Ellen Barnicle, volunteer explainer


Joining the Painted Hall Project as a volunteer with a background in classical studies, Sir James Thornhill’s work offers many opportunities to explore art inspired by the myths I’ve grown up with and studied.

Volunteer explainer Ellen Barnicle in the Painted Hall

As a volunteer explainer, Ellen leads tours of the Painted Hall ceiling

Out of all the classical gods and legends in the painting, the one that has always grabbed my attention is the depiction and usage of a particularly intriguing goddess.

The Electress Sophia of Hanover appears on the West Wall, draped luxuriously in a green cape and holding an olive branch. Sophia was the mother of George I. However, in Thornhill’s work she is not only shown as the benevolent matriarch of this new royal family, she is also designated as the goddess Cybele, symbolised by her distinctive crown in the shape of city or castle walls.

The dramatic West Wall of the Painted Hall

Electress Sophia surrounded by her family, including her son George I, on the West Wall

So who was Cybele and why associate her with Sophia? Cybele to the Romans was known as the Magna Mater (“Great Mother”), mother of all. A symbol of fertility, she was also worshipped for the harvest and the wildness of nature, often depicted with the lions that pulled her chariot.

Cybele was also linked to the safety and prosperity of cities by the crown shown in the painting. This is known as a mural crown. The name derives from the Latin word for walls ‘muros’. In both Greek and Roman religion, a deity that was worshipped as a protector of a city was depicted with this crown.

Electress Sophia presented as Cybele on the West Wall of the Painted HallDetail of the mural crown

With the West Wall depicting the Hanoverian family as bringers of fertility, prosperity and stability, the use of Cybele is appropriate. However, there is another intriguing and interesting connection between Sophia and Cybele.

Cybele as the Magna Mater is a Roman goddess but she did not begin as one. Originally, she was Anatolian (modern day Turkey) and it is how she came to Rome that makes her use on the West Wall so intriguing.

During the Second Punic War, Hannibal invaded Italy leaving Rome on the brink of destruction. When a series of prodigies including failed harvests and famine were noted in the city, the Roman Senate consulted the Sibylline Books to receive an answer from the Gods for salvation. The prophecy uttered that Cybele and her cult must be brought to Rome. Cybele, with this prophecy, became the saviour of Rome. Rome’s rival, Carthage was destroyed, the city was saved and the Roman Empire flourished.

Showing Sophia as Cybele, Thornhill could be tapping into this imagery of the foreigner coming in to save a state from the brink of destruction. Subtly, Thornhill has Sophia playing the dual role of mother of all and the foretold saviour. With one crown, Thornhill has layered Sophia beyond that of the mother of new king, tapping into thousands of years of tradition and history.

If you come on a ceiling tour, you may be able to spot another mural crown on the ceiling…