Aurora was the personification of the dawn in Greco-Roman mythology. She was a child of the Titans, who were the 12 primordial gods born to heaven and earth. She was sister to the sun and moon deities and mother to the winds and stars.
According to the “Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite,” Aurora, also called Eos, fell in love with the mortal Tithonus, whom she found beautiful. She used her chariot to abduct and keep him to herself. Loving him dearly, she asked Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, and the god granted her request.
After years, however, Tithonus aged. At first, he manifested graying hair, but this was enough to push Aurora away. She realized that she had asked Zeus only for his immortality and not for eternal youth. Tithonus would live forever but would still be affected by time.
Tithonus got older, and Aurora no longer loved him like she did when he was young. Yet she still wanted to take care of him, so she put him away in her palace, where he would be comfortable.
Old age ate away at Tithonus until he was unable to move. In pity, Aurora put him in her illuminated chamber, where he continued to call out. Some accounts suggest that she changed him into a grasshopper to be reminded of him whenever she heard its song.
‘Aurora Taking Leave of Tithonus’
In the upper-right quadrant, Solimena idealized our focal point, Aurora. She sits on a cloud, which suggests her divinity. Angelic attendants crown the goddess of the dawn with a wreath of flowers and bring a torch with which she’ll illuminate the dark background.
Tithonus is in the lower-left quadrant. His old age contrasts with Aurora’s idealized youth. He reclines on a bed, and sheets cover his body. He uses his left hand to shield his eyes from the brightness of Aurora’s torch.
The Eternal Beauty of Divine Truth and Love
To me, the story of Aurora and Tithonus is more than a simple story about the woes of love or of aging. What wisdom might this painting and this story have for us today?
It’s interesting to me that Aurora is the goddess of the dawn. What is the dawn, and what does it do? Dawn is the time when night turns into day, and the sun’s light illuminates the otherwise darkened earth.
Solimena depicted Aurora as she sits on a cloud with a torch in her hand. The background is a dark blue, and Aurora is about to begin her divine duty of illuminating the darkness.
Is it possible that this is symbolic of our relationship to the divine? Does deepening our understanding of divine truth and love expose the darkness of our spirit to a light that would otherwise be absent?
Aurora is being crowned with a wreath of flowers. Another small angel carries a dish of flowers, symbolic of beauty, and Aurora holds some in her left hand. The angels provide Aurora with beauty, which suggests that as a goddess, she has access to divine beauty.
In the story, Aurora falls in love with Tithonus because of his beauty and leaves him when he loses it to old age. Then if Aurora had access to divine beauty, why would she ever be enamored with a mere mortal’s beauty?
Her torch may give us a clue. Beauty, at least visual beauty, is only experienced when illuminated. I presume that our spirits are beautiful when illuminated by divine truth and love; such illumination will fill our souls’ shadows with divine light, and the resulting beauty will shine forth.
Then was Tithonus’s beauty a combination of physical beauty and the beauty that comes with the pursuit of understanding divine truth and love? If it was, perhaps his old age resulted from his losing this desire for the divine that he once possessed.
Solimena depicted Tithonus shielding his old face from Aurora’s light. He uses his hand to create shadows where divine light would otherwise illuminate.
If Aurora’s light is symbolic of divine truth and love, then is Tithonus’s hand symbolic of rejecting divine truth and love? Interestingly enough, Tithonus’s hand, symbolic for one of his five senses, casts a shadow across his other four senses—eyes, ears, mouth, and nose—the very things through which he experiences the world.
Is Tithonus rejecting faith in divine truth and love by having his five senses participate in darkness? Maybe he gets older and becomes unattractive to Aurora because he focuses less on pursuing a deep understanding of divine truth and love and more on earthly things that darken his spirit.
Is it possible for us to renew our sincere desire for divine truth and love so that we may possess beauty worthy of the divine?
Many journeys begin with a question. What question might initiate our journey toward an illuminated spirit, eternally beautified by divine truth and love?
The traditional arts often contain spiritual representations and symbols the meanings of which can be lost to our modern minds. In our series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart,” we interpret visual arts in ways that may be morally insightful for us today. We do not assume to provide absolute answers to questions generations have wrestled with, but hope that our questions will inspire a reflective journey toward our becoming more authentic, compassionate, and courageous human beings.
Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).