The beginning of Fall provides an apt reminder of the Greek myth of Persephone (as the Romans called her Proserpine, or Proserpina,) whose fateful tale became an explanation for the change in seasons.
She was celebrated from the start, born from the union of two sentinels. Her father, Zeus, was almighty Ruler of the Universe. Her mother, Demeter, (Earth-Mother in Greek,) controlled the seasons and brought growth to the land. Demeter’s doting love for her daughter was strong. As Persephone blossomed into a woman, Demeter sent her off to a hidden land, so as to keep the advances of her immortal suitors at a distance.
A nightmarish scenario inevitably ensued. Hades, immortal outcast and dark lord of the Afterlife, was not one for conventional chivalry. As fate would have it, Persephone and her nymph followers found themselves rudely interrupted during a peaceful afternoon of flower picking in the province of Enna. He burst through a crack in the Earth’s surface, abducted Persephone, and brought her back to the Underworld as his wife.
Demeter mourned, and searched high and low for her lost daughter. She soon grew bitter, losing any sense of benevolence and purpose, and all growth on Earth withered. With crops dying and people starving, Zeus had to do something. He ordered Hades to return Persephone.
Hades was subject to Zeus’ demand, yet conniving enough to find a loophole. Knowing that those who dine in his realm are forever bound to it, Hades persuaded Persephone into eating the seeds of a pomegranate.
Since then, Persephone has had to return to Hades for a few months every year. When she departs, Demeter closes herself off. Things cease to grow, and Winter arrives. The lush life goes on hiatus until the Spring, when she returns and we are reborn.
In the course of this cycle, Fall would seem to take on a foreboding quality. It becomes a fledgling preface to darkness, one that is captured beautifully in Rembrandt’s masterpiece, shown above. His rich palette is indulgent, yet sobered by the somber and foreboding tone of realism.
Here is a trademark exercise in the Baroque-a rendering of an allegorical moment which removes its distance from the earthly. Rembrandt’s characters resonate with the viewer because they exist in the here and now. We can see the terror in the expressions of Persephone and her circle, who desperately struggle to stave off her impending doom, as the unfeeling Hades drags her onward into the dark abyss.
Fall, of course, is far from being that melancholy. In today’s world, some might consider it to be invigorating following the slowed pace of Summer. September is a time of refocused ambition and purpose that is as electric as it is brief. Classes start, new jobs begin, gallery openings are flooded. The air is as crisp as the latest fashion being debuted.
How does such a masterful work then resonate with our impressions of the season today? Perhaps in the subtle mix of green and brown in the surrounding landscape. Rembrandt’s harkening towards darkness is far removed from the dazzling hues of Autumn foliage in its prime. Yet he captures what makes this season so alluring-a delicate and fleeting transition between life and death.