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Exhibit traces influence of Prometheus legend on artists from Michelangelo and Rubens to modern comic book artists

This weekend, the Philadelphia Museum of Art will open an exhibition of paintings related to Prometheus, the Greek deity who stole fire from the heavens and gave it to mankind.

The exhibit passes the mythological torch to contemporary comic book artists.

The centerpiece of the show is the monumental “Prometheus Bound,” painted in the early 17th century by Peter Paul Rubens. It shows Prometheus chained to a rock with an eagle tearing out his liver – a daily, eternal punishment suffered by the immortal titan for his crimes against the gods.

To make the work, Rubens synthesized two distinct styles: the carefully composed draftsmanship of Michelangelo, and the bold, emotional colors of Titian.

“They were thought of as divergent – as polar opposites – which may be hard for us to understand today,” said Christopher Atkins, associate curator of European painting and sculpture. “He was the first to bring them together, but he infused them with other things. He takes things in progressive, forward-thinking directions.”

For the first time in the United States, the Rubens’ painting is presented alongside the Titian painting and the Michelangelo drawing – each called “Tityus” – that directly inspired it. There is also a video that makes a link between Rubens’ Prometheus and the figure of Jesus Christ painted in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. They both have exactly the same wound; one from a spear during the crucifixion, the other by an eagle.

The exhibition also features a roomful of other works, tracing Prometheus as an artistic muse. The capper is “Prometheus Eternal,” a comic book with eight modern interpretations of the Prometheus story by comic artists around the world. It was produced by the Museum and Locust Moon Press, a comic book publisher in West Philadelphia.

“Prometheus is primal, ancestral. He stole fire from the gods to give to man, and then nightmarishly punished for it,” said Joshua O’Neil of Locust Moon. “It speaks metaphorically with such deep stuff – relationships of parents to children, the creative spark, constant march of history and progress. The gift of fire can mean so many things.”

The comic book features Prometheus as a superhero (“Prometheus is Here!” by Grant Morrison and Farel Dalrymple), as visual poetry (“Prometheus Unheard” by Dave McKean), and as situational humor (“Foie Gras” by James Comey).

O’Neil himself contributed to his own publication, writing “The Gift of Fire,” illustrated by Lisk Feng. It tells the story of a girl remembering her deceased father with a candle flame.

“It’s in the Manga tradition of comics about regular people’s everyday lives. The opposite of superheroic,” said O’Neil. “It shows the range of what you can do in a comic book and how this mythology can be reflected in so many different visions.”

The book will not be available in comic shops until December. Until then, it is only available at the Art Museum and the Locust Moon ship in West Philadelphia.

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