A long, long time ago, in a place much more sunny and breezy than this, a beautiful woman was ready for marriage. Because of her beauty, her father was somewhat concerned about the number of potential suitors, and the potential trouble all the competition may cause. Because of this, the father made the suitors all promise to defend whatever marriage would result. Hesitantly they agreed. In order to win, one bachelor promised to sacrifice to the gods, but after he won, he quickly forgot his promise, and incurred the wrath of an angry god of beauty.
Meanwhile, a young lad from a far-off country was growing in wisdom. He spent his time raising cattle, but because of his wisdom, was chosen by the gods to settle a dispute. Three of the godesses couldn’t decide who was the most beautiful among them, so they turned to the young man for judgment. To spice up the battle, they each promised the young man something if she was chosen. One of them, the goddess of beauty, offered him the most beautiful woman in the world – the young girl, who by this time was already married…
To make a long story short, the young man wooed away the beautiful girl (either seductively or forcibly), and by so doing, set in motion an enormous army, that would eventually come and kill the young man and destroy his hometown.
Yes, this young woman had a “face that launched a thousand ships” – Helen of Troy.
There are many take-home messages from this tale, but my question for today is simple. If Helen was so beautiful, what did she look like? What does “beauty” look like? Over the ages, numerous artists have tackled this question, which gives us insight into what they thought was beautiful.
At the top of this post is a painting from FA Vincent, showing Zeuxis chosing models for a painting of Helen. He couldn’t find any one woman for the part, so instead he chose 5 women from the surrounding area, in order to make a composite picture of their features. We’ll be talking more about composites in the time to come.
For now, let’s just explore what ideas people have had about beauty over time. Back in the day, when Greeks were the ones creating the images, Helen may have looked like this:
In the 1600’s, as political tensions brewed between Spain, France, and the Holy See, Guido Reni composed this picture of Helen’s departure.
In the 1776, an American painter living in England (working for George III) painted a soft version of Helen, also with political undertones, as seen here:
Contrast these with Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s depiction done in 1863, as shown here:
To provide even further contrast, consider more recent versions. The first is from a recent movie:
But this next one may help you see even more that every society (and individuals within that society) tends to put their own interpretation on beauty:
As you can see, beauty means different things to different people. Its definition can change with time and place. So what do we make of that? How does someone try to be “beautiful?”
True beauty need not follow a fad or trend. Rather, more lasting beauty adheres to a sense of symmetry and proportion. A plastic surgeon with a keen eye for that proportion can 1) educate you about what options are best for you, and 2) help you realize that beauty within yourself. One of my life’s greatest joys comes from helping people achieve not just a new look, but an understanding of their personal beauty and worth. Care to join me on the journey?