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Feature Archive
May, 2000

Forbidden Visions: Mythology in Art
By Joseph Phelan
Primavera anyone?

I don't mean the lovely medley of fresh spring vegetables, Parmesan cheese and pasta which one longs for all winter but the great painting by Botticelli from which the dish takes its name It is a glorious garland of all the things we love about spring. But take a closer look. Ask yourself what exactly is going on here.

An Allegory Of Spring

La Primavera is an allegory, which is a fancy way of saying that no art historian has ever been able to develop an interpretation that satisfies all the other scholars. Although we can identify each of the figures in the painting there is no consensus about why they are there or what they are up to. The groups of figures don't seem to connect with each other. In such a case we are encouraged to let our imagination write the script.

Reading from right to left, we see the nymph Chloris being hotly pursued by the puffing wind god Zephyr. We know in the legend that Zephyr marries Chloris after raping her. Turning to him, Chloris seems to be sprouting flowers from her mouth [detail]. Is she being transformed into Flora, the goddess of flowers (the third figure) by her encounter with Zephyr? [detail]

Above, floating amid the fruit trees, a fat little Cupid bends his bow ready to shoot an arrow of love in direction of the three Graces. The Graces are the three daughters of Zeus by Eurynome Oblivious to everything around them these exquisite young women are engaged in some kind of dance [detail]. Blindfolded, Cupid seems to be aiming the arrow at the woman in the center. Zeus only knows what will happen when the irresistible shaft enters her. Is she about to look at Mercury or into the far blue horizon beyond him? Finally in the very center of the painting stands Venus the pagan goddess of love presiding over these festivities. What is crucial is that Botticelli has put Venus where he normally would have put the Virgin Mary, the center of Christian art. And his Venus is a remarkable look-alike for his Mary. [detail]

The Revival Of Paganism In Art

As we saw last month, Western painting developed under the sponsorship of the Church; its task was to envision the stories and spirit of the New Testament. But by the midpoint (C.1482) of what we call the Italian Renaissance artists began to turn to painting the things which Christianity had kept secret above all the legends and stories of the pagan world. Although intended for a private owner rather than a public space, La Primavera is the first great counterimage to the Christian icons and symbols of Western art.

The stories of the glorious lives and loves of the Olympian gods were invented by the ancient Greeks. They also invented philosophy and science. So why did they cling to their myths? Perhaps because neither philosophy nor science could explain what a human being was and, what human life is, as well as myths could. Homer and Hesiod, and later (when the Roman conquerors appropriated the Greek gods) Virgil and Ovid, told the mythical stories in unforgettable poems which still move audiences.

A myth quite simply is a story which serves a purpose: to explain the origins of something (Tintoretto's Origins of the Milky Way) to justify something, or to serve as a warning (Titian's Diana and Actaeon) or an example or a symbol. Such a story is usually easy to understand, involving strong and simple emotions and clear and basic relationships.

But not just any story. The great myths illustrate and explain to each generation something about the order of the world and the relationships between gods and humans. They also serve as the paradigms of human excellence. Thus Alexander copied Achilles, and Caesar copied Alexander, and Pope Julius copied Caesar.

Botticelli: Pallas and the Centaur Zeus, the most powerful of the Olympian gods, is the symbol of civilizing and ethical force, and the protector of laws. His enormous energy - he controlled lightning and other natural phenomena - was recognized as sexuality in its broadest, most creative and liberating sense. Hence the vast number of his love affairs. (For more on Zeus's extracurricular love life see the last section.)

The ancient Greeks emphasized that these unions produced gods and goddesses who are symbols of those humanizing features which distinguish men from other animals. In Pallas and the Centaur, Botticelli shows the man-beast (symbol of our base animal nature) held in check by the goddess of wisdom who also holds a club in her other hand just in case. The look on the face of the centaur is wonderful in its depiction of thwarted animal instincts.

Christianity vs. Paganism

The triumph of Christianity in the 4th century AD meant that all over the Roman world people had lost any belief in the existence of these gods. Christian and Barbarian forces saw to it that the great art deifying these gods were destroyed. For almost a thousand years the stories of the pagan gods were banished from the public mind.

It was only during the Renaissance that patrons like the Medici and his circle of humanist scholars began to rediscover the legacy of Greece and Rome. In attempting to envision this pagan world they were faced with a huge problem. For visually, it was a lost world.

While many ancient writings about the gods especially of the books of Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and Ovid survived, almost no original Greek sculpture or any Greek painting (with the exception of vase painting) had survived. The fragments of antiquity which now exist in our museums are by and large Roman copies of the lost Greek originals. In 1500 even they were still buried waiting to be excavated. The existing Roman frescoes survived because the disastrous eruption of the volcano in Pompeii sealed them under a ton of lava.

So Venus had not been honored with a portrait for a thousand years. Botticelli painted several works dedicated of the goddess. Most important after La Primavera is the Birth or Rebirth of Venus. The nude female body - forbidden territory for a painter - is shown by Botticelli with his trademark elongation. Venus is reborn in Italy bringing new hopes to mankind. The stunning results send shockwaves throughout aristocratic Europe.

Mythology soon became a justification for Renaissance and Post-Renaissance artists to paint with a new freedom and boldness denied them by Christianity. The explicit moral commandments of Christianity, above all, humility meant that important human emotions and attitudes could hardly be glorified in properly Christian terms. Since Europe had by no means renounced the values of pagan nobility - honor, pride, vengeance, self-assertion, magnanimity - these values found a haven in the representation of classical antiquity.

A Failure Of Nerve?

But before Botticelli could develop these themes, the fanatical Christian monk Savanarola rose to power in Florence with his fire and brimstone sermons. In his legendary bonfires of the vanities he urged the citizens to burn all pagan works. His deadly campaign to stamp out luxury and vice almost destroyed the greatest city of art the Europe has known. Luckily for art, the monk proved too fanatical even for his own followers, and much too much for the Pope, who ordered him excommunicated and then burnt in the town square.

Poor Botticelli never recovered his nerve. He spent his last years painting rather unpleasant allegories like The Calumny of Apples, or Christian apocalyptic pictures, i.e. the Mystical Nativity and the Mystical Crucifixion.

The three greatest artists Florence ever produced Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael all turned back to safer subjects. Leonardo with his Last Supper, his Madonnas and his enigmatic portraits, Michelangelo with his gigantic illustrations of the Old Testament, and Raphael with a combination of both types of subjects.

The Venetian Development

We must turn to Venice if we wish to see the real flourishing of the pagan vision in art. The Venetian painters perfected a new style of painting, distinguished above all by mastery of color and an intuitive response to nature.

Venetian painters beginning with Bellini and his students Giorgione and Titian focused on the sensuous surface of things, on color and texture. To an unprecedented extent mood became the primary subject of their art. Atmosphere composed of light and shadow softened and unified landscape and the figures in it. Such painting not only gives immediate pleasure to the eye, but acts like music upon the moods, provoking thought and memory in the same way that a work of music does.

Though he died very young and painted very few works the influence of Giorgione was enormous. His Concert Champêtre is a classic example of the new use of mythology. Two nude females serve lunch in the countryside to two fully clothed men. The painting hearkens back to a mythological subject by Marcantonio. In his wake followed his student Titian with his great series of Bacchanals, and then Tintoretto, Veronese, Correggio, and later, Rubens, Rembrandt, Poussin, Claude and the great French masters of the 18th century.

In fact a combination of the Venetian style of painting and, the mythological content introduced by Botticelli were to become the most highly regarded of all genres of painting until a little past the midpoint of the 19th century.

The End Of Mythological Art

Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Picnic on the Grass), loosely suggested by Giorgione's Concert Champêtre (see above), spelled the death knell of the mythological nude. People began to consciously accept what they had previously hypocritically admired in the old masters: the naked human body in all its glory and nature in all its manifold appearances. No supernatural or religious connotations were necessary to make the paintings of the Impressionists the most popular paintings the world has ever known.

From The Private Life Of Zeus

Let me conclude this all too quick tour of mythological art with list of important paintings and artists. Zeus, the most powerful of the Olympian gods couldn't resist a beautiful woman, mortal or immortal. The painters of the Renaissance and later centuries discovered in the pages of Ovid's Metamorphoses the manifold ways in which Zeus disguised his identity when he went after his desires. (For the reason Zeus dared not reveal himself fully to a mortal, see the last encounter on this list: No. 8, Semele) Note: When the Romans appropriated the Greek gods they changed all their names except Apollo. Thus Zeus becomes Jupiter, Hera his wife is Juno and so forth.

1. Callisto. A sacrifice to the lust of Zeus/Jupiter, Callisto was one of the virgin companions of Diana. For his seduction Zeus disguised himself as Diana. Before the unfortunate Callisto realized she had been duped, she was already pregnant. When the real Diana discovered her plight she turned Callisto into a bear and let loose her dogs. Zeus saved her by lifting her up into the heavens where she and her son became the constellations known as the Great Bear and the Little Bear (Ursa Major and Ursa Minor). See especially Titian.

2. Io. Ever on the lookout for beautiful young woman, Zeus/Jupiter took the form of a cloud and coupled with Io. Discovered - as always - by Hera, he turned Io into a heifer and was forced to give her to Hera as a present. Hera set the hundred-eyed Argus to guard the heifer, Zeus sent Mercury to recover Io. Mercury put Argus to sleep and then cut off his head. Hera/Juno put the hundred eyes of Argus into the peacocks tail and sent a gadfly to torment Io wherever she went. Io retained the form of a heifer until her arrival in Egypt when she gave birth to a son. See especially Correggio, Amigone.

3. Europa. Daughter of a Phoenician king, Europa was another of Zeus/Jupiter's seductions. Zeus appeared to the young woman as a handsome docile bull, and she bravely mounted his back and wound round his horns the flowers she had been gathering. He suddenly took off for Crete, where changing body yet again he took the form of an eagle and ravished her. The son of this union was Minos who became King of Crete. See especially Titian, Rubens, Claude, Ferretti, Tiepolo, Zuccarelli.

4. Danaë. The only daughter of Acrisius, King of Argos. Her father locked her up in a brass tower to avert the fate foretold by an oracle that the son she bore would slay him. Zeus, always on the prowl for good-looking women and undaunted by her protective residence, visited her as a shower of gold. When her father discovered her pregnancy, suspecting his brother rather than Zeus, put her in a chest and threw her into the sea. She was fished up still alive and gave birth to Perseus who later, unknowingly, killed his grandfather. See especially Titian, Rembrandt, Correggio, Tiepolo.

5. Ganymede. The most beautiful Trojan youth, he was snatched up into the air by Zeus disguised as an eagle. Flown to Olympus he became a cupbearer to the gods and also it is said, the bedfellow of Zeus. Robert Graves attributes the popularity of the myth in Greece and Rome to its providing religious justification for pederasty. See especially Rubens, Rembrandt, Correggio.

6. Hera. Wife (and mother) of Zeus, and Queen of Heaven. She is the moving force behind the events in many mythological scenes, following up the multiple infidelities of Zeus and wrecking vengeance on his victims or their children, viz. Semele, Callisto, Io, etc. Appropriately, her single-minded fidelity to Zeus made her the ideal protectors of Marriage and women. See especially Rubens, Rembrandt, Cranach.

7. Leda. In his predilection for exotic couplings, Zeus turned himself into a swan and made love to the beautiful Leda, daughter of Thestius and wife of a Spartan King. She subsequently gave birth to two eggs. Out of one hatched Pollux and Helen, and out of the other Castor and Clytemnestra. See especially Filippino Lippi, Leonardo, Correggio.

8. Semele. Daughter of Cadmus of Thebes, loved by Zeus/Jupiter. Hera, inflamed with jealousy that Zeus was engaged with yet another rival, persuaded the pregnant Semele to induce her lover to make love to her for once in his most glorious and godlike state. Hera knew full well that no mortal woman would be able to survive such an ordeal. As was so often the case, Zeus was unable to match his wife's machinations. Acceding to Semele's request, the great god descended on her in a flash of lightning, setting her on fire, and she burnt to a crisp. See especially Tintoretto.

This article is copyright 2000 by Joseph Phelan. Please do not republish any portion of this article without written permission.

Joseph Phelan can be contacted at joe.phelan@verizon.net

Previous Features
  April, 2000
Art and Religion
Article: Themes in Art: The Passion of Christ
Exhibit: Christus Rex
  March, 2000
Inuit Art/The National Gallery of Art in Washington
Museum: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Exhibit: Inuit Art: The World Around Me
  February, 2000
Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Results)
  January, 2000
Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part II)
  December, 1999
Poll: Who is Producing the Most Interesting Art Today? (Part I)
  November, 1999
The Louvre Museum
Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Museum: The Louvre
Book: Paintings in the Louvre
Print: Study of a Horse's Head, by Pisanello
  October, 1999
Artist: Claude Monet
Museum: North Carolina Museum of Art
Exhibit: Monet: O Mestre do Impressionismo
Book: Impressionists in Winter: Effets de Neige
Print: Nympheas avec Effets de Nuage, by Claude Monet
  September, 1999
Optical Art
Artist: M.C. Escher
Museum: The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
Exhibit: Trompe l'oeil: The Art of Deception
Book: M.C. Escher: His Life and Complete Graphic Work
Print: Movement In Squares, by Bridget Riley
  August, 1999
Animals in Art
Artist: Antoine-Louis Barye
Museum: National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Exhibit: PBS: American Visions
Book: Natural Worlds, by Robert Bateman
Print: A la Bodiniere, by Théophile Steinlen
  July, 1999
Artist: Odd Nerdrum
Museum: Museum of Modern Art, New York
Exhibit: Virtuo Official Magritte Site
Book: Mystery of Magritte CD-ROM
Print: Santiago El Grande, by Salvador Dalí
  June, 1999
Artist: Audrey Flack
Museum: Carol Gerten's Fine Art
Exhibit: Michael Lucero: Sculpture 1976-1995
Book: Anish Kapoor
Print: Cupid And Psyche, by Antonio Canova
  May, 1999
Women in the Arts
Artist: Georgia O'Keeffe
Museum: National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C.
Exhibit: Jenny Holzer: Please Change Beliefs
Book: Cindy Sherman: Retrospective
Print: Self-Portrait with Monkeys, by Frida Kahlo
  April, 1999
The Golden Age of Illustration
Artist: Maxfield Parrish
Museum: Fine Arts Museums Of San Francisco
Exhibit: Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe online
Books: Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe
Print: Cinderella (Enchantment), by Maxfield Parrish
  March, 1999
Vincent van Gogh
Artist: Vincent van Gogh
Museum: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
Exhibit: The Vincent van Gogh Information Gallery
Book: Van Gogh's Van Goghs
Print: Terrasse de Cafe
  February, 1999
Great Art
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Museum: The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia
Exhibit: John Singleton Copley: Watson and the Shark
Book: The Sistine Chapel: A Glorious Restoration
Print: L'Astronomia, by Raphael