Italian Paintings – The Aurora

On the ceiling of the Casino of the Rospigliosi Palace in Rome, Guido Reni painted his famous Aurora. It is one of the twelve great pictures of the world. It is full of color, full of action and is most beautiful. It is very popular in America, and a copy is to be found in very many homes.

A little country girl in the west came to visit her uncle in the city. He had a large and splendid copy of the picture. One morning he came into the room where the picture was placed and found the girl standing before it in rapt admiration. “Well, Mary,” he said, “what do you think of it?” “Oh, uncle,” she replied, “I like it, ’cause they are in such a hurry.” Unconsciously she had seized upon one of the chief excellencies of the picture.

Helios has taken his place in the chariot and gathered up the reins ; the Hours, who have harnessed and yoked the celestial steeds to the chariot, stand around it. Aurora in her “saffron colored robe” flies in front. Heosphorus, the morning star, represented as a cherub bearing a torch, follows after, and far below is seen the sleeping world.

Every writer, almost without exception, calls the man in the chariot Apollo. This is a mistake. Phoebus Apollo never drove the chariot of the sun. This was the sole function of Helios.

Phoebus Apollo was the son of Zeus and Leto, and twin brother of Artemis (Diana) . Apollo was a deity totally distinct from Helios. He was the sun in its illuminating, life-giving warmth, and power ; the God who brought the day, the springtime, the summer, the blessings of the harvest, and without whom there would be no life. He was the patron of music and poetry. He danced with the muses on Parnassus, he banqueted with the Gods on Olympus. He was a founder of cities, a giver of good laws. He presided over athletic sports, he was the ideal of splendid young manhood. Apollo perfectly knowing and in harmony with the will of his father, Zeus, became the God of oracles ; hence the utterances of his priestesses determined state politics, and national movements, and thus made or shaped the material from which history was made.

As Phoebus, he was the clear and pure, requiring clean hands and a pure heart of those who worshipped him. As Apollo, he was the arrester and defender. When presumption was to be punished, or wrong righted, he could bend his bow and slay the offender. He was the sun in its spiritual power, he had divine insight into the nature of all spiritual power and faculty, inspiring men to noblest action. His first victory over the Python was the symbol of the final and eternal victory over sin and suffering.

Apollo therefore could not have spent his days driving the chariot of the sun. This was purely a physical function, and it was intrusted to Helios.

Helios was the son of the Titans, Hyperion and Thia; he had two sisters, Selene and Eos. Helios and Selene were deities of the sun and the moon. Selene occupied the same relation to Artemis, the Latin Diana, that Helios did to Apollo. Eos, the Latin Aurora, was “the rosy-fingered goddess of the morn.”

Helios was the bright being who rose each morning from the distant ocean stream, guided the sun through the heavens, passed out of sight in the western sky, leaving the night, but surely to rise again. The poets picture him stepping from the chariot of the sun into a golden boat in which he sails back to the place in the earth from whence he was again to make his circuit through the sky.

Helios had a most interesting family. He married Perseis, the daughter of Oceanus. They had eight children. The most famous were Circe, the sorceress ; AEetes, king of Colchis, from whom Jason stole the Golden Fleece; Pasiphaea, who married Minos II., king of Crete, and Phaethon, whose ambition prompted him to ask his father to allow him to drive the chariot of the sun just one day.

Helios reluctantly granted his request. As soon as Phaethon touched the reins the horses knew he was not their master ; he was neither able to hold nor guide them ; they plunged about madly, left their course, came so near the earth it took fire. Zeus struck him with lightning and he fell from the chariot into a river. His three sisters, called “The Heliades,” favored their brother’s rash act, and were changed into poplars, and their tears into amber.

“Helios seems to have been a person of importance, aside from being the charioteer of the sun. He owned a beautiful island, upon which were the cattle that he loved, and upon which no mortal might lay hand and live. Ulysses, in his famous journey from Troy to Ithaca, after many and varied experiences, was nearing the island, where the cattle of Helios did pasture. Ulysses allowed his men to land, after he had made them swear a solemn oath that they would not touch the cattle. The food and wine that Circe had given them was gone, a great storm was raging, so they could not leave the island. Fish and fowl were plenty, but there was no way of getting them. Ulysses himself was hungry and discouraged. He wandered off from his men, lay down on the soft grass and went to sleep. Then Euryloches gathered the men around him, spoke of the dangers they had passed, and that now they were likely to die of hunger. ‘Why should we be hungry with all these cattle in sight? Let us seize on some of the fairest, and offer them a sacrifice to the undying gods, and when we reach Ithaca we will erect a temple to Helios, and offer daily costly sacrifices upon it.

“Surely there is nothing new under the sun. Today a man makes his money dishonestly, and to quiet his conscience he says, ‘I will build a church or endow a university.’ The men listened, forgot their vow, seized some of the cattle, flayed them, placed their limbs in order, and when the sacrifice was finished they sat down and ate ravenously.

“Ulysses awoke and started toward them. As he drew near he smelled the odor of the roasting meat. He groaned aloud. ‘O Father Zeus, while I slept my men have done this cruel thing.’ When Helios saw what had been done, he was very angry and cried to Zeus and all the undying gods to avenge him; if not, he would go down to the dark kingdom of Hades, and reign among the shades. Zeus besought him not to leave the chariot of the sun and he would avenge him. He would sink the ship of Ulysses. Then a terrible thing happened, which made the men quake with fear. The hides of the cattle crept, and quivered, as if alive; and the roasting meat moaned, and moaned, as if in anguish. These cattle of Helios represent the days of the year, and in the story one may recognize the origin of the old saying, ‘killing time,’ which Homer interprets literally.”

Eos (Aurora) the dawn, who leads the procession in the picture, was the beautiful herald of Helios. She rose from the ocean in a chariot drawn by four white steeds. At her approach the moon and stars faded away, and only the glorious Helios preserved his brightness, as he followed her through the heavens. Aurora seems frequently to have been inspired with love for mortals. She loved fresh young life, and would often carry away beautiful youths. The same delicacy that suggested the thought that those who died without any apparent cause had been gently removed by Apollo or Artemis prompted the Greeks to explain the death of a youth in the morning of life by saying that Aurora had carried him into immortal life. The old Greeks believed that Apollo and Artemis killed with a mild arrow all those overcome with old age. In the Odyssey, the swineherd Eumaeus tells Ulysses of the happy isle where he was born. “There, men were not swept away by odious sickness, but when old age came near Apollo or Artemis appeared with a silver bow and killed them with an arrow that gave no pain.”

Almost the last affair Aurora had was with Tithonus, a beautiful youth, the son of Laomedon, king of Troy and brother of Priam. She stole him away and married him. She prevailed on Zeus to give him immortality, but forgot to ask for eternal youth. After a time she saw that he was growing old. She was greatly chagrined, and when his hair turned white, she left his society. He still lived in her palace, ate ambrosia, and was clad in celestial raiment. At last he lost the use of his limbs. Then she shut him up in a room in the palace; but all day long he lamented, and called for her in his shrill, piping voice. This annoyed her so much, she changed him into a tree locust, and to this day, as the year grows old, his shrill voice can be heard, imploring Aurora to come to him and release him from his prison.

Aurora and Tithonus had one son called Memnon, who became king of the Ethiopians. He fought with the Trojans, and was slain by Achilles. Two exquisitely beautiful legends grew out of the sorrow of Aurora for her beloved son. One is, that after his death she never ceased weeping, and her tears are the dew; the other, that she bore the body of her son to Ethiopia, and at Thebes, in Egypt, she erected the monument called “Memnon.” Every morning when Aurora first appeared it greeted her with a musical note.