A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Adaptations can come in many different forms such as book to film, book to poem, film to book, etc. However, we sometimes forget about paintings being adaptations and how they attempt to convey different stories. We often get caught up in reading stories from books or watching films that lay out the story elements for us. In a picture or painting, the story can sometimes be hard to see for ourselves because there are no words or dialogue that we can read or hear to explain what is happening in the story. Instead, paintings often rely on taking one scene from a story and creating a picture that visually explains what is happening based on a still image. Taking a trip to the Ackland Art Museum is a solid reminder of this concept.


With many paintings the museum displayed, Sword of Damocles by Richard Westall, stood out as an example of how paintings can adapt and present a story from a novel or film, which is familiar to the viewer, in a different platform. Westall depicts a scene from the story of Damocles and the dangers faced by those in power, where Damocles switches roles with King Dionysius and sits at the king’s thrown while a sword is hanging by a hair of a horse’s tail. The painting centers on Dionysius and Damocles while the surroundings depict women serving Damocles, other men of power lurking in the background, and luxurious Roman architecture. As we visually work through the painting, we can see how each individual element can tell one aspect of the original story. The architecture sets up the scene by showing the audience where this story takes place. The grand white columns and pearl statues are demonstrating that the story takes place in Rome or Italy in ancient times. By centering the painting on Damocles and Dionysius, it tells us that they are the main characters of the story. Painting Damocles in a red robe just like the one Dionysius is painted in, suggests the aspect of the story where they switch roles for one day. With this in mind, Westall also places women servants holding luxurious foods and dinnerware serving Damocles as a way of showing the audience the lifestyle of how a king lives. As we venture to the men in the background, we get a suspicious feeling that they are plotting to overthrow the king which leads us to believe that King Dionysius has made some enemies during his reign. We are then presented with a sword that seems to be hanging in the air above Damocles which demonstrates the constant danger that King Dionysius lives in. Once we individually piece together the different elements of the painting, the theme of the story becomes clear being that with luxury and power comes the constant fear of danger that lurks at every corner. Westall’s painting tells his version of the Damocles story, by visually capturing important themes that are in the original story and demonstrating key allusions to that story that help the viewer see what is actually happening through a still painting of a scene. In other words, Sword of Damocles tells a story worth a thousand words, but it is up to the viewer to unravel what is being told.