The Ephesian Artemis in early 19th-c. Denmark

“Philosophien” (1800), by Nicolai Abildgaard, SMK.

I previously noted the tomb of P.C. Abildgaard that was erected in 1801 in Copenhagen’s Assistens Kirkegård. A prominent relief on this tomb depicts the Ephesian Artemis, looking somewhat out of place in a Danish cemetery.

Yet the motif was certainly chosen for this context because of the powerful meaning it had acquired since the 17th century as a symbol of rational thought and natural science. Nicolai Abildgaard, P.C.’s brother who designed his tomb, also showcased the Ephesian Artemis in his allegorical painting of “Philosophy” (1800), seen above.

Right around the same time, the Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) produced a version of the same motif with Apollo unveiling a statue of the Ephesian Artemis for the frontispiece of Alexander von Humboldt’s Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen nebst ein Naturgemälde der Tropenlander (first published in French in 1805), one of the outcomes of his Latin American expedition. As expressed by Alexander von Humboldt in a letter to Goethe, the image of Apollo and the Ephesian Artemis “refers to the synthesis of Poetry, Philosophy and Natural sciences” (cited from Tevebring 2012, 153).

Frontispiece to Alexander von Humboldt’s Ideen zu einer Geographie der Pflanzen nebst ein Naturgemälde der Tropenlander (1807), based on a Thorvaldsen drawing and dedicated to Goethe.

Some reflections on the Abildgaard tombs in Assistens Kirkegård and their iconography can be found in Midt i verden i 250 år – Assistens 1760-2010 (Copenhagen 2010), pp. 56-58. On Bertel Thorvaldsen, Alexander von Humboldt and the motif of Apollo and the Ephesian Artemis, see Frederika Tevebring, “Unveiling the Goddess. Artemis of Ephesus as a Symbol of Nature at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century”, Lychnos 2012, 153-166. See also Marjatta Nielsen’s “Diana Efesis Multimammia: The Metamorphoses of a Pagan Goddess from the Renaissance to the Age of Neo-Classicism”, in T. Fischer-Hansen and B. Poulsen (eds.) From Artemis to Diana: The Goddess of Man and Beast (Copenhagen 2009), pp. 455-496.

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