Mystique of Cleopatra

This queen of Egypt continues to inspire, confound and intrigue even
after centuries, says Kanwarjit Singh Kang

CLEOPATRA, the queen of Egypt, has drawn the attention of artists of almost every genre. She is portrayed in paintings, in stone, metal, caricature, songs, on the screen. So much so that some companies use her name to sell their cosmetic products.

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae.
Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1896

Cleopatra and Antony
Cleopatra and Antony. Cleopatra’s legacy survives not only in numerous works of art but also in many dramatisations of her story in literature and other media, including William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

She, however, still remains a gripping riddle, because, as has been said: "No one knows the real Cleopatra. What did she look like? Was she beautiful? Was she an African or a Greek, or both? Some of the questions that artists, archaeologists and art historians have been haggling with for centuries. What can be said with certainty is that Cleopatra continues to inspire, confound and intrigue."

Cleopatra was again in the limelight in 2000-01 when British Museum, in collaboration with the Fondazione Memmo, Rome, held an exhibition named Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth, accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue with detailed descriptions of the exhibits and articles of leading international scholars. The exhibition was displayed at three places; opened in Palazzo Ruspoli, Rome, it moved to the British Museum, London and finally to the Field Museum, Chicago. The exhibition traced Cleopatra’s life as the queen of Egypt and as a power player with the most powerful men of her day — her liaisons with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony — and concentrated primarily to examine the myth and iconic status of Cleopatra through art.

However, the exhibition could not mitigate the dispute around Cleopatra’s images. A perplexing aspect of Cleopatra’s legacy is the numerous representations of her, many of which carry political, social and racial weight, and all of which have been debated by scholars but with no consensus. In museums, many busts and statues are cautiously worded stating that it is "thought to be" of Cleopatra. Therefore, the observation of Andre Malraux, French novelist and art theorist, who referred to her as ‘the queen without a face’ still holds true.

Egyptian artists and sculptors worked within the parameters imposed by ethical, religious, social and magical considerations and murals and statues were made to represent kings and queens as Egyptian gods. Hence, whether there was the real portraiture in ancient Egypt or not, is still debated.

The statue of Cleopatra as Egyptian Goddess in the State Hermitage, one of the oldest museums of the world in Saint Petersburg, Russia, represents a striding woman with the left foot forward. She wears an ankle-long dress and tripartite curled wig with three snakes in front. In her right hand, she holds the ankh, the hieroglyph of life. A cornucopia, derived from Hellenistic art, held in her left arm, suggests the age of Ptolemies (323-30 B.C.). Of late, a controversy has erupted on its attribution when the Hermitage custodian of late Egyptian art asserted in a research paper that the statue, instead of Cleopatra, represents Arsinoe II, another queen of the Egyptian dynasty of Ptolemies. This has provoked a lively debate in the academic circles.

Apart from these scholastic controversies about her images, it cannot be denied that she became an icon in her own lifetime and a legend after her death. Artists from many periods have created their own, often highly subjective, images of Cleopatra in their paintings. While her depictions in Egyptian style were religious images representing her as a divine being, in the paintings of European painters, she was mostly portrayed as a European beauty.`A0

According to a legend, Cleopatra committed suicide by placing a poisonous snake on her body and let it kill her. This theme has inspired hundreds of painters from the Renaissance to the modern times. Some of the paintings illustrating this theme have become most popular, including that of Guido Cagnacci and Jean Andre Rixens.

Interestingly, the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Kolkata, has a painting in its museum, which, in a play of light and shade, depicts Cleopatra looking at the sky with bare body. According to records of the society, the painter is Guido and the style smacks of the Renaissance period of European paintings.

Cleopatra’s legacy survives not only in numerous works of art but also in many dramatisations of her story in literature and other media, including William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and Jules Massenet’s Cleopatra. Films starring such greats as Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh have been loved by millions.

When Vivien Leigh, who starred as Cleopatra in the 1951 movie, was asked to comment on her role, she retorted, "I would have loved to have been Cleopatra in real life — provided I could choose my own Antony."