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Identity in Mosnier’s 17th-century Paintings of Heliodorus’ Aethiopica

Kathryn Chew


This paper examines the representation of different national identities in a seventeenth-century cycle of paintings depicting Heliodorus’ Aethiopica by Jean Mosnier. These paintings decorate the floorboards of the king’s bedroom in Chateau Cheverny in the Loire Valley. Their only previous recognition in scholarship has been by art historians who note that these works are the earliest contemporary representations of Ethiopians as having black skin (Spicer 2010, Stechow 1953). There is so much more to these paintings than their depictions of black Africans. Heliodorus’ novel pivots around the issue of identity (national and otherwise) and how identity is represented visually and linguistically. The purpose of this paper is to investigate to what extent the paintings reflect the various differentiations that the novel demarcates, and what any divergence in this respect from the novel suggests about the milieu of the paintings and their painter. I will argue that, contrary to Heliodorus’ attentive discrimination among Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, and Ethiopians with respect to their differing skin color and languages, Mosnier presents all of these peoples as indistinguishable with respect to their dress and, with regard to the first three, indistinguishable with respect to their skin color, in a way that strongly suggests orientalism. This phenomenon can be explained by the historical context of the paintings.

After the fourth century, aside from a mention by the Suda, nothing is heard about Heliodorus’ novel until Pinciano in the late sixteenth century canonizes Heliodorus as one of the three epic poets of antiquity, alongside Homer and Vergil. Once the Aethiopica was rediscovered in the sixteenth century as a consequence of the Ottoman sack of Buda, the novel cast a long shadow, for instance, influencing Cervantes (Schevill 1907) and inspiring a gallery of paintings in the seventeenth century (Crewe 2009).

Following an examination of how the novel represents ethnic diversity, and Heliodorus’ inconsistency in this regard (cf. Groves 2012), this paper then considers how Mosnier’s paintings treat the same matter. The principal finding is that, while the paintings comply with the novel’s prescriptions with one or two exceptions, they diverge from the novel’s attitude in privileging Greeks over other ethnicities. That is, Heliodorus suggests to his reader that being Greek is preferable to being anything else, but Mosnier holds all ethnicities in equal contempt.

Very often in European art, Greek culture is idealized through representation in a vernacular idiom; for instance, Bloemaert’s Charicleia Awarding the Victory Palm to Theagenes (1626) depicts Greece as a lush version of seventeenth-century Holland. By contrast, in Mosnier’s world, Charicleia and Theagenes are like pampered white youths thrown into scenarios involving exotic people, all of whom seem, aside from their skin colors, to have purchased their clothing at the same outfitter: turbans for men and veils for women. The heroine and hero alone eschew headdresses and appear more generically French.

To understand why Mosnier’s paintings differ in concept from Heliodorus’ descriptions, we must remember that in the painter’s time all the countries mentioned in the novel belonged at least in part to the Ottoman Empire. Despite France’s strategic relationship with this Empire, Mosnier clearly conceives of the cultures under the Ottomans in a reductive, monolithic way that promotes the fixed perspective that all easterners are turbaned Muslims. Heliodorus’ cultural elitism, which privileges Greek culture and approves of other cultures that adopt Greek practices, becomes orientalism in Mosnier’s hands. While Said’s conceptualization of orientalism originally addresses white-skinned Westerners acting upon non-white Middle Easterners (cf. Nochlin 1983 for orientalism in nineteenth-century French art history), Mosnier’s paintings are a clear example of an eastern Other that can have white skin.

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Materiality and Literary Culture

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