As the maiden of flowers and queen of the Underworld, Persephone is a complicated and misunderstood deity. Although she held a central role in ancient Mediterranean mythology, different interpretations of her story try to lock her in a shadow gallery of psychological projections. Persephone remains profoundly relevant, with her controversial abduction and marriage to the king of the Underworld, as recounted in the Orphic Hymn to Persephone as well the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, reflecting an archetypal narrative of seasonal change.
Naturally, her parents were Demeter, the personification of the bounty of nature, and Zeus, the personification of the weather and king of all gods. Zeus permitted Hades, king of the Underworld, to take Persephone without consent while she was picking flowers with Pallas Athena and Artemis. In her grief, Demeter prevented any seeds from sprouting on Earth. Zeus promptly sent Hermes to plea for the release of Persephone, but they agreed to a compromise that she would pass half the year above ground and half the year below. Considering the role of Hades as the personification of Death, his capture of Persephone provides a clear metaphor of her own passing on. Death rarely comes willingly, but for many of the plants in temperate regions it arrives every year. As the personification of fruits, flowers, grains, and other vegetation, Persephone leaves the world a barren place for several months every year to linger in the ground where the seeds and roots lie dormant.
In the Persephone Diptych, she inhabits the worlds of the living and the dead through both paintings without the oppressive weight of historical distortion. While this interpretation deviates somewhat from the Orphic tradition that upheld her veneration, the work attempts to reassert Persephone as the central deity of that mythological cycle. For thousands of years, her story inspired other works of art that carry certain regional and temporal contexts. The Abduction of Proserpine by Gian Lorenzo Bernini presents a disturbingly misogynistic vision fundamentally at odds with the original accounts. In contrast these paintings attempt to convey a more feminist view by ommitting the presence of Hades and Demeter.
Depicting the goddess in contemporary clothing brings the viewer into the scene, while matching the ancient literary tradition of deities manifesting in human form. With a cemetery on the left and a cave on the right, the work directly ties in universal understandings about death and the afterlife. Such a parallel of verdant green on the left and hellish cavern on the right also evokes the classic triptych of Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights. While that work promoted a Christian worldview, this work deconstructs many of those ideas through Pagan mythology.
Each of the panels also directly reference the paintings Christina’s World and Christina Olson by Andrew Wyeth, bridging the ancient story with a contemporary American perspective. In a way this work fits into a more widespread interest with Classical themes in Western art, but the style and intention behind these paintings conveys a radically different attitude toward aesthetics and humanity.