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Corona Borealis is a semicircular constellation in the northern sky between Hercules and Boötes.  It is of mild interest to astronomers for containing two interesting variable stars: (1) T Coronae Borealis, the so-called “Blaze Star”, which is a recurring nova binary star; and (2) R Coronae Borealis, a yellow supergiant which periodically dims from magnitude 6 to magnitude 14 and then brightens back up (possibly because it is producing carbon).

The constellation is much more interesting to classical artists since a myth about its creation gives artists their symbol for deification.  Ariadne was the daughter of Minos, king of Crete who became judge of the underworld after his death and Queen Pasiphae (who was herself a daughter of the sun).  The princess fell in love with Theseus, an Athenian hero who was to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a bull-headed monster who lived in the labrynth beneath the palace.  With the help of the wise artificer, Daedalus, Ariadne rescued Theseus and together they fled from Crete (just barely escaping destruction at the hands of Talos, the giant bronze robot which guarded the island).

Ariadne (John William Waterhouse, 1898, oil on canvas)

Once they had escaped, the faithless Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on the island of Naxos.  The sleeping maiden was spied by Dionysus who chose her as a consort. She was given immortality and godhood as soon as she was married and Dionysus hung her wedding crown of stars in the sky as the constellation Corona Borealis (maybe it has so many variable stars because it was sacred to the god of intoxication).

Bacchus and Ariadne (Roman sarcophagus ca. 170-180 BC)

This seems like a weird narrative and it probably reflects Greek confusion about the proper status of Ariadne (whom some scholars identify as a Cretan serpent goddess from the Mycenaean era).  But irrespective of her origin or how she came by her divinity Ariadne has proven to be a favorite subject of visual artists from classical times onward.  Many artists prefer to portray her beautiful, naked, and asleep (and you can easily find many such paintings and statues on the web) but nearly as many are fascinated by her apotheosis—the moment she receives her godhood and escapes mortality.

Bacchus and Ariadne (Titian, 1523–24, oil on canvas)

Perhaps the finest of these paintings was created by the peerless hand of Titian for the Alabaster Room in the palace of Duke Alfonso d’Este–who specifically commissioned the world’s finest bacchanal paintings for his room (a project so fascinating and strange that the Alabaster Room has been virtually created online).   The painting shows the moment when Dionysus reveals himself to the bewildered Ariadne with all of his divine retinue.  The beautiful god leaps from his leopard-drawn chariot and flies down towards her as maenads and satyrs wildly revel behind him.  If you aren’t too distracted by the naked wild man covered in snakes, or by the dismembered donkey, or by the beautiful columbines and irises which bloom purple beneath the feet of the god’s inebriated followers, you will notice the constellation Corona Borealis glowing in the sky above Ariadne’s head.

Titian’s vision was so splendid and influential that other artists adopted the crown of stars as a symbol of apotheosis.  The crown of immortality appears in other works as heroes step across the threshold of godhood.  It is a reoccurring representation of our desire to step beyond humanity and become deathless divine beings.

Madonna in Glory (Carlo Dolci, 1670, Oil on canvas)

Hercules Strangling the Nemean lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1639, Fogg Art Museum)

Classical mythology ascribes no particular order of birth to the offspring of Echidna and Typhon.  I’m going to just jump in and start big with the Nemean Lion. This immense mythical lion possessed an invulnerable hide and claws sharp enough to cut through any substance. He seemed happiest when terrorizing the hills around Nemea, a lovely village in Corinth.

At the same time, elsewhere, the greatest of classical heroes, Heracles was living contentedly with his wife Megara and their children.  Alas, it was not to be: Hera, the ever-envious queen of the gods, afflicted Heracles with madness and, in benighted fury, the strongman dashed his wife and children to death.  Awaking from his lunacy, Heracles desperately petitioned the gods for help.  His half-brother, the god Apollo intervened and sent Heracles to perform penance by serving the weak and venal King Eurystheus of Mycenae.  Afraid for his throne and person, Eurystheus chose a task he was sure Heracles would not return from and set the hero out to kill the Nemean Lion.

Hercules and the Nemean Lion (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1615, private collection, Brussels)

Heracles was unable to pierce the lion’s skin with his great bow, but he trapped the beast in a cave, stunned it with his club and strangled it with brute force.  Thus did Heracles accomplish the first of his twelve labors and he wore the lion’s impenetrable hide thereafter (somewhat pathetically, he was at first unable to skin the beast with his knives or swords, and he made no headway until Athena reminded him that the lion’s claws could cut through anything). Above is my favorite painting of the fight, by Peter Paul Ruben. In addition to liking big robust figures, Rubens had a zest for hunting.  In Rubens’ painting, Heracles has apparently killed a leopard bystander in order to warm up for the great lion. 

I always rather pitied the Nemean Lion, who seemed like a victim of circumstance more than anyone else in the story (except for Megara and her children and maybe the leopard up there in the Rubens’ painting).  Apparently others have felt the same way, because the lion takes an important position in the summer sky whereas Heracles is rather hard to find.

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