The Real Version of Orpheus and Eurydice

In early June, the Center’s Assistant Curator Kevin Adkisson and Collections Interpreter Lynette Mayman hosted the Cranbrook Kingswood Middle School for Girls students and staff for Greek Day tours around the sculptures of Cranbrook Academy of Art. Today, Lynette explores one of the myths central to the sculpture of Carl Milles: Orpheus and Eurydice.

The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice has many versions, most of them adding and leaving out various details. As in all Greek myths everything has a back story, and everything is linked. If you start to retell one tale, then you end up telling many more, which is how you might have been invited to stay at the palace indefinitely, recounting the myths.

These days many of these myths are known only in part, the grimmer consequences and endings forgotten or deliberately omitted to make them less peculiar and frightening.

Carl Milles’ Orpheus Fountain, well-described elsewhere, does not actually include the massive sculpture of Orpheus, though the model for it, once on display atop the column in the Arts and Crafts Court, is currently on display at Cranbrook Art Museum.

Carl Milles’ Sketch for Orpheus, circa 1926, on display in the Cranbrook Arts and Crafts Courtyard, July 17, 1945. Harvey Croze, photographer. Cranbrook Archives, Center for Collections and Research.

Ancient tellers of the myth include Plato and Virgil, but perhaps the best-known and longest version is from Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE) in books X and XI of his Metamorphoses. Ovid is renowned for relishing the lugubrious and not sparing the gory details in lightly tripping dactylic hexameters. He also gives us a rare glimpse into the how and why of tales which were well-known to his readers.

Ovid skips the early part of the myth where Apollo may or not be Orpheus’ father and how Orpheus plays his lyre and sings to the Argonauts to drown out the Sirens; he cuts to the chase, as it were.

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