The Death of Cleopatra – posted January 22nd 2023 in Boulder, CO

The Death of Cleopatra, Hans Makart, 1875

I am a sucker for all the drama, the romance, the glamour and to some extent the orientalism surrounding portrayals of Cleopatra VII Queen of Egypt. I love the aesthetics of this 1875 painting above “The Death of Cleopatra” by Austrian painter Hans Makart—the asp circling her arm, coiling around her breast, a drop of blood on her breast seemingly where the snake has bitten, her torso contorted, her face and body bejeweled and bedangled. Makart’s painting of Cleopatra is a gorgeous example of 19th century orientalist painting, the genre of painting by white Western European men who exoticize “the East” and sexualize women from the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Cleopatra’s life story and death story have suffered this form of Western orientalist misogyny since her story began being told more than two millennia ago.

Cleopatra’s death (and its representation in art and literature) is one of the questions that intrigues me as I have delved into Cleopatra’s life and history. I am preparing to embody and “perform” and make photographs of Queen Cleopatra the VII of Egypt with photographer Luis Branco in Portugal in February as part of the “My Heroines” series. In my previous studies and representations of heroines Eve, Salome, Judith, Aphrodite, Sappho and Helen of Troy, I have researched these figures and their representations (and misrepresentations) in literature, mythology, paintings, performances, sculptures, films, and in contemporary feminist criticism. I have to assume a certain amount of hubris as well as openminded investigation and humor as I embody these historic women in my 60 something year old cis-gender white woman form.

Cleopatra the VII Philopater the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt was born in 69 BC and died in 30 BC. She ruled Egypt from 51 to 30 BC. Her life (and death) story was written almost exclusively by Greek and Roman men years after her death. The Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch is a primary source. Plutarch wrote his Parallel Lives around the beginning of 200 AD, more than 200 years after Cleopatra’s death. Parallel Lives describes the lives and the characters of important Greek and Roman men. Plutarch writes about Cleopatra primarily because of her relationships with Gaius Julius Caesar (Caesar) the famous Roman general and statesman and the infamous Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) also a Roman general and politician and Caesar’s righthand man. Skepticism is important when reading Plutarch since the Greeks and the Romans were overtly critical and wary of this most renowned and wealthy Eastern Queen and of her relationship and hold over both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Whatever was the real story of Cleopatra’s love life, she bore Caesar’s only son and three of Mark Antony’s children and was one of the most powerful rulers of her time.

The Battle of Actium, Lorenzo A. Castro, 1672

To set the story for Cleopatra (and Mark Antony’s) demise and death—I begin with the Battle of Actium. After Caesar’s death/murder on the Ides of March in 44 BC Gaius Octavius (Octavian) was named as Caesars’ heir. There was an uneasy sharing of power amongst various leaders of the Roman Empire with lots of infighting and bloody battles, Romans against Romans. Mark Antony was said to have control of the East and Octavian of the West. To make a long story short, Octavian and Mark Antony (with the support and assistance of Cleopatra) fought it out for control at the Battle of Actium. The famous naval battle took place in the Ionian Sea between Octavian’s fleet (led by General Agrippa) and the combined fleet of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra’s fleet was ingloriously defeated by Octavian’s forces. Most of Antony’s soldiers defected to Octavian.  Mark Antony fled with Cleopatra back to Alexandria, a broken soldier and man. Ultimately Octavian arrived in Alexandria wanting Antony’s head and Cleopatra’s wealth and control of her Egypt. He also wanted to drag Cleopatra back to Rome to display her and exhibit his bounty to the Roman people. Both Mark Anthony and Cleopatra died and or committed suicide in Alexandria sometime in August in 30 BC. It is most likely they died separately. I like the 1963 film version with Mark Anthony dying in Cleopatra’s arms and then her own suicide, very Romeo and Juliet-ish with a gender reverse.

For Cleopatra, whether death was by asp or the poison is a big question. Here are some of the many paintings of The Death of Cleopatra, all painted by Western European men. Cleopatra is shown as a white woman, though there is dispute about her racial heritage. The drama, the boobs, the snake, are all beautifully depicted.

Death of Cleopatra, Giampietrino, 1500

The Death of Cleopatra, Guido Cagnacci, 1645-55

Death of Cleopatra, Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1796-97

The Death of Cleopatra, John Collier, 1890

The Death of Cleopatra, John Collier, 1890

Here is Plutarch’s account of Cleopatra’s death written more than two hundred years after her death:

It is said that the asp was brought with those figs and leaves and lay hidden beneath them, for thus Cleopatra had given orders, that the reptile might fasten itself upon her body without her being aware of it. But when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said: ‘There it is see, you see,’ and baring her arm she held it out for the bite. But others say that the asp was kept carefully shut up in a water jar, and that while Cleopatra was stirring it up and irritating it with a golden distaff it sprang and fastened itself upon her arm. But the truth of the matter no one knows; for it was also said that she carried about poison in a hollow comb and kept the comb hidden in her hair; and yet neither spot nor other sign of poison broke out upon her body. Moreover, not even was the reptile seen within the chamber, though people said they saw some traces of it near the sea, where the chamber looked out upon it with its windows. And some also say that Cleopatra’s arm was seen to have two slight and indistinct punctures; and this Caesar (Octavian) also seems to have believed. For in his triumph an image of Cleopatra herself with the asp clinging to her was carried in procession. These, then, are the various accounts of what happened”

Plutarch, Life of Anthony, 86. Translated by B. Perrin

The Death of Cleopatra, Edmonia Lewis, 1876

I would like to conclude with one of my favorite representations of The Death of Cleopatra. In my research I came upon a remarkable 1876 sculpture of Cleopatra by Edmonia Lewis. Edmonia Lewis was an American sculptor of mixed African American and Native American heritage. Lewis was born “free” in New York in 1844, she died in London in 1907. Edmonia led a  remarkable and difficult life, ultimately finding refuge in the international art community of Rome in 1865.  Her monumental sculpture “The Death of Cleopatra” was shown in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and was both fervently admired and controversial in her portrayal of Cleopatra’s death.  Edmonia Lewis was one of the few women artists of color working in the US at this time and the only woman of color exhibiting in the Centennial Exposition. Her representation of Cleopatra’s death has an integrity about it that you just don’t see in other representations of Cleopatra; there is not a sexualization of Edmonia’s Cleopatra though her breast is bared and she is certainly beautiful. Cleopatra leans back in her throne, an informality and peacefulness in her death. Cleopatra is not a drama queen here. Lewis purposely represents Cleopatra as a white woman. Edmonia Lewis’s representation of this powerful and controversial Queen in the hour of death is graceful, intimate and regal.

I leave for Portugal for the Cortico Artist Residency February 1st and I will be embodying Cleopatra and the Egyptian goddess Isis.

Sappho – The Misunderstood – posted in Boulder, CO November 14th 2022

All images: WIP Sappho Series – Sherry Wiggins and Luis Filipe Branco, 2022

I have been editing the images I made in Holland in October with Luis Branco.

And I have been thinking about you Sappho, the feeling of you, my feelings for you, embodying you . . .

Claude Cahun led me to you— your words, your songs, the fragments. Cahun called you “Sappho The Misunderstood” in her essay on you in their 1925 “Heroines” text.

I have been contemplating the rumors, the conjecture and the fictional histories written about you. These unaccountable stories about you have been going on for more than two thousand years.

Did you love women, did you love men, did you jump off the Leucadian Cliff because the beautiful boatman Phaon jilted you? Well of course you loved women and you loved men and you went for that young Phaon. But I don’t believe for a minute that you would jump  . . .

When I was shooting with Luis in the autumn landscape in Holland your words were kind of everywhere for me.  This is fragment 168 C – translated by Anne Carson in “If Not Winter-Fragments of Sappho.”

                                    spangled is

              the earth with her crowns

But the beauty, the colors, the roses, It can get a little overly romanticized with you. I like this one (I know I am overdoing the cigarette shots):

This following song/ fragment could have been written about any of your lovers or any of mine  . . . 

Sappho # 3 – Anne Carson’s translation “If Not, Winter – Fragments of Sappho.”

] to give

] yet of the glorious

] of the beautiful and good, you

            ] of pain.            ] me

] blame

] swollen

] you take your fill. For [ my thinking

] not thus

] is arranged

] nor

all night long ] I am aware

                           ] of evildoing


                        ] other

                        ] minds

                        ] blessed ones



We did a series in the nighttime woods. I can’t decide between these two:

To read more about Sappho, her songs and her various histories and portrayals you can read my previous blog posts:

The Sadistic Judith? – posted in Boulder, CO November 14, 2022

All images: WIP Judith Series – Sherry Wiggins and Luis Filipe Branco, 2022

I have been editing the images I made with Luis Branco in Holland in October.

The night that Judith took the head of Holofernes began with a feast. Holofernes got very drunk.

There are many readings of Judith’s story: that Judith was doing “God’s will” to protect her people with her own hand; or that she was/ is a feminist super heroine taking revenge on the evil general Holofernes (or even for all woman against all men who have abused them); or as Claude Cahun portrayed Judith in her 1925 essay as “The Sadistic Judith.” I see all of these readings in my performance of Judith. The revenge angle or the “me too” angle is the most compelling to me.

“The Sadistic Judith”  is the 1925 essay by Claude Cahun’s in their Heroines text. Here Judith describes the fictional general Holofernes:

“ We have to believe that he despises women, and doesn’t hide it (after all, he himself says so); that he is coarse, as only a warrior can be. After he kissed his slave, he would furtively wipe his lips. He doesn’t remove his garments for fear of soiling his body more than absolutely necessary. During nights of love, his boots are stained with the crimson in which he wallows, symbolically dyed with the red poison of his victims, tracking everywhere, according to the season, the dust or mud of the roads, or worse. But as the cock crows, he has his bath, sends the girl away—and has the sheets changed (blood clotted on silk sheets).”

Here are a few of my representations / embodiments / drag portrayals of Judith after the slaying of Holofernes. This first one is after one of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith paintings.

This next one is after Jan Massys 1543 painting.

And this is after Giorgione’s 1504 painting. And the next three images show Judith’s ambivalence and horror the “morning after” after the act.

You can read my previous blog post with the stories and representations of Judith that I was thinking about before (and during) my own performances of Judith:

Besotted by Artemisia’s paintings of Judith and Holofernes – posted in Renkum, Holland October 7, 2022

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1611 – 1612, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

I am at the OBRAS Artist Residency in Renkum Holland preparing to embody and photograph my new but ancient heroines Judith and Sappho with my collaborator photographer Luis Branco. I am relooking at Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi’s (1593-1656) paintings of the ancient heroine Judith. Artemisia painted several portraits of Judith during her remarkable career as well as many other female heroines.

I have been studying the ancient fictional heroine Judith, who in the Book of Judith cut off the head of the (fictional) Assyrian general Holofernes. The Book of Judith is non historical fiction and can be seen as a theological novel or a religious parable (it is also considered to be a deuterocanonical book and/or apocrypha). It is not part of the Hebrew Bible, it’s canonicity in Christianity is complicated: however the story is well known in most Jewish and Christian religious traditions. The history of western art is filled with paintings of Judith— the Baroque painters particularly loved the gore and glamour of the story of Judith. You must recognize the magnificent painting by Caravaggio below that influenced Artemisia’s earliest paintings of Judith.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Caravaggio, 1598 – 1599 or 1602, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome

I have been reading The Book of Judith, in one version titled “Apocrypha Judith of the  King James Bible 1611”. The original story was probably written sometime around the 2nd century BC. The story goes that Judith was a beautiful Jewish widow, told to be extremely virtuous and pious (the name Judith literally means woman from Judea). She lived near the fictional town of Bethulia ( supposedly near Jerusalelum). Judith spent her days praying in a tent on the roof of her house clothed in a widow’s poor sack cloth. The first chapters of the book tell of how the greedy (fictional) Assyrian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had sent his large army under the leadership of the general Holofernes to Palestine to conquer the Israelites. The Assyrian army camped in the valley near the town of Bethulia cutting off their water and food and ready to attack Bethulia and go on to take Jerusalem. The townspeople had no way of protecting themselves from the large army and they feared that their God would not save them. Our heroine Judith stepped into the situation and told the townspeople that they must not question God’s protection. Judith tells them that she will send prayers and messages to her/their God to “break down their (the Assyrian army) stateliness by the hand of a woman” to save the Jewish people. Judith made a plan which she did not reveal to the townspeople, and apparently God gave her the go ahead . . .

Then Judith took off her poor widow’s clothes and washed and anointed herself with precious ointments and dressed herself in her best garments:

“And she took sandals upon her feet, and put about her her bracelets, and her chains, and her rings, and her earrings, and all her ornaments, and decked herself bravely, to allure the eyes of all men that should see her.” {Apocrypha, Judith of the King James Bible 1611, 10:4}

And she went with her loyal maid Abra to the Assyrian camp (bringing with her wine and cheese and fine bread) and asked the soldiers to take her to their general Holofernes for she had a plan to help him to conquer the town of Bethulia. The soldiers were overwhelmed by her beauty and believed her words and led her to the tent of Holofernes who was also besot by her countenance and fooled by her words.

For several days and nights Judith acts to seduce and soften Holofernes, though she never takes to his bed . . .  One night there is a feast in Holoferne’s tent and he gets very drunk and passes out on his bed. Holoferne’s servants and guards leave the tent and Judith takes this opportunity to cut off his head by her own hand with Holoferne’s sword. She smuggles the head out of the camp to Bethulia in the middle of the night aided by her maid Abra. When the townspeople see what Judith has accomplished they hang the head of Holofernes at the gate for all to see. They are amazed at what Judith has accomplished to save  the Israelites and word goes out to all. The soldiers and servants of Holofernes discover the decapitated body in the tent and are horrified and afraid and quickly take up their horses and flee. As the Assyrian soldiers run away, the Israelites take their spoils. Judith is the savior of Israel and a heroine forever more. I won’t get into the religious, political, historical, patriarchal and feminist implications of this story—there are many ways to interpret this story. I am not Christian or Jewish, I am a Feminist and I do love this story of Judith’s intelligent maneuvering, her courage and her careful execution of her plan. The the jewelry, the fine clothes, the food, the seduction, the sword: what’s not to love?

Judith and Her Maidservant, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1613 – 1614, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

There are many paintings by many painters depicting Judith decapitating Holofernes and the aftermath. The several paintings that Artemisia Gentileschi painted of Judith over a period of 30 years always show Judith with her loyal maid servant Abra. As in many of Artemisia’s paintings, she often inserted her own visage in the place of the heroine and here she might insert herself as both Judith and Abra. All of these paintings captivate me! The story of Judith was most certainly originally written by a man. Artemisia’s viewpoint is, of course, reflective of a woman’s experience and perhaps even of Artemisia’s own experience negotiating and manipulating her career and life in a 17th century man’s world. Artemisia was most certainly a feminist as well as an incredibly productive and remarkable artist. She had suffered sexual violence, herself, at a young age by the older painter Augustino Tassi, who was a friend of her father the painter Orazio Gentileschi. Tassi was put to trial for the act but never really suffered any repercussions, while Artemisia suffered many consequences. Artemisia was a 17th century “me too” woman who managed to live a productive and creative life, though there is often a subtle element of violence in her paintings and there is most certainly an intense subjectivity that is not often seen in the paintings by men. Below is my personal favorite of Artemisia Gentileschi’s paintings of Judith.

Judith and her Maidservant, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1625, Detroit Institute of the Arts

A few of my favorite Judiths’ by men . . .

Judith, Giorgione, 1504, Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530, The Metropolitan Museum, NYC

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Jan Massey, 1543, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

and some more contemporary performances of Judith . . .

Martha Graham Dance Company performing Judith, with Peggy Lyman, 1980

And I love this performance of Judith by Martine Guitierrez (from their Icon series made for bus stations in NYC), 2021

And finally one more by Artemisia—this last painting below was only recently found. A younger Judith (and an older Abra) look out of the frame, the head of Holofernes in the center of the painting. This is one of Gentileschi’s later paintings of Judith.

Judith and Her Maidservant and the Head of Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1639 or 1640, Nasjonal Museet, Oslo

I have many ideas and a sword to be wielded as I prepare to perform Judith (and also Sappho)! This blog post was written with some haste, please forgive the writing. I am working in Holland until the 27th of October.

Part One – Sappho’s songs – posted in Boulder, CO Sept 17, 2022

The line drawing above depicts the ancient lyric poets Alcaeus and Sappho. This was drawn on an Attic vase that is attributed to the Brygos painter, 480-470 BCE. The ancient vase is housed in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen Museum, Munchen, Germany. The line drawing is by Valerie Woelfe

I have been studying the ancient lyric poet Sappho as part of the My Heroines project. I am getting ready to go to the OBRAS Artist Residency in Renkum, Holland to work on my “embodiments” and portrayals of the great poetess in performative photographs with my collaborator photographer Luis Branco.

The drawing above is taken from an ancient Greek vase  (circa 470 BC) and it pictures the two lyric poets Alcaeus and Sappho who both lived and performed on the island of Lesbos during the 6th century BC. This is one of the earliest representations of Sappho (that we know of) and it was created at least some 100 years after her death. The two poets (Alcaeus and Sappho) did live during the same time on Lesbos, whether they played together is not known. There are many unsubstantiated ideas about Sappho, one is that Sappho and Alcaeus were lovers. We do know that Sappho was born and lived on the island of Lesbos between 630 and 570 BC. She was born to a wealthy family. We also know that she was a prolific lyric poet and she was heralded and praised in her own time and on throughout the ages. Her works were composed to be accompanied by music, sometimes with a female chorus for groups of women and men. Some of her songs were performed solo. She sang in the Aeolian dialect (different then the dialect used in Greece and Athens at that time). It is not known if Sappho herself wrote down her words/songs. It is thought that her songs were written down in about 500 BC in Greece and that there were approximately 10,000 lines compiled in several “books” of her poetry (8 or 9 papyrus scrolls). These scrolls were housed in the great library in Alexandria in about 300 BC and in other places as well. These books/scrolls have been lost and today only approximately 650 lines of her large body of lyric poetry survive and have been compiled and translated. None of the music that accompanied these lines exists today.

This Attic red-figure vase above is from the 5th century BC and features a seated woman reading from a papyrus scroll with three women attendants. Some think the seated figure is meant to portray Sappho. It is housed in the British Museum.

I have been reading various translations (in English) of these famous remains of Sappho’s lyric poetry. I have also been looking into the reception and understanding of Sappho’s work through the ages—from Plato (who called Sappho the “tenth muse”) through to contemporary queer and feminist studies of Sappho as well as some of the most recent translations and scholarship on her work. This is a daunting task and I have only skimmed the surface.

Sappho has been portrayed in paintings, poems, operas, plays, performances and critical analysis as a brilliant poetess and musician, a priestess of Aphrodite, a teacher of young women and sometimes as a wanton woman. There has always been much speculation, invention and mythologizing about her love life and her sexual proclivities. Does she love men, or women or both?

Anne Carson wrote in the introduction to her wonderful translations of Sappho’s work: If Not, Winter‑Fragments of Sappho:

Controversies about her (Sappho’s) personal ethics and way of life have taken up a lot of people’s time throughout the history of Sapphic scholarship. It seems that she knew and loved women as deeply as she did music. Can we leave the matter there?”

I don’t think it is possible to “leave the matter there” for any of us as Ms. Carson suggests. We all read into the words of Sappho what we want to. We project onto Sappho our innermost sensibilities and questions: of identity, of sexuality, of love, of subjectivity, of female power and the repression there of. It seems to me that even the scholars and translators who have devoted their lives to her study aren’t entirely objective either. Sappho’s effect on all of us is sensorial and transformative‑her words ignite us in various ways.  These words and poems were originally performed with musical instruments and often accompanied by a chorus of young women singing and dancing. I feel the urge to insert myself into these songs, these performances and complete them. And many others have felt the same.

I have selected several poems and fragments that I intend to work with in my own “performances” and embodiments of Sappho. I begin, here, with the most complete extant poem of Sappho. This translation is by Anne Carson from her book If Not Winter, Fragments of Sappho. This is known as poem #1, or Prayer for Aphrodite or Ode to Aphrodite.

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind

child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you

do not break with hard pains,

O lady, my heart

 but come here if ever before

 you caught my voice far off

and listened left your father’s

golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you,

quick sparrows over the black earth

whipping their wings down the sky

through midair—

they arrived. But you, O blessed one,

smiled in your deathless face

and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why

(now again) I am calling out

and what I want to happen most of all

in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)

to lead you back into her love? Who, O

Sappho, is wronging you?

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.

If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them.

If she does not love, soon, she will love

even unwilling.

Come to me now: loose me from hard

care and all my heart longs

to accomplish, accomplish. You

be my ally.

Sappho #1 (translation by Anne Carson, If Not, Winter‑—Fragments of Sappho)

This is a call to prayer for Aphrodite—the goddess of love, sexual love, passionate love, married love, all love. Here Sappho calls to Aphrodite in a very intimate way. Aphrodite arrives flying her golden car with sparrows and says: “Who, O Sappho, is wronging you?” Aphrodite (Sappho) uses (now again) three times in the poem. It is as if Aphrodite has heard Sappho’s complaints and heart aches many times before. Here Sappho emphasizes the universal experience of pain when you are deserted by the one you love.  Aphrodite’s advice to Sappho is somewhat ambiguous: “For if she flees, soon she will pursue. If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them. If she does not love, soon, she will love even unwilling.” It is not clear if “she,” the object of Sappho’s affection, will pursue Sappho or if “she” will pursue another. The point being that none of us has any control in this situation of love. Sappho asks Aphrodite to be her “ally” in this heart wrenching situation. Sappho calls on Aphrodite in several of her other poems as well, Aphrodite and Sappho are forever entwined.

The sweetness and the bitterness of erotic love and desire or “eros” is one of the themes that permeates Sappho’s surviving work. Fragment #130 (Sappho’s poems have been numbered over time) is one of Sappho’s most famous fragments. Here she brings to us the term “sweetbitter.” I have posted three different translations of the lines. It is interesting to note how Sappho’s lines are translated so differently.

Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me—

sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in

Sappho #130 (translation by Anne Carson in  If Not, Winter‑—Fragments of Sappho)

Once again Love, that loosener of limbs,

bittersweet and inescapable, crawling thing,

seizes me.

Sappho #130 (translation by Diane J. Rayor in “Sappho – A New Translation of the Complete Works”)

That impossible predator,

Eros the Limb-Loosener,

Bitter Sweetly and afresh

Savages my flesh.

Sappho #130 (translaton by Aaron Poochigian in “Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments)

Above is an image of the fragments known as the “Cologne papyri” which are fragments of Sappho’s poem # 58 also known as the Tithonus poem, dating to the third century BC, these fragments preserve twelve lines of the poem. Published in 2004, the finds drew international media attention.

One of my favorite songs is Sappho #58, also called the “old age poem” or the “Tithonus poem.” This beautiful song appears to be a very personal song about Sappho’s aging process and it is believed that she sang this song with a group of younger women. The poem has been the subject of much excitement and discussion in the 21st century because new (but ancient) papyrus fragments were identified in 2004, making this song one of the few substantially complete poems of Sappho. In this song Sappho alludes to the story of the goddess Dawn’s (Eos’) love for the mortal Trojan prince Tithonus. Eos requests that Zeus make Tithonus immortal and Zeus does so. However the goddess forgets to ask Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal youth. Thus Tithonus lives out his long life (with Eos) and ages into an old shriveled man. According to some stories Tithonus eventually turns into a cicada. I love this song of Sappho’s and feel it in my bones. Here I have posted the translation by Diane J. Rayor from her book “Sappho A New Translation of the Complete Works.

[I bring] the beautiful gifts of the violet Muses, girls,

And [I love] that song lover, the sweet-toned lyre.

My skin was [delicate] before, but now old age

[claims it]; my hair turned from black [to white].

My spirit has grown heavy; knees buckle

That once could dance light as fawns.

I often groan, but what can I do?

Impossible for humans not to age.

For they say rosy-armed Dawn in love

went to the ends of earth holding Tithonos,

beautiful and young, but in time gray old age

seized even him with an immortal wife.

                                    . . . believes

                                    . . . may give

Yet I love the finer things . . . this and passion

for the light of life have granted me brilliance and beauty.

Sappho #58 (translation by Diane J. Raynor in “Sappho – A New Translation of the Complete Works”)

Please read my recent blog post (Part Two – Sappho: projections, portrayals, portraits and performances) to see some of my favorite portrayals of Sappho in paintings and performance.

Part Two – Sappho: projections, portrayals, portraits and performances – posted in Boulder, CO Sept 17, 2022

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864, Simeon Solomon, watercolor on paper, 33 x 38 cm, The Tate Gallery

The painting above by British artist Simeon Solomon pictures the famed ancient lyric poetess Sappho (on the right with the laurel leaf crown) with another ancient poetess Erinna. They are posed in an intense embrace on a bench in a garden in Mytilene, the ancient capital of Lesbos. Is this “lesbian” love or the ardor of one female artist/muse for another? What is Solomon striving for here? Little is known of both poetesses lives but we do know that Erinna lived a few hundred years after Sappho and Errina was definitely not from the island of Lesbos. In the painting there is a statue of Aphrodite near Sappho, as well as her lyre. The palette is muted, feminine, roses abound. Sappho embraces Errina passionately as a lover and as a fellow poetess. This gorgeous painting adds romantic fodder to the mystique around the great poetess Sappho. Simeon Solomon was himself a closeted homosexual who was later jailed for attempted sodomy.

Please read my previous blog post  “Part One – Sappho’s Songs” to learn more about Sappho’s remarkable lyric poetry. Sappho is the woman /the heroine / the artist I am currently studying as part of the “My Heroines” project. Here I have been researching ancient women heroines. I immerse myself in these women’s stories and representations in texts, writings, paintings, sculpture and critical discourse. I then reimagine and revise these figures in my own visage in performative still photographs that I have made and will continue to make with my collaborator photographer Luis Branco. Over the last year we have manifested Eve, Salome, Aphrodite and Helen of Troy in my sixty-something year old form in images that are weird, powerful and sometimes funny. You can see some of these performative works on my previous blog posts and also on Instagram In October (very soon) I will return to the residency at OBRAS Holland to work with Luis on the embodiment and performance of the great poetess Sappho and also the biblical heroine Judith (I will write more about Judith later).

Sappho and Phaon, Jacques-Louis David, 1809, oil on canvas 225 x 262 cm, Hermitage Museum

The Jacques-Louis David painting above portrays Sappho with another one of her mythological lovers Phaon. Aphrodite/ Venus’s loyal messenger Cupid accompanies them. According to the ancient myth Phaon was a ferryman who served the isle of Lesbos. He was supposedly old and ugly when Aphrodite came to his boat in the disguise of a croan. Phaon ferried her across the waters and would take no payment. Aphrodite was grateful and gave Phaon a special ointment in payment. When he rubbed himself with the ointment Phaon became young and very handsome. In the subsequent story Sappho, as an older woman, had an intense love affair with the beautiful young Phaon. However, Phaon eventually grew to resent her and rejected her love. Sappho was so heart broken that she decided to throw herself in the sea to either cure herself of the love affair or die. Thus the idea of the “Leucadian Leap”. According to this ancient legend, Sappho did die.

Mythical stories, paintings, performances and writing about Sappho (who lived during the time 630 – 570 BC) abound throughout the millennia along with the adoration of Sappho’s songs. Everyone loves Sappho but whom did she love? Did she love men? Did she love women? Or both? And why has this legend that Sappho committed suicide by jumping off the Leucadian cliffs persisted throughout the ages? In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a major resurgence of interest in Sappho amongst artists and poets as well as an exploration and acknowledgement of Sappho’s love of women. In fact, the word “lesbian” (which in previous times meant someone who came from the island of Lesbos) came to be used to describe the homosexual love and sexual relationships between women. Sappho and “sapphism” became a part of the cultural dialogue even when homosexual men were being persecuted and jailed (think Simeon Solomon, Oscar Wilde and others). Operas and plays with Sappho as the main character abounded. Sappho also came to the fore amongst lesbian artists and poets—there were the famed gatherings in Natalie Barney’s home in Neuilly, France where women dressed in Greek togas and danced around the garden. In the late 20th and early 21st century the term “sapphism” has also become an umbrella term describing the attraction or relationships between women—whether they identify as lesbian, bi, pan, asexual, trans or queer. Sappho is one of our most famous queer icons.

Above and following are some of my favorite 19th and early 20th century paintings and portrayals and performances of Sappho.

Sappho, 1893, Ary Renan, oil on canvas, 56 x 80 cm, Museo Ernest Renan

The Death of Sappho, 188, Miguel Carbonell Selva

Sappho (at Sunset), 1893, Gustave Moreau, location unknown
The Death of Sappho, 1873-4, Gustave Moreau, 81 x 62 , oil on canvas, location unknown
Sappho, 1852, James Pradier, marble sculpture, Musee d’Orsay
Sappho, 1873, Charles Mengin, 230 x 151 cm, oil on canvas, Manchester Art Gallery
Sappho, Julius Kronberg, 1913, oil on canvas, private collection
A gathering of women including Eva Palmer, Natalie Barney and possibly Liane de Pougy in Barney’s garden in the early 1900’s in  Neuilly, France. From the Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institute Archives, Alice Pike Barney Papers.
A gathering of women including Eva Palmer, Natalie Barney and possibly Liane de Pougy in Barney’s garden in the early 1900’s in Neuilly, France. From the Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institute Archives, Alice Pike Barney Papers.
Production photo of Régina Badet as Sappho. Le Théâtre 319 (1 April 1912)

I too have come to Iove Sappho—both her songs and all her mythical manifestations throughout the ages. I am excited (and nervous) about my project with the great poetess. I am traveling to the OBRAS Artist Residency in Renkum, Holland (where I worked on the project THE UNKNOWN HEROINE in 2019) in a few weeks to work on performing and embodying the great poetess with my collaborator photographer Luis Branco. Wish me luck.

Looking Back – The Helen Series, posted in Boulder, Colorado July 17, 2022

WIP – The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 1592

I have been editing the works I accomplished in April with my collaborator Luís Branco in northern Portugal. I had rented a stone house with a waterfall, a swimming pool, and a beautiful garden. My intent was to embody Helen; Beautiful Helen, Helen of Troy, Helen of Sparta—my own interpretation of this mythical woman with a contemporary 66 year-old feminist bent. I had done my research on Helen ahead of time. I had read much of the text and mythos surrounding Helen, and I had looked at how Helen has been “painted” over time.

I began with this question – how would Helen look back on her fabled life and her epic reputation, as an older woman, when all was said and done?

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

Did she fall in love and lust with the sexy Trojan prince, Paris, and leave her husband King Menelaus to sail off for Troy? This would imply a certain amount of agency on her part, which I am all for. Or did Paris abduct her— initiating a violent journey and her long captivity in Troy?

The Loves of Paris and Helen, c. 1788, Jacques-Louis David

As either a ravishing seductress or a gorgeous victim, Helen has been blamed for the devastation and destruction of the Trojan War. Euripides, in his play titled Helen, portrays her as both a phantom temptress and a loyal wife. According to him (and others too) the Helen who stayed in Troy during those ten long years of the Trojan War was an eidolon / a ghost. And, while the ghost or the phantom of Helen was in Troy wed to Paris, the “real” Helen was waylaid in Egypt and remained a steadfast wife to Menelaus.

Helen at the Scaean Gate, c. 1888, Gustave Moreau

I love this Gustave Moreau image above of Helen at the main gate of Troy. Of all the Helens in all the stories, I relate most to this eidolon Helen, this doppelganger of Helen and these images below were inspired by her and by Moreau’s painting . . .

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

Then there are the “recovery” stories of Helen (whether she is the real Helen or the ghost of Helen) from the burning ruins of Troy by Menelaus. Euripides describes this reclaiming of Helen in the aftermath of the war in the play titled Andromache. Lord Peleus insults Menelaus thus:

“When you took Troy you failed to put your wife to death, though you had her in your power—on the contrary, when you looked at her breast, you threw away your sword and accepted her kiss, caressing the traitorous bitch, you miserable wretch, born slave to lust.”

Attic black-figure amphora, ca. 550 BC. by the Amasis Painter depicting the Recovery of Helen by Menelaus. Now in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen

The beautiful amphora above displays one of the earliest figurative depictions of Helen of Troy as she is being led back to the ship with Menelaus after the Greeks conquer Troy.

Helena and Menelaos, Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1816.

The “recovery” story is reenacted in Dutch painter Johann Tischbein’s painting above. Notice the dropped sword of Menelaus and Helen’s lightly draped and beautiful breasts. Menelaus intended to slay her for her infidelity but was so struck by her beauty (and her boobs) that he took her back to Sparta.

In any case, Helen does survive the Trojan war and, according to Homer in the Iliad, she returns to Sparta to live a harmonious life with Menelaus. I find this story line hard to believe. In another account by Euripides Helen is flown to Olympus by the gods after the war to live out her life as an immortal. This must have been the story line for Gustave Moreau’s Helen Glorified below.

Helen Glorified, c. 1896, Gustave Moreau

Whether Helen is portrayed as a shameless queen, a brilliant specter or a virtuous wife—she has been constituted and reconstituted as a figment of patriarchal perception throughout millennia. If I were Helen (or her doppelganger) after all these journeys, wars, husbands – I would be exhausted . . . and want to live out the remainder of my life in a quiet fashion alone by the pool in Sparta (or wherever).

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

The image below is perhaps my favorite of The Helen Series.

WIP –  The Helen Series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

Finding My Aphrodite: the practice, the process, the images—posted in Boulder, CO June 21, 2022

All images are from the My Aphrodite series, Sherry Wiggins and Luís Filipe Branco, 2022

I have been looking, sorting, making sense of and editing the MANY images that I took with Luis Branco on the Costa Vicentina in Portugal at the end of March. It is good to let the images breath . . .  you become attached to the images when you first shoot them and look through them. The shooting process was arduous . . . Luis and I worked many days clambering down the cliffs on the Costa Vicentina—shooting hundreds of images on the beautiful beaches at first light and at last light. And the ocean at the Costa Vicentina is almost too gorgeous, too vast, too poetic— it was overwhelming. I also had to figure out the right fabric (it was the cheesy diaphanous blue fabric I bought at Joanne’s on a whim), the right dress, the right make-up (but not too much) and most of all the right Aphrodite Attitude. 

I have also realized that it took a good amount of hubris and courage to beckon the goddess of love, lust, beauty, desire and procreation. I had done my extensive research on her ancient mythos read her hymns and her lore and looked at her long history. You can read all about it on my blog post from early March:

And then I just had to let go of the concepts, the ideas . . .  and I had to take on a “what the f…” attitude with confidence. I was embodying the immortal goddess in my 66 year-old mortal form.  And Luis had to get every shot . . .

This all came together during our last photoshoot in the evening light at the Praia da Carreagem—My Aphrodite emerged. These are my favorite images from that last photoshoot and from the whole week of shooting on the Costa Vicentina. These are the My Aphrodite images.

I am happy with these images (I need to get some processing and printing done) and Luis wants to convert some of the images to black and white. I will go on to sort and edit the series we shot of Helen of Troy and Sparta in Northern Portugal in April. And I am looking forward to researching and enacting more of My Heroines (Sappho, the Virgin Mary? And many more…) Happy Summer!!

WIP – Making Eve / The Serpent and the Marmeleira Tree – posted in Boulder, CO November 7, 2021

all images: Sherry Wiggins and Luís Branco, 2021

I have been home for a little over a week now—settling in and beginning to look at the many images I made in Portugal at the OBRAS Artist Residencies with my collaborator, photographer Luís Branco. It was the best residency yet at OBRAS Portugal, this was my seventh residency at OBRAS Portugal (lucky 7) and I have been collaborating with Luís in Portugal and in the Netherlands since 2015. I arrived at Herdade da Marmeleira (the site of OBRAS Portugal) and I was greeted by my dear friends Carolien and Ludger, the founders of Foundation OBRAS and my hosts and major supporters of Luís and my work.

My intent was to shoot (with Luís) my embodiments and reinterpretations of the heroines Eve and of Salome with some reference to their historic representations in painting and literature. The characters / heroines I am choosing are all based on the ultimate inspiration for this project Claude Cahun— both their 1925 text Heroines as well as Cahun’s more theatrical self- portraits and performative images. There are 15 heroines in Cahun’s text (Eve, Judith, Penelope, Helen, Sappho, The Virgin Mary, Cinderella, Marguerite, Salome, Beauty, THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess (whom I have already represented in THE UNKNOWN HEROINE book and exhibition), Sophie, Salamacis, and THE ANDROGYNE. Of course there is tongue and cheek involved with Cahun’s re-presentations of these heroines, and also my own – after all I am a 66 year old feminist artist embodying these fabled women and Cahun was a radical feminist, gender fluid, artist in the early 20th century rewriting the allegories and stories of their lives.

I was a little intimidated at the beginning, embodying these illustrious heroines seemed a daunting task. Luís and I began shooting Eve / the Serpent in the beautiful studio  at OBRAS  under more controlled conditions. This way I could slowly take on this “original woman,” mother of us all, and apparently the reason we are not all still in paradise.  Working in the studio situation I began to get my dangerous woman Eve / Serpent ju ju going and Luis captured some great images. Here are a few:

There are lots of representations of Eve but this watercolor by William Blake “The Temptation of Eve” (created for Milton’s Paradise Lost) spoke to me. I love the organic quality of the tree and the fruit, the serpent wrapping around Eve’s body, and Adam seemingly unaware of the circumstances. I also like the conflation of Eve and the Serpent, they are one body. I am a Buddhist and not a biblical scholar, but I do sincerely question this idea that “they” (Eve and the Serpent) are responsible for the expulsion from Paradise. I had found this super cool holographic snake fabric and special gloves (during my preparations in the US) and I brought this new costume to use for this embodiment.

The Temptation of Eve, William Blake, 1808

Then we started shooting Eve / Serpent Woman by the Marmeleira tree in the courtyard at OBRAS. As I have written before, I chose the Marmeleira tree at OBRAS because it is so beautiful and also because there is some research and speculation about the original “forbidden fruit” in Paradise. If our biblical paradise was located on this earth, it was most likely in some more southern habitat. Apples are a more northern fruit. Some say that the Marmelo fruit / the Quince fruit could have been the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. The fig, the persimmon, the pomegranate, are also possible suspects. We did our first shoot with the Marmeleira tree at dusk. Here are a few of those images:

Luis came back a week later and we did two more photo shoots (one in the morning and one in the evening) with the Marmeleira tree, this time with lights. Here are a few images from these last two photoshoots.

Cydney Payton has been helping me go through the many images of Eve and the Marmeleira tree. I am really excited about this new heroine of mine. I have many other images to sort through including my Salome embodiments. Lots of really good work! Other friends have been helping me sort the images, thank you! I am also sure that this project will go on with many more of Claude Cahun and my heroines. Va va voom!!

My friend Karla Dakin found this excellent article which confirms my belief in the marmelo / quince – It wasn’t an apple:

the limited edition artists’ book – THE UNKNOWN HEROINE, posted in Boulder, CO, April 22, 2021

THE UNKNOWN HEROINE is a 64-page limited edition artists’ book made by conceptual artist Sherry Wiggins in collaboration with photographer Luís Filipe Branco and curator and writer Cydney Payton. The book is comprised of text and images that are based on Wiggins’ interaction with French photographer and writer Claude Cahun’s essay “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess.” The book includes this essay by Claude Cahun as well as an essay by Cydney Payton. You can download Payton’s essay below. The book was designed by Joseph Logan.

PROLOGUE FOR C.C. – Sherry Wiggins

I am writing to you, C.C., about what happened in The House.

The House, named Grunfoort after a castle that disappeared long ago, was strange at first. It was beautiful, old-fashioned. White tulips grew in the garden. Aren’t they a symbol of loss? I saw them for their other meaning—regeneration.

Persephone called to me. Or was it Demeter? Daughter or mother? This always confuses me.

I brought your Heroines* with me. The stories (allegories, para­bles) are so good, so complicated, filled with references to history, to the Bible, to literature, mythology, fairytales, and they are so wickedly feminist and modern: EVE THE TOO CREDULOUS, Penelope the Irresolute, HELEN THE REBEL, SAPPHO THE MISUNDERSTOOD, SALOME THE SKEPTIC, BEAUTY (OR THE TASTE FOR THE BEAST), THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess, THE ANDROGYNE and the rest. I want to make all of your Heroines my own.

As I delved into the tale of “THE ESSENTIAL WIFE or the the Unknown Princess,” allusion by allusion, I understood that, though the story is yours, this is really my story. And though you tell the story well, I have lived this story. I also realized that The House was the perfect setting for the tale, a perfect abode for both THE WIFE and the the Princess.

That’s how it all began—the embodiment, this practice, this the­atre—with me enacting the story—your version, my version, our version, in The House.

I took my role as THE ESSENTIAL WIFE quite seriously, and the the Unknown Princess emerged as well. I dressed in black. I pulled my hair back severely. Lots of makeup—Chanel and more. Was it a parody, a performance or truth? The truth, is an older woman looks better with makeup, not too much.

I am no actress. I have become a performance artist. Who knew? Maybe you knew, C.C.; you did all that theatre in Paris in the twenties. I love those images of you as The Devil, The Buddha, The Dandy, The Maiden. Identity is a fluid subject, but you already know that.

Day after day I performed quite well—almost not a performance— as THE ESSENTIAL (House) WIFE. What drudgery! What fun! Well, the the Unknown Princess certainly appeared too. It was all somewhat exhausting: the cooking, the cleaning, the play acting. I needed lots of cigarettes in the garden.

That last morning, while putting on makeup, eyeliner, red lip­stick in the upstairs bathroom, standing there in my tights and Spanish socks, I thought, Why not? I went to the banister and posed. What do you think, C.C? Am I THE ANDROGYNE? 

Still performing, I put on my robe and went into The Study, the most beautiful room in The House. The windows, the light . . .

What do you think, C.C.? What is a Masterpiece anyway? Masterpiece or not—who decides?

* Claude Cahun, “Heroines,” translated Norman MacAfee, in Inverted Odysseys: Claude Cahun, Maya Deren, Cindy Sherman, ed. Shelley Rice (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1999), 43 – 94.

You can download the pdf of Cydney Payton’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” below:

All 19 performative photographs in the book were made in collaboration with Luís Filipe Branco. All 19 images are also available as limited edition archival digital prints.

All photographs of the book were made by Robert Kittila.

Please contact me if you would like to receive a copy of the book.