By Nicola Macbeth, Painted Hall Tour guide

11 October 2017


Sir James Thornhill, the mastermind behind the magnificent painted ceiling, has included almost 200 characters in his scheme – a testament to his skill and ability. They include famous faces, royalty, even an old age pensioner and an abundance of mythological characters. All special in their own way.

But there is one in particular that I am drawn to and that is the goddess Diana. Diana is the Roman goddess associated with the moon, known as Artemis in Greek mythology. She is the twin sister of Apollo the sun god and daughter of Jupiter. Diana is also known as the goddess of the hunt. As this goddess, she is often represented with a bow and quiver, accompanied with her beloved hunting dogs and deer. She appears on the ceiling draped in a green robe with a quiver of arrows behind her shoulder and a bow beneath her.

The goddess Diana is identified by her crescent moon, bow and arrows

The goddess Diana is identified by her crescent moon, bow and arrows


In Thornhill's scheme Diana’s association with the moon is symbolised by the crescent on her forehead. In 1687 Sir Isaac Newton had published his theory on gravitational pull that explained the relationship between the moon and the tides. By including Diana on the ceiling Thornhill is reminding us how important it was for sailors to understand the movement of the tides.

Flamsteed and his assistant Thomas Weston are depicted in the lower right corner with the white scroll

Flamsteed and his assistant Thomas Weston are depicted in the lower right corner with the white scroll


 One of the famous faces Thornhill captures on the ceiling is the royal astronomer John Flamsteed who lived and worked at the Royal Observatory also in Greenwich. Flamsteed is depicted with an instrument called a Mural Arc which he used to observe the stars. It appears that the Mural Arc is directed towards Diana. She is in turn looking down towards a female figure draped in green who represents the River Severn. The Severn is known for its tidal bore, a huge wave that rushes up the river. As Thornhill explains in his pamphlet An Explanation of the Painting in the Royal Hospital at Greenwich:

‘Weston… is assisting Mr Flamsteed in making observations, with a large quadrant, whilst an old man at the clock is counting the time of the moon’s descent upon the Severn, which at certain times when she is in her Perigee [when the moon is nearest the earth] makes such a roll of the tides, call’d the Eagre [bore], as is very dangerous to all in its way.’

River Severn with her arm resting on a jar of lampreys

River Severn with her arm resting on a jar of lampreys


Diana's personality was as varied as her associations. She was considered pure and virginal as a figure of the forest and hunting. But her association with the moon made her erratic and volatile, which connects her to the erratic and volatile nature of the sea which the sailors who lived at the Royal Hospital for Seamen were only too familiar with.


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