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Opening Pandora’s Box

Art and nuclear fear.

I do not need to explain why I’ve been thinking about Pandora’s box. The Greek legend of a beautiful woman the gods send to earth with a box containing unimaginable evils has long been associated with the dangers of nuclear energy, an association difficult to overlook in light of the catastrophe in Japan. But what precisely did Pandora do? It was in hopes of answering this question that I took off the shelf a famous art historical study, Pandora’s Box: The Changing Aspects of a Mythical Symbol, by Dora and Erwin Panofsky. And what I discovered in the Panofskys’ densely argued pages, not surprisingly, is that there is no simple answer. People have had wildly different ideas about Pandora. Which is perhaps precisely what the Panofskys set out to demonstrate. Their book, for all its exquisite Old World erudition, may have been composed with a certain urgency by these two German-Jewish scholars who had come to the United States as Hitler was tightening his grip. Would it be entirely inappropriate to point out that Pandora’s Box was published in 1956, eleven years after the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at a time when anxieties about nuclear war were running high?

Pandora’s Box, 1956

When the Panofskys describe a sixteenth-century study of Pandora opening her box by Rosso Fiorentino, an ink drawing full of the elegant exaggerations beloved by Mannerist artists, they might almost be writing about Hiroshima. They describe “a terrific explosion.” And “a blinding flash of light and power.” What is interesting about these bits of descriptive prose is that they do not, at least to my way of thinking, evoke Rosso’s drawing anywhere near as well as they suggest a nuclear blast. The elegant, almost serene Pandora who stands at the still center of Rosso’s frenzied vision is derived, so the Panofskys argue, not from the Greeks but from a view of Pandora introduced by Erasmus of Rotterdam. Here Pandora is an Eve figure, bringing evil into the world, whether consciously or not is not exactly clear. From the explosion in Rosso’s drawing, the Panofskys explain, emerges “a cluster of life-sized human figures conceived, as in Michelangelo’s Dream, not as the troubles and diseases of pagan myth, but as the Seven Deadly Sins of Christian theology.” The Panofskys delight, in nine short chapters, in unwinding the various versions of the Pandora story. Pandora’s little box was originally a large earthenware jar. Pandora may not have been the bearer of this box or jar, but only the one who opened it. There are differences of opinion as to what the jar contained, whether good or evil spirits. For some, the jar has been a symbol of hope rather than despair. Hesiod, in the Works and Days, explains that when the lid was pulled off, “Only Hope remained there in an unbreakable home within under the rim of the great jar, and did not fly out at the door.” This view, the Panofskys explain, is reflected in Goethe’s unfulfilled plans for the final act of a play about Pandora, which was to conclude with what they refer to as “a Pandora’s box in reverse.”

Ink drawing by Rosso Fiorentino

And what do the Panofskys want to tell us? I hesitate to derive any simple moral from their erudite analysis of Renaissance emblem books and Victorian neoclassical paintings. But if there is an overarching idea in these packed pages, it may be that tragedies are never easily explained—or easily avoided. The Panofskys do not seem to care for the self-evident morality of Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Pandora. They are certainly uncomfortable with the final images they invoke, by Paul Klee and Max Beckmann, in which Pandora’s box no longer contains the surviving, albeit perhaps weakened figure of Hope, but is only “a symbol of misery and destruction.” What seems to make the most sense to the Panofskys, among the images they gather together, is a series of illustrations by the nineteenth-century English artist John Flaxman, who stays close to Hesiod’s version of the story. Here the vessel that contains so much evil is not brought into the world by Pandora, but simply appears, an unexplained presence, in the home of Pandora and her husband, Epimetheus, where it is opened—by Pandora in some versions, by Epimetheus in at least one. “No longer thought of as being in Pandora’s personal custody,” they explain, “it simply sits on the ground between the admiring, welcoming groom and the lovely, reluctant bride—a silent menace unperceived by either.” Flaxman’s engravings have none of the overheated rhetoric of Rosso. They are, the Panofskys write, “attenuated” and “abstemious”—a strikingly ascetic vision of tragedy. 

Drawing by John Flaxman

The power of the Panofskys’ text has everything to do with their insistence on the ambiguities that can accompany a catastrophe. Pandora herself is an enigma, associated with evil, but also with good. In interpreting her strange career in myth, art, and literature, the Panofskys proceed with extreme caution. They show that every element in the story has been understood in dramatically different ways. Pandora’s box, which was originally not even a box, can be anything anybody wants it to be. Misunderstandings? Misconceptions? Misinterpretations? Simplifications? This elegant little monograph, with its impeccable scholarly manners, is a cautionary tale for the nuclear age. 

Jed Perl is The New Republic’s art critic.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.