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Representations in Art

The Battle between the Olympian Gods and the Giants. This was an important theme in Greek art. It was shown on the north frieze of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi (ca. 525 B.C.) and appears in vase paintings in Attica twenty-five years earlier. The origin of the giants and the earlier Hecatonchires can be readily explained as volcanic phenomena, consistent with the myths of the imprisoning of Enceladus and Typhoeus under Mt. Etna and the showers of rocks hurled by the Hecatonchires. But allegorical interpretations of the battle and the victory of the Olympians chiefly account for the popularity of the myth in Greek art, above all for the purpose of expressing Greek self-awareness. Most commonly the Gigantomachy signifies the victory of civilization over disorder, especially the triumph of Greek over barbarian culture. (It shares this allegory with other battle-myths, in particular those of the Centaurs and Lapiths and of the Greeks and Amazons.) It was shown in the sculptures of the west pediment of the temple of Apollo at Delphi (ca. 520 B.C.), one of the most important of Greek religious centers: the pediment is described by Euripides in his tragedy Ion (412 B.C.). After the Greek victories in the Persian wars (480–479 B.C.), the Gigantomachy was an important political and cultural allegory, especially at Athens. It was shown on the eastern metopes of the Parthenon (ca. 440) and was painted on the inside of the shield of Pheidias’ statue of Athena Parthenos. It was the subject of the great frieze of the altar of Zeus at Pergamum (mid-second century B.C., now in Berlin): the victory over the giants was won with the aid of Heracles, the father of the mythical founder of the royal house of Pergamum, Telephus. This is an early example of the myth being used for the political purpose of glorifying a ruler and his family, rather than a people or a city-state. The Gigantomachy continued to be popular into Roman times—for example, on a sarcophagus from the mid-second century A.D. in the Vatican—perhaps as an allegory of the victory of the soul over death. There are many representations in later art, where inevitably the theme of the fall of the Titans becomes confused with the Christian theme of the fall of Satan and his angels and with representations of the damned in scenes of the Last Judgment.

Typhoeus. Other monstrous opponents of the Olympians include Typhoeus, from whom, says Hesiod, “arise the winds that blow the mighty rains.” His origin, then, is in the violent storms of nature, but he, too, comes to represent violence and disorder overcome by reason and order. He is, like the giants, represented as a human upper half joined to a serpentine lower half, for example, on shield-bands and vases in the sixth century B.C. Like many polymorphous monsters in Greek mythology, he has developed from Eastern imaginary monsters, found in the arts of the early kingdoms of Asia Minor and in the “orientalizing” vase paintings of seventh- and sixth-century Greek art.

The Four or Five Ages. The myth of the ages of humankind has attracted poets from Dante (1314) to W. H. Auden (1964), and artists from Lucas Cranach (1530) to Henri Matisse (1906), whose painting The Joy of Life evokes the innocence of a Golden Age.     

The Creation of Mortals. Of the several myths of the creation of mortals, the creation by Prometheus and by Deucalion and Pyrrha are especially popular. The bibliography for this chapter references both the fine poem by Goethe (1749–1832), and its musical setting by Schubert. Deucalion and Pyrrha’s act of creation has attracted artists as different as Hendrik Goltzius (1589), Peter Paul Rubens (1636), and Pablo Picasso (1930). There is little in the early stages of Greek myth that emulates the first creation myth in the biblical Genesis, although later Greek authors (for example, Plato) composed their own allegories of creation.

Prometheus. The most complex of the Titans is Prometheus. The many facets of his character (see MLS, pp. 88–98) have made him one of the most popular symbols in art, poetry, and music. His punishment is shown on Greek vases in the early sixth century B.C., most notably on a vase from Sparta (ca. 560) now in the Vatican. The rescue by Heracles is also frequently portrayed on archaic Greek vases (seventh century through the end of the sixth century), and it was the subject of a fifth-century painting in the temple of Zeus at Olympia, where Heracles had an important role in myth, cult, and artistic representations. The rescue was portrayed in a sculptural group attached to a wall in the sanctuary of Athena at Pergamum from the second century B.C. Among the countless works of art inspired by Prometheus, three very different versions are representative of their variety: first, Prometheus Bound, by Peter Paul Rubens and Franz Snyders (1611, now in Philadelphia), which focuses on the cruelty of the eagle’s tearing at Prometheus; second, the abstract head Prometheus, by Constantin Brancusi (1911, marble version in Philadelphia, bronze in Washington); third, the gilded bronze figure of Prometheus with the torch, by Paul Manship (1934), in the Rockefeller Center complex in New York.

Io. In the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus, Io appears as another victim of Zeus. The best-known version of her legend was told by Ovid in the first book of the Metamorphoses, from which many artistic works have taken their inspiration. The slaying of Argus by Hermes is the commonest theme, for example in the oil-sketch by Peter Paul Rubens (1636, now in Brussels: the final version is in Madrid). Impressive also is Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io, by Pieter Lastman (1618, now in London). Unique are the large panel paintings by Bartolomeo di Giovanni (1488, now in Baltimore), in which the whole legend is shown sequentially, with the divine figures in Renaissance dress and Io's human form emerging from the body of the cow in the final transformation scene.

Pandora. Hesiod tells the myth of Prometheus in both his major poems, the Theogony and Works and Days, and as well that of the woman Pandora, sent by Zeus with her jar of evils to be an affliction for mortals because of Prometheus’ sins. Pandora has been a rich source of inspiration for artists. Her birth was shown on the base of Pheidias’ statue of Athena Parthenos in the Parthenon. In an Athenian vase from about ten years earlier (ca. 450 B.C.), Pandora is shown rising from the ground. Of the very large number of paintings of her legend, that by Odilon Redon (1910, now in New York) is exceptional in its evocation of dreams and emotions, which at that very time were being explored by Sigmund Freud. Like the myth of Eve, the myth of Pandora expresses fears and prejudices that are expressed as myths in many cultures.

The Flood. Representations of the Flood in later art are dominated by non-classical sources, above all, the biblical narrative of Genesis. The classical figures of Deucalion and Pyrrha appear regularly in illustrations of Ovid, who tells their tale in the first book of the Metamorphoses. Representative examples are the engravings by Hendrik Goltzius (1589, now in London); the oil-sketch by Rubens (1636, now in Madrid); the etching by Picasso for the edition of the Metamorphoses published at Lausanne in 1591. The myths of Lycaon, the Flood, and Deucalion and Pyrrha are shown compendiously in the full-page engraving that illustrates George Sandys’ translation of the Metamorphoses, published at Oxford in 1632.

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