Art Analysis: Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners and Marian Apparation

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The image that we look at is an oil painting by French painter Alexandre Cabanel, called Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners. This painting was created in 1887, when Cabanel was 64 years of age and this was just before his death in 1889. In the imagine we see Cleopatra sitting with what can be presumed as a slave fanning her down while she calmly looks upon two men carrying a dead prisoner and another prisoner in serious pain, Cleopatra is wearing an Egyptian style headdress and jewellery along with exotic clothing, with the clothing leaving her breasts out. She is sitting on a tigers pelt and beside her is a disciplined pet cheetah that can be considered the representation of the Egyptian goddess Mafdet "Mafdet has been considered the goddess of judgment, justice, and execution. She is believed to be the first feline goddess, predating Bastet and Sekhmet. She is often depicted as a woman with the head of a cheetah. Sometimes she had the head of a cat, a leopard, a lynx or even a mongoose" (Anon., n.d.) she is surrounded by exotic flowers and Egyptian architecture.

This all been taking into consideration leads us to believe that the reputation of Cleopatra in this painting is that she lives a solely Egyptian lifestyle one without her Greek heritage and one with a very exotic and lavish lifestyle, that lacks empathy towards her prisoners as she watches them in pain. The picture also sexualizes Cleopatra with the way her clothes don’t cover her breasts, while the same goes for her slave the slave is positioned in such way where the attention is solely drawn to cleopatra.

This painting by Cabanel is inspired by Plutarch’s, Plutarch’s lives: the life of Mark Antony "Moreover, Cleopatra was getting together collections p303 of all sorts of deadly poisons, and she tested the painless working of each of them by giving them to prisoners under sentence of death." (Plutarch, 2016) and because of this we can begin to comprehend the portrayal of Cleopatra’s reputation in the painting. Plutarch’s lives was written around 150 years after Cleopatra’s life and the accounts of Cleopatra were used as a way to ruin the reputation of Mark Antony in the roman empire and in doing so built a negative image of Cleopatra in western culture. This meaning that French painter Alexandre Cabanel’s painting of Cleopatra is one that is influenced by that of the reputations built up of Cleopatra in the western world by the romans even though Cabanel’s from France.

The roman reputation of cleopatra was that she was a manipulator, using flattery and her beauty as a way to control the men in her life "Plutarch also presents Cleopatra as a cunning manipulator, a master of a thousand flatteries, who shrewdly measured Mark Antony’s desires and appetites and made sure to cater to them" (The Open University, 2019) This reputation can be compared to the other reputations of her in different cultures such as reputation in medieval Arabic culture and in Greek culture. In Greek culture of her time Cleopatra was viewed not as an Egyptian Pharaoh but instead of a Egyptian Queen of Greek decent and this was due to her own portrayal during her life. Comparing Cabanel’s painting to the reputation of Cleopatra as a Queen to the Greek speaking elite of the time Cleopatra style of dress and clothing would be completely different, she would not have her hair down and have such an exotic style but instead she would have her hair up wearing a tainia ( A headband, that is a form of diadem and a sign of royalty ) with her hair pulled back in Greek melon hair style. In medieval Arabic culture Cleopatra is described as a woman with a high intelligence while being a strong and well able monarch and instead she is looked at that for that instead of her beauty.

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In conclusion, the painting that we look at by painter Alexandre Cabanel is one that is based on the reputations given to cleopatra by the romans that was solely negative. One that made her look like an Egyptian pharaoh that lively a lavish and exotic lifestyle and didn’t not care about her people, one that didn’t reflect on other resources of the Cleopatra of her time.

The image that we look at is an ex-voto painting displayed in the shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Alcalá near Alcalá de los Gazules, Spain. An ex-voto is an offering that is a visual depiction of personal situations when the virgin has intervened in someone’s life to help that person in individual situation particular to the person such as cure to illness or help with fertility and in general made a difference.

This picture shows the virgin of Alcalá looking over a woman and a sick man that is lying in the bed. The man in the picture is depicted as not being in great health and the woman looks like she is his care giver. on the wall is a faint cross and a picture on the wall with also a faint cross in it. This is showing that before the intervention of the Virgin the people were already devotees of the Roman catholic faith, since it is an ex-voto we can presume that to the person that created this painting through devotion to the virgin of Alcalá. This man was cured in sickness. To the devotee this painting would have meant that trough art they could depict the events and can give this to the Virgin of Alcalá as an offering of gratitude. An ex-voto is just one of the ways that throughout the Roman Catholic religion that people are able to show their devotion to the virgin mary.

The ex-voto tells us that through the painting mary holds the reputation of being the intercessor between god and the devotees and offers protection fertility and health through faith. The visual representation of the virgin of Alcalá is mary with a crown filled with jewels with a big blue cloak carrying the baby Jesus Christ .The virgin of Alcalá shows that Mary’s representation in different parts of the world is depending on the Marian apparitions "A Marian apparition is a supernatural appearance of Mary to a person (or group of people) on earth. Since the early centuries of the Church, there have been thousands of reported Marian apparitions" "The Church, under the guidance of the bishop in whose diocese the alleged apparition occurs, carefully investigates alleged apparitions according to a set of criteria established by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (Moyer, 2010) we can compare this painting to different type of Marian Apparitions and how devotees show commitment to them.

One of the most famous Marian Apparitions is our lady of Lourdes, where in a small town in France the Virgin Mary showed herself to Maria Bernada Sobiros in February 11, 1858, Maria had no knowledge of the roman catholic doctrine this strengthened the belief of the apparitions. The virgin also told her to dig a hole that unearthed a spring and where the water is believed to hold healing power that is still drank to this day. In comparison, throughout both the drinking of the spring water and the creation of ex-votos devotees of the Virgin Mary show their commitment and gratitude through different ways. Our lady of Lourdes and the Virgin of Alcalá in visual context is strikingly different as our lady of Lourdes is dressed in white with the signature blue that is rooted back to the colour of Byzantine royalty with her silk veil. In the ex-voto the virgin of Alcalá is seen to be wearing a blue cloak with gold lining that is a staple of the virgin of Alcalá and is part of payer to her in her church whereas the devotees cover their head with her cloak. She and the baby of Jesus also wear gold crowns, this shows mary is a queen and Jesus is a king.

In conclusion, Marys reputation throughout the Roman Catholic faith is that she is the intercessor between god and humans. She intervenes in times of need and offers people protection and performs miracles but through the roman catholic religion she has been and can continue to be interpreted in many different ways both visual and literally.

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