The Hero's Quest

Stories, in and of themselves, adhere to certain basic motifs that dictate the type of story it will be. Generally speaking, these foundational types are called tragedy, rags to riches, comedy, rebirth, and the quest. What this gallery seeks to examine is the presence of the quest, particularly in its outset, in the traditions of Western visual storytelling.

The quest, in this case in pursuit of the Holy Grail, often begins at the behest of either a ruler or a deity. These knights, who have given themselves over in service to King Arthur, have made finding the Grail their primary quest. There departure is marked by a turnout of nobles, particularly Guenivere, who's hand is kissed as the last act before entering the wilderness.
Columbus' quest begins, unfortunately for him, in the palace of a foreign monarch. Having been turned down in Italy, Columbus was forced to make overtures to the king and queen of Spain to gain backing in his quest for a western route to the Indies. Some might see the beginning of this quest as the beginning of a great evil, but certainly the monarchs and explorers pictured here would have seen it as an opportunity to evangelize on behalf of Christendom, to gain wealth, and to increase in power.
Not all quests begin in success, however. The birth of Christ marks the beginning of the greatest of all quests, but one that begins in states of ignominy. After being birth in the squalor of a barn, Christ's life is immediately under threat and so must be spirited away into Egypt, a place where Christ's people were once held in slavery. Obviously much more could be said on the symbolism contained in this moment, but it is beyond the scope of this brief study.
Heroes often receive divine assistance (and, in many cases, divine hinderance) throughout their quests. Achilles is pictured here receiving his armor from Thetis, a nymph who is his mother. a curious sort of formality given the fact that his only weak point is his ankle, the spot by which she gripped him as she dipped him into the river Styx. This armor would become significant in the dealings of Odysseus on his quest, but that is quite literally another story.
Another example of divine intervention, Aeneas is portrayed here in an attempt to kill Helen of Troy. The hero is not always in possession of all of the facts, and so may certainly be in error in his judgement, often a source of tragedy. In this instance, Aeneas believes Helen to be the source of all of the misery of the war and so seeks to end it all himself. Venus sweeps down and explains that the fault of the war belongs to the gods and that Helen must accordingly be spared.
A great deal of the hero's quest is spent in facing different challenges in pursuit of his ultimate goal. Odysseus (here called Ulysses) confronts, sometimes unsuccessfully, many difficulties along the way. This painting shows Odysseus in conflict with the Sirens, terrible temptresses whose song has drawn many sailors to their death upon the rocks. Odysseus commands that his men fill their ears with wax and to tie him to the mizzenmast so that he alone would hear it without destroying the ship.
This painting, which depicts the full sweep of the Christian Epic, gives a good indication of the purpose, action, and fulfillment of the quest story. Both of the prophets in the foreground point to the final victory and to the hero Himself, Christ. In the same way that the Knights set out for the Grail, that Columbus set out for the Indies, that Joseph and Mary protected their beloved, that Thetis armed her son, that Venus intervened on behalf of the innocent Helen, and that Odysseus faced the struggle of the Sirens, Christ has set out to face and conquer death. The attached video provides a view of one of the best of the modern myths, the original trilogy of Star Wars.
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This user gallery has been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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