chapter  10
38 Pages

Eroticized Mourning in Henry Purcell’s Elegy for Mary II, O dive custos

In a strikingly sensuous portrayal of the aftermath of the death of Phaethon, the Dutch history painter Nicolaes de Helt Stockade (1614-69)1 depicted the deity’s sisters, the Heliades, not at the more famous moment of their metamorphosis into mourning poplar trees, but with a more down-to-earth scene: the five nude women languish beneath the woodland sculpture of a river god, their faces and bodies knotted in agony, underneath an angry red sky whose hues recall the tradition of the sisters’ amber tears, colors also picked out in the minimal drapery (see Figure 10.1). Among European paintings of its time the nudity would hardly be shocking were it not that the sensuality of the sisters’ bared flesh and languorous physical contortion is largely gratuitous to the narrative content. In common with a large group of Dutch paintings of the period, the historical premise provides only the barest of excuses for an image that seems otherwise to exist purely for its erotic appeal, as underscored here by the care with which Stockade uses the sole focus of illumination to draw the viewer’s eye irresistibly toward the exposed breasts of the central figure.2