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 originate from even more ancient myths describing his marriages with goddesses.
It is common in ancient Greek geography to identify geographic landmarks such as specific lands, islands or rivers with famous female figures. In this way, Europa was first used in a geographic context in the Homeric stories in reference to the western shore of the Aegean Sea. Since then the concept has evolved as map makers in different eras looked for suitable terms to define the world map into coherent segments. The term “Europe” was first used to describe a specific cultural territory, during the 9th century. The term designated the sphere of influence of the Western Church, as opposed to the Eastern Orthodox world and the Islāmic world.
The term “The Rape of Europa” has recently been used as the title of a book and film to describe the art theft and fate of Europe’s Art Treasures during the Second World War. Thus, even in modern culture, the title of this Masterpiece, “The Rape of Europa” continues to have currency.
Europa, the consort of Zeus
Europa’s earliest literary reference is in the Iliad, which is commonly dated to the 8th century BC. The earliest vase-painting to be identifiable as Europa dates from mid-7th century BC.
Mythology informs us that Zeus was filled with love for Europa and decided to seduce her. He transformed himself into a tame white bull and mixed in with her father’s herds. While Europa and her helpers were gathering flowers, she saw the bull, caressed his flanks, and eventually got onto his back. Zeus took that opportunity and ran to the sea and swam, with her on his back, to the island of Crete. He then revealed his true identity, and Europa became the first queen of Crete. Europa was the mother of King Minos of Crete. And the Minoans became the first literate civilisation in Europe.
Zeus gave her many gifts and created the shape of the white bull in the stars, which is now known as the constellation. Roman mythology adopted the tale of the Raptus, also known as “The Abduction of Europa” and “The Seduction of Europa”, substituting the god Jupiter for Zeus. The Roman name for the Greek god Zeus is Jupiter.
The Roman poet Ovid wrote the following depiction of Jupiter’s seduction:
“And gradually she lost her fear, and he
Offered his breast for her virgin caresses,
His horns for her to wind with chains of flowers
Until the princess dared to mount his back
Her pet bull’s back, unwitting whom she rode.
Then—slowly, slowly down the broad, dry beach—
First in the shallow waves the great god set
His spurious hooves then sauntered further out
’til in the open sea, he bore his prize
Fear filled her heart as, gazing back, she saw
The fast receding sands. Her right hand grasped
A horn, the other lent upon his back
Her fluttering tunic floated in the breeze.”
In the ancient art of Europa, whether in archaic vase-paintings or the ancient metope fragments or mosaics, Europa was depicted steading herself by touching one of the bull’s horns and acquiescing.
The artist of this masterpiece, Titian was the most important painter of the 16th-century Venetian school. So much so that his contemporaries recognised him as one of the most accomplished painters, adept with portraits, landscape, and mythological and religious subjects. His application and use of colour, his vivid, luminous tints, his brushwork and subtlety of tone had a profound influence on Western art.
The name Europe, as a geographical term, was used by Ancient Greek geographers to refer to the part of Thrace below the Balkan mountains. Later, under the Roman Empire, the name was given to a Thracian province. In the later Roman Empire, the name was used to divide the empire, Latin in the West, Greek in the East. In the 8th century, ecclesiastical uses of “Europa” for the Imperium of Charlemagne provided the source for the modern geographical term. The first use of the term Europenses, to describe peoples of the Christian, the western part of the continent, appeared in the Latin Chronicles of 754.
- Why was this story a popular art subject during the Renaissance?
- Europa was the first Queen of Crete, and interestingly, Crete was the first European civilisation.
The Rape of Europa
- Title: The Rape of Europa
- Artist: Titian
- Year: 1560-62
- Genre: Mythological painting
- Movement: Renaissance Art in Venice
- Type: Oil on canvas
- Dimensions: 178 cm × 205 cm (70 in × 81 in)
- Museum: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
- Artist: Titian (Tiziano Vecelli or Tiziano Vecellio)
- Born: 1490, Pieve di Cadore, Italy
- Died: 1576, Venice, Italy
- Buried: Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy
- Period: Italian Renaissance, Renaissance
- Notable works:
Explore the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
- “The Story of Lucretia” by Sandro Botticelli
- “The Rape of Europa” by Titian
- “The Concert” by Johannes Vermeer
- Masterpieces of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
- Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (ISGM)
“Tears come from the heart and not from the brain.”
– Leonardo da Vinci
Photo Credit: 1) Titian [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 2) Heinrich Bünting [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 3) By Cush [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons