Archive for June, 2010

Voltaire’s Oedipe

I’ve had a massive, geeky crush on Voltaire ever since I read Candide in my AP European History and Literature class when I was fifteen. So when we arrived at the Classical era I was very glad. Voltaire was a magnificent writer and philosopher. He wrote novels, essays, poems, plays and more. His works were satirical, witty, and almost always ruffled somebody’s feathers. He was exiled twice from France, which actually gave him the opportunity to meet a lot of great writers from outside the country. After his first exile (during which he stayed in Great Britain), he came back to France only to publish a collection of essays called Philosophical Letters on the English. This book praised the English government for being more just and developed than the French government, and it caused such a stir that he had to leave the country again. Voltaire was never afraid to say what he wanted to say, and this is why I admire him.

Not to mention how handsome he was.

Voltaire was born November 21st, 1694, and he completed Oedipe at the young age of nineteen during his imprisonment in the Bastille. It was put into production five years later, which was just as big a deal back then as it would be now. How many twenty four year olds do you know that have had their works put on stage?

Oedipe, which is French for Oedipus, was a tragedy adapted from the Athenian story Oedipus the King. For those who haven’t read or heard of Oedipus, he was a mythical Greek king who was prophesied to one day kill his father and marry his mother. Because of this, his parents, the king and queen of Thebes send him away at birth to be left to die on a mountain. But the servant feels bad for the infant, and eventually Oedipus is adopted by another couple, the king and queen of Corinth. One day he finds out about the prophecy, but thinking that the Corinthians are his real parents, he resolves to avoid fulfilling the prophecy by running away to Thebes…you can see where this is going.

The story of Oedipe is a great, if incestuous and gory, read. I highly recommend Voltaire’s telling of the story because it takes some of the focus off of the incest and adds a subplot of another character being in love with Jocasta, the queen of Thebes. Since it’s so old, the whole work is now public domain, so while I couldn’t find any youtube videos of it being performed, Oedipe is free to read and download on a number of web sites! Just pay attention to which language it’s in, as most of his works were originally written in French.



The piece that I have chosen for this week is The Magdalene with the Smoking Flame by Georges de La Tour. This painting was completed in France between the years 1638 and 1640.

Although La Tour spent most of his life in the Duchy of Lorraine, his works could be said to have been influenced by the Council of Trent’s decisions. One of the goals of the Council of Trent was to enforce the use of art to teach religious stories and virtues. La Tour is best known for his genre paintings depicting Bible scenes and characters. He also used a great deal of Tenebrism and his pieces were amazingly lifelike.

The Magdalene with the Smoking Flame, one of La Tour’s nocturnes, is an excellent example of all these points. Magdelene, a character from the Bible, sits in solitude, gazing into a simple flame lamp. She seems to be contemplating something, but we the viewers may never know what.

I like this piece because of its use of light and the subject matter. As the light reflects off of her pale skin and modest possessions,  I have to wonder – why the skull? What are you thinking about, Magdelene? We can probably assume that one of the books on her desk is the Bible, but the title and content of the other book will never be known to us. This painting raises a great deal of questions in my mind, and that is why I am so attracted to it, I think.

Also, when I first saw this painting, I thought it looked familiar, and hark, a scene from my childhood…

"What's a fire, and why does it - what's the word - burn?"


The piece that I have chosen to analyze is The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. This beautiful painting was probably completed sometime between 1482-86 in Florence, Italy, as a commission from Lorenzo de’ Medici. It is believed that he gave this painting and another, La Primavera, to his younger cousin as a wedding gift to decorate his home with. It is currently on display in Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

What really strikes me about this painting is not just the Classical beauty of the characters, but the simple purity portrayed by Venus. Venus has many faces. She is best known as the Roman goddess of love, fertility, and beauty, and often she is thought of as less than innocent and gentle. However, she is also the goddess of chastity, domestic bliss, and marriage. She was even once associated with aspects of Nature, such as the arrival of Spring and gardening.

I much prefer this Venus – beautiful and graceful, covering herself but feeling little shame in her elegant nakedness. She has a “divine perfection” that radiates from her despite her gruesome birth (she was born when Zeus castrated the Titan Uranus and killed him). I like to believe that the nymph about to cover her with a robe is not doing so to hide her naked figure, but as a sign of respect and deep affection for the deity.

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