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Mythological Art

Mythological Art

Mythological Paintings

Mythology is the body of myths that have played a fundamental role in the development of society, culture, and civilizations. Myths have acted as foundational stories and to help explain the world in the absence of modern knowledge. They started as traditional tales invented to explain specific beliefs, historical events, or facts of nature. Myths are as old as humanity, and historically they were endorsed by rulers and priests who linked them to religion or spirituality or the ruler’s authority for status.

Mythology in Art started in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt and was established as a popular art form by the Greeks in their sculptures. Mythological Paintings emerged in popularity during the Renaissance when the great Renaissance masters added the humanist dimension to Greek and Roman mythology. The development of mythological painting extended into the 19th century Romanticism, as well as the aesthetics of academic art as championed by the significant European academies of fine art well into modern times.

Mythological Paintings

A Tour of Mythological Paintings

  • “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli
    • “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli depicts the goddess Venus emerging from the sea after her birth fully grown. Venus is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, desire, fertility, prosperity, and victory. In mythology, she was the mother of the Roman people through her son, Aeneas, who survived the fall of Troy and fled to Italy. Venus was central to many religious festivals and revered in the Roman religion.
    • The Romans adopted Venus from the myths of her Greek counterpart Aphrodite for their art and literature. In the later classical tradition of the West, Venus becomes one of the most famous figures of Greco-Roman mythology as the embodiment of love and sexuality.
  • “Venus at her Mirror” by Diego Velázquez
    • “Venus at her Mirror” by Diego Velazquez depicts the goddess Venus in a sensual pose, lying on a bed and looking into a mirror held by Cupid. Painted by Diego Velázquez, the leading artist of the Spanish Golden Age, between 1647 and 1651, it is the only surviving female nude by Velázquez. Nudes were extremely rare by seventeenth-century Spanish artists, who were policed by members of the Spanish Inquisition. Despite the Spanish Catholic church’s restrictions, nudes by foreign artists were keenly collected by the Spanish court nobles.
    • This painting is also known by the titles of  “The Rokeby Venus” and “The Toilet of Venus.” It was inspired by famous Italian works of the nude Venuses which were the precedents for this work, which was painted during Velázquez’s visit to Italy. Velázquez combined two traditional compositions of Venus in this painting, the recumbent Venus and the Venus looking at herself in the mirror.
  • “Diana and Actaeon” by Titian
    • “Diana and Actaeon” by Titian depicts the moment of surprise when the young hunter named Actaeon, unwittingly stumbles on the naked goddess Diana who is enjoying a bath in spring with help from her escort of nymphs. The nymphs scream in surprise and attempt to cover Diana, who, in a fit of fury, splashes water upon Actaeon. As a mortal man, he is transformed into a deer with antlers and promptly flees in fear.
    • The myth of Diana and Actaeon can be found within Ovid’s Metamorphoses which recounts the unfortunate fate of Actaeon, who after fleeing as a deer is track down by his own hounds and killed because they failed to recognize their master. The story became popular in the Renaissance and has been depicted by many artists.
  • “Aurora abducting Cephalus” by Peter Paul Rubens
    • “Aurora abducting Cephalus” by Peter Paul Rubens depicts Aurora, the goddess of dawn stepping off her chariot to embrace Cephalus, a huntsman whom she was trying to abduct. The story of Aurora abducting Cephalus comes from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’. This painting is an oil sketch for one of a series of paintings commissioned by Philip IV of Spain to decorate his hunting lodge, just outside Madrid. Rubens made extensive used oil sketches to explore and create design and composition concepts, and also as templates for the final full-scale canvases.
    • Peter Paul Rubens was a Flemish artist who is considered the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque tradition. Rubens specialized in making altarpieces, portraits, landscapes, and history paintings of mythological and allegorical subjects. His compositions referenced classical and Christian history and emphasized movement, color, and sensuality.
  • Landscape with the Fall of Icarus – Pieter Bruegel
    • “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Brueghel, the Elder was long thought to be painted by Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, however, following recent technical examinations it is now regarded as an excellent early copy by an unknown artist of Bruegel’s lost original.
    • In Greek mythology, Icarus who succeeded in flying, with wings made by his father, using feathers and beeswax. Unfortunately, Icarus ignored his father’s warnings, and he flew too close to the sun, melting the wax, and he fell into the sea and drowned. His legs can be seen in the water at the bottom right.
  • The Triumph of Bacchus
    • “The Triumph of Bacchus” by Diego Velázquez depicts Bacchus surrounded by drunks. The work represents Bacchus as the god who rewards men with wine, releasing them from their problems. Bacchus was considered an allegory of the liberation of man from the slavery of daily life. Commissioned by King Philip IV, Velázquez had studied the king’s collection of Italian paintings and especially the treatment of mythological subjects. In this work, Velázquez adopted a realist treatment of a mythological subject, an approach he pursued during his career.
    • The composition is divided into two halves. On the left, is the luminous Bacchus figure, and the character behind him is represented in the traditional loose robes used for depictions of classical myth. The idealization of the Bacchus’s face is highlighted by the light which illuminates him in a classical style. The right side of the composition presents drunkards of the streets that invite the viewer to join their party. There is no idealization present in their darker worn-out faces who wear the contemporary costume of poor people in 17th-century Spain. The figure kneeling in front of the Bacchus is younger and better dressed than the others, with a sword and boots. The light which illuminates Bacchus is absent on the right side. There are also various elements of naturalism in this work, such as the bottle and pitcher which appear on the ground.
  • “Dido Building Carthage” by J. M. W. Turner
    • “Dido Building Carthage” by J. M. W. Turner depicts the classic story from Virgil’s Aeneid in which Dido, the figure in blue and white on the left is directing the builders of the new city of Carthage. The figure in front of her, wearing armor is her Trojan lover Aeneas. The children playing with a toy boat symbolize the future naval power of Carthage and the tomb of her dead husband Sychaeus, on the right bank of the estuary, foreshadows the eventual destruction of Carthage by the Roman descendants of Aeneas.
    • The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1815 and was widely admired, but Turner kept the picture until his death and left it to the nation in the Turner Bequest.
  • “Venus and Mars” by Sandro Botticelli
    • “Venus and Mars” by Sandro Botticelli portray Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war, as a coupled reclining in a forest setting, surrounded by playful baby satyrs. It is an allegory of beauty and bravery, representing an ideal view of sensuous marriage and love. Based on the subject of the composition and the unusual wide format of this masterpiece, the painting was probably intended to commemorate a wedding. It was created to be set into a piece of furniture to adorn the bedroom of the bride and groom.
    • Venus watches Mars sleep while two infant satyrs play with Mars’ weapons of war. One of the satyrs blows a small conch shell in Mars’ ear to wake him. The implication is that the couple has made love, and the male has fallen asleep. In this context, the lance and conch can also be read as sexual symbols.
  • “Primavera” by Sandro Botticelli
    • “Primavera” by Sandro Botticelli depicts a group of figures from classical mythology in a garden, brought together by Botticelli as an allegory based on the promised renewal of Spring and the seasons. The meaning of this masterpiece is debated by art historians, as the composition draws from many classical and Renaissance literary sources.
    • Viewed from right to left, at the right is Zephyrus, the god of the west wind, who kidnaps the nymph Chloris, whom he later marries, and she becomes the goddess of Spring. Chloris the nymph overlaps Flora, the goddess she transforms into, as her future state, of Flora, is shown scattering or collecting roses from the ground. In the center stands Venus, gazing at the viewer and appears to be blessing the scene or cycle. The trees behind her form a broken arch and the blindfolded Cupid aims his bow to the left. On the left of the painting the Three Graces, are joining hands in a dance; however, one of them has noticed Mercury. She is the target of cupids arrow. At the left Mercury, clothed in red with a sword and a helmet raises his rod towards the emerging clouds.
  • “Bacchus and Ariadne”  by Titian
    • “Bacchus and Ariadne” by Titian depict Bacchus, the god of wine, emerging with his followers from the right of the scene and according to myth, falling in love on first sight with Ariadne.  Titian shows Bacchus leaping from his chariot to protect Ariadne, who has been abandoned on a Greek island and deserted by her lover Theseus, whose ship sails away to the far left of the picture. The first commission for this painting was given to Raphael, who unfortunately died young in 1520 and Titian was given the opportunity to paint this mythological subject during 1522 for a wealthy patron.
  • “The Rape of Europa”  by Titian 
    • The “Rape of Europa” by Titian is a mythological painting of the story of the abduction of Europa by Zeus, painted about 1560 – 62. In Greek mythology, Europa was the mother of King Minos of Crete, a woman with Phoenician origins, after whom the continent of Europe was named. The painting depicts the story of her abduction by Zeus, who is in the form of a white bull. This myth was originally a Cretan story, and many of the love-stories concerning Zeus originated from even more ancient myths describing his marriages with goddesses.

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“We hunger to understand,
so we invent myths about how we imagine the world is constructed
– and they are, of course, based upon what we know.”  

– Carl Sagan


Photo Credit: By Giovan Battista Gaulli – Beauvais, Musée départemental de l’Oise ([1] – Olio su tela, cm. 149 x 222) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons