Five Maidens of Croton
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Five Maidens of Croton is a popular myth about the Greek painter Zeuxis, who lived in the fourth century B.C. supposedly a master of mimesis. The source of the story is Pliny's Natural History and Cicero's De Inventione. Cicero's version is set in Sicily, Pliny's version is set in Croton.
The story goes that Zeuxis was commissioned by the elders of Croton or Agrigento to paint a portrait of Helen of Troy. The maidens of the city were auditioned as models, but no one of them possessed the perfection of the concetto, the image of ideal beauty in the artist’s imagination, so Zeuxis painted an imaginary composite. From Antiquity, depicting Helen was a remarkable challenge. The story of Zeuxis deals with exactly this question: How would an artist immortalize ideal beauty?
- Some men of Crotona, when they were rich in all kinds of resources, and when they were considered among the most prosperous people in Italy, were desirous to enrich the temple of Juno, which they regarded with the most religious veneration, with splendid pictures. Therefore they hired Zeuxis of Heraclea at a vast price, who was at that time considered to be far superior to all other painters, and employed him in that business. He painted many other pictures, of which some portion, on account of the great respect in which the temple is held, has remained to within our recollection; and in order that one of his mute representations might contain the preeminent beauty of the female form, he said that he wished to paint a likeness of Helen. And the men of Crotona, who had frequently heard that he exceeded all other men in painting women, were very glad to hear this; for they thought that if he took the greatest pains in that class of work in which he had the greatest skill, he would leave them a most noble work in that temple.
- Nor were they deceived in that expectation: for Zeuxis immediately asked of them what beautiful virgins they had; and they immediately led him into the palaestra, and there showed him numbers of boys of the highest birth and of the greatest beauty. For indeed, there was a time when the people of Crotona were far superior to all other cities in the strength and beauty of their persons; and they brought home the most honourable victories from the gymnastic contests, with the greatest credit. While, therefore, he was admiring the figures of the boys and their personal perfection very greatly; "The sisters," say they, "of these boys are virgins in our city, so that how great their beauty is you may infer from these boys." "Give me, then," said he, "I beg you, the most beautiful of these virgins, while I paint the picture which I promised you, so that the reality may be transferred from the breathing model to the mute likeness." Then the citizens of Crotona, in accordance with a public vote, collected the virgins into one place, and gave the painter the opportunity of selecting whom he chose. But he selected five, whose names many poets have handed down to tradition, because they had been approved by the judgment of the man who was bound to have the most accurate judgment respecting beauty. For he did not think that he could find all the component parts of perfect beauty in one person, because nature has made nothing of any class absolutely perfect in every part. Therefore, as if nature would not have enough to give to everybody if it had given everything to one, it balances one advantage bestowed upon a person by another disadvantage.
- "There can be no real doubt the fairest sight of any in the whole world would be that of a beautiful woman, all complete and perfect in her loveliness; but such an one is ill to find. Thus do we find it recorded of Zeuxis, the famous painter, how that being asked by sundry honourable ladies and damsels of his acquaintance to make them a portrait of the fair Helen of Troy and depict her to them as beautiful as folk say she was, he was loath to refuse their prayer. But, before painting the portrait, he did gaze at them all and each steadfastly, and choosing from one or the other whatever he did find in each severally most beautiful, he did make out the portrait of these fragments brought together and combined, and by this means did portray Helen so beautiful no exception could be taken to any feature. This portrait did stir the admiration of all, but above all of them which had by their several beauties and separate features helped to create the same no less thans Zeuxis himself had with his brush. Now this was as good as saying that in one Helen 'twas impossible to find all perfections of beauty combined, albeit she may have been most exceeding fair above all women." --Les Vies