveal the strength of her own sexuality. Behind her torch-bearing attendants, a crescent moon shines in symbolic representation of her relation to the cosmos and the divine immortality of her womanly beauty. Rosetti introduces this idea in the first line of the accompanying sonnet of the same name, as he makes an allusion to the figure of the “woman clothed with sun” from the Book of Revelation 12:1, thus revealing his perception of the divine and cosmic power within the beauty of the female (Rossetti Archive). He describes her physical features in an idealized manner that implies the realization of these divine orders upon an encounter with such beauty:

And from her neck’s inclining flower-stem lean
Love-Freightened lips and absolute eyes that wean
The pulse of hearts to the spheres’ dominant tune.

The image of the spheres here refers to the Pythagorean music of the spheres, and the weaning of the pulse of hearts implies that desire itself can instigate a realization of the cosmic order, the ultimate mystery (Rossetti Archive). Thus, as a composition that references religious iconographic imagery, Astarte Syriaca depicts “the very epitome of the Rossettian Pre-Raphaelite love goddess” (Wood 102) through the idealization of the woman.


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