Paintings of Oedipus and the Sphinx, Ranked by Sexual Tension

Paintings of Oedipus and the Sphinx, Ranked by Sexual Tension

There's always something at least a little arbitrary or haphazard about mythological hybrids – what is a catoblepas doing (a buffalo with the head of a pig) that either a buffalo or a pig can't? Where's the unique value-add? – but perhaps the most arbitrary of all is the Sphinx of Thebes, that lion-eagle-woman hybrid that asks every traveler the same riddle, and either kills them when they fail to answer correctly, or kills herself if they do. Famously defeated by Oedipus, who correctly answered "Man" to the question, "Which creature has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?"

Later artists would ask the equally-important question, "What if this riddle-encounter was incredibly fraught with sexual tension?"

Oedipe et le Sphinx, Jean-Baptiste Cariven

Oedipus et le Sphinx. Nudity, but not sexy

Less than zero. Renders all potential sexuality inert. This Oedipus has the crazed eyes and windblown appearance of Yukon Cornelius from the old stop-motion Rudolph Christmas special, while the Sphinx is just a Kewpie-doll head with some lion's paws savaging what appears to be a dismembered set of human feet.

Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes, Oedipus Painter

Refreshingly inert! Oedipus wears the sort of hat favored by women who take up gardening in their 50s and have a healthy relationship to sunscreen. The Sphinx is perched just like a real cat would be atop a pillar, focused on the task at hand, with plenty of space between the two.

Oedipus and the Sphinx, François-Xavier Fabre

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Fabre

Pretty normal! Context-appropriate heroic nudity for Oedipus, here a pretty nice-looking guy who's standing and gesturing normally. Sphinx looks suitably freaky, as a winged riddle-murderer ought.

Œdipe et le Sphinx, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Here we hit the first snag! Sexual tension undeniably exists here, but at an inhuman scale that's pretty difficult to parse. The Sphinx has feet that look like Nebuchadnezzar's in those old William Blake, and her head is thrown back so far into darkness that you might easily thing her body ended after her breasts. Both Oedipus and the Sphinx are, respectively, hunched and thrusted in such a way that he's making unsettling eye contact with her nipples. This painting also introduces the theme of dead bare feet that will become unsettlingly frequent.

Caresses, Fernand Khnopff

Caresses, Fernand Khnopff

I – It's not nothing. I don't know what it is, exactly. But it's not nothing? The Sphinx here is a leopard with the face of what can only be described as "an incredibly proud mother nuzzling her lookalike daughter." It's The Gilmore Girls by way of Thebes.

Oedipe et le Sphinx, François-Émile Ehrmann

In a refreshing turn from the mother-daughter dynamic, Ehrmann's duo are more reminiscent of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. You can almost hear her saying "You brute, you brute, you awful brute," weakly pummeling his chest with her fists, before burying her head in his shoulder and bursting into affectionate tears.

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Armand Point

Too much, certainly. Very languid. Dangerously close to nuzzling again. Matching haircuts. The corpses strewn about her perch look less like murder victims than straggling guests waking up from an orgy.

Oedipus and the Sphinx, Gustave Moreau

Off the charts, and entirely too much. She has a coral necklace as a belt for some reason, and is quite literally climbing his dick to reach his face. Nothing but eye contact between them, in a way that seems to highlight the horrible obscenity of the dead naked foot below.

Oedipe, Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse

He is wearing her like a coat.