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Representations in Art

The Twelve Olympians. The twelve Olympians, each with a clearly defined personality, were worshiped individually in particular city-states and sanctuaries—Athena at Athens, Hera at Argos, Apollo at Delphi, and so on. As a group they are described in the Iliad as feasting on Olympus, much in the manner of Mycenaean aristocrats, and debating in assembly under the presidency of Zeus. In Greek art they appear together as guests at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, shown by the painter Kleitias on the François Vase (ca. 575 B.C., now in Florence), where some ride in chariots and some are on foot, led by Iris, their herald and messenger. The same scene is shown on a slightly earlier black-figure Athenian vase signed by the painter Sophilos. Groups of the Olympians are often shown as onlookers of particular scenes (e.g., the birth of Athena) but, in general, representations of all of them together are comparatively unusual. In 522 B.C. the Altar of the Twelve Gods was dedicated in the Agora at Athens, decorated with reliefs of the Olympians. Exceptional is the assembly of seated Olympians on the east side of the frieze on the Parthenon at Athens (ca. 440 B.C.), where their attendance at the presentation of Athena’s peplos honors the city whose citizens are shown on the same frieze. Above this scene were the sculptures of the east pediment, showing the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, attended by Hera and Hephaestus, while other Olympians are present as spectators. (Nearly all of the surviving pediment sculptures and panels of the frieze are now to be seen as the "Elgin Marbles" in London.) Athens was exceptional in its claim, expressed in public art, of special closeness to the Olympians. There, and in other Greek city-states (and also at Rome), the Olympians were identified with the vitality of the state and its citizens. As the power, pride, and energy of the city-states declined, so the Olympian gods&rsqu0; role was weakened.
At Rome, where the Olympians (other than Apollo) took the names of Italian gods, they were placed in pairs on couches (lecti) in a ceremony called the lectisternium (first celebrated in 399 B.C., but changed in 217 B.C. to honor the twelve Olympian gods), at which a banquet was offered to them as the priests, on behalf of the state, made solemn supplications. The images of the Olympians were also carried in procession on great public festivals, for example at the opening of the games in the Circus Maximus. At the foot of the Capitoline Hill at Rome, facing the Forum, was a portico in front of which stood gilded statues of the twelve Olympians (whom Varro calls "the urban gods, six male and six female"). These were called the "Twelve Unanimous Gods" (Divi Consentes; the meaning of the second word is uncertain). A different group of twelve gods was worshiped by Roman farmers, and of this group only six are Olympians.

The Twelve Olympians in Western Art. Representations of the Olympian gods together are frequent in Western art. They are shown most commonly banqueting, reclining at tables among the clouds and served by their cupbearers, Ganymede and Hebe. Usually Heracles is added to their number. Sometimes the feast of the gods is shown for its own sake, especially in ceiling frescoes. More often it is shown as a counterpart to activity on Earth, for example, in a painting by Gerard de Lairesse, Hermes Ordering Calypso to Release Odysseus (1669, now in Cleveland). Unique in its satirical wit and beauty is The Feast of the Gods by Giovanni Bellini, with additions by Titian (1514, now in Washington), in which the feast is associated with Ovid’s legend of Priapus (see below, Chapter 9). The feast is often shown in representations of other myths: popular were the Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (as in the François Vase mentioned above), and the Introduction of Psyche to Olympus (see below, Chapter 9), painted in a tapestry-like fresco by Raphael in 1518 for the Villa Farnesina in Rome. More often the Feast (or the Council) of the Gods is used allegorically, most skillfully by Rubens in his series on the life of Marie de’ Medici (the so-called Medici cycle, 1622-25, now in the Louvre at Paris), in the paintings entitled The Apotheosis of King Henri, and The Council of the Gods (The Government of Marie).

Zeus in Literature and Art. In Homer, Zeus presides over a sometimes quarrelsome assembly of Olympians and himself is liable to human passions. He is the father of innumerable children (and gives luster to families claiming descent from his children), and his conquests are told with wit and brilliant narrative skill in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the source for a large number of works of art. Long before, however, his metamorphosis into a bull had been shown in a metope representing the myth of Zeus and Europa at Selinus in Sicily (ca. 540 B.C., now in Palermo). Increasingly he comes to be identified with Justice and Fate: the Athenian poet and statesman Solon (ca. 595 B.C.) focused on the former aspect, and the Roman epic poet Vergil (died 19 B.C.) on the latter. As the gods of the city-state declined in vitality, Zeus survived as the supreme god, as, for example, in the Hymn to Zeus of the Stoic philosopher Cleanthes (ca. 250 B.C.). In the Roman world he was identified with various non-Roman gods—for example, under the title of Jupiter Dolichenus, with the Syrian god Baal. The custom of identifying a Roman god with a foreign god is called interpretatio romana.
In art Zeus is a mature bearded man, often seated on a throne holding a scepter and a thunderbolt and accompanied by an eagle. He is shown in archaic Greek art in the myth of the Birth of Athena, who springs fully armed from his head (as in a black-figure vase, ca. 550 B.C., now in Boston). This was the subject also of the east pediment of the Parthenon, in which Zeus was the central figure. He was also the central standing figure in the east pediment of his temple at Olympia (ca. 460 B.C.), in a scene showing the preliminaries to the chariot race of Pelops and Oenomaüs. Inside this temple was his seated chryselephantine (i.e., with surfaces made of gold and ivory) statue, the masterpiece of Pheidias (ca. 440 B.C.) and known only from literary descriptions. Zeus held a figure of Nike (Victory) in his right hand and in his left a scepter on which perched the eagle. The throne included representations of Heracles fighting the Amazons, several of the labors of Heracles, and Heracles freeing Prometheus. On the base was carved the birth of Aphrodite. One of the most successful postclassical paintings based on Pheidias’ statue is Jupiter and Thetis by J.-A.-D. Ingres (1811, now in Aix-en-Provence), a vast canvas that shows the god enthroned among the clouds with his scepter and eagle, while the Gigantomachy is shown on the base of the throne. Less happy was the statue of George Washington by Horatio Greenough (completed in 1839 and still in Washington), in which the American hero is shown seated and half-robed in the manner of Pheidias’ Zeus.

Hera. Hera in ancient art is most commonly portrayed on a throne near Zeus, as, for example, in the Parthenon frieze at Athens, where she turns towards Zeus holding her veil open in a wifely gesture. In postclassical art she is often painted with Zeus as an allegory of marriage: this use is seen, for example, in Rubens’ Medici cycle (1622—25, mentioned above), in The Meeting of Marie and Henri at Lyons. In many paintings she is shown with her attribute of peacocks, in whose tails were set the eyes of Argus, the guardian of Io. Many artists have represented her anger against Zeus: a dramatic representation is the painting by Pieter Lastman mentioned in Chapter 4, Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io (1618, now in London), and in the Ingres painting of Jupiter and Thetis, she looms threateningly on the left of the picture. She has been comparatively little portrayed in art since the early nineteenth century.

Eileithyia and Hebe. Of the children of Zeus and Hera, Eileithyia and Hebe are fairly insignificant in art. Eileithyia is often shown helping at the birth of Athena, for example, in a black-figure vase (ca. 540 B.C., now in Richmond, Virginia). Hebe’s duties as cupbearer to the Olympians are taken over by Ganymede, but she is often shown as the bride of Heracles among the Olympians: for example, in a red-figure vase from southern Italy (ca. 350 B.C., now in Berlin), in which she is the central figure. In the eighteenth century painters liked to portray their sitters as the goddess of youth: for example, Joshua Reynolds painted Mrs. Pownall as Hebe (1762, privately owned).

Ares. Ares appears with the other Olympians in group representations (e.g., in the Parthenon frieze), but in ancient art usually he is shown as a warrior in battle scenes (for example, Gigantomachies) or as an onlooker of heroic combat. He was far more important at Rome, where he was identified with Mars. In postclassical art the myth of his love for Aphrodite, told in Book 8 of the Odyssey, has been very popular, usually with the Roman names of the gods, Venus and Mars. One example from many is by Sandro Botticelli: Mars and Venus (1485, now in London). The myth has frequently been used as an allegory of love overcoming strife. Ares himself appears also in allegories of the horrors of war: a superb example is The Horrors of War by Rubens (1637, now in Florence), where (as Mars) he is shown bursting out of the temple of Janus and away from the arms of Aphrodite (Venus). He is pulled onwards by the Fury Allecto, and underfoot he tramples the arts of peace.

Hephaestus. Hephaestus is often shown in ancient art assisting Zeus at the birth of Athena, as in the sculptures and vase paintings mentioned above. At Athens he shared his temple, the Hephaesteion (ca. 445 B.C.), with Athena, in which his bronze statue stood beside hers. On one pediment was shown the apotheosis of Heracles, and on the other the battle of Lapiths and Centaurs. The labors of Heracles and of Theseus were shown on the metopes. Thus Hephaestus, the god of creative fire, was associated with the triumph of civilization over disorder: he shared his temple with the goddess of wisdom and the crafts and with the heroes whose deeds benefited human beings. In postclassical art he is shown at his forge making the thunderbolt for Zeus or the fine net in which to entrap Ares and Aphrodite, as in Velázquez’ painting mentioned in Chapter 3. He is frequently painted (as told in Book 18 of the Iliad) making the armor of Achilles at the request of Thetis or, as its counterpart (from Book 8 of the Aeneid), the armor of Aeneas, at the request of Aphrodite. François Boucher painted or designed the latter scene repeatedly with exuberant enjoyment of the contrast between the voluptuous goddess and her muscular husband: an example is Venus at the Forge of Vulcan (1757, now in Paris). Finally, an especially popular scene in classical vasepainting was the Return of Hephaestus to Olympus. Here he is usually shown drunkenly riding on a donkey or a mule, accompanied by Dionysus and dancing satyrs: one example is a black-figure vase in New York (ca. 550 B.C.) painted by Lydos, and the scene appears on the François Vase (ca. 575 B.C., now in Florence), painted by Kleitias.

The Nine Muses. These daughters of Zeus, as a group or individually (according to the particular genre of art represented), have been shown at all times as allegories for the inspiration of poetry, drama, art, and music. All nine are shown, for example, in a Roman mosaic (4th-century A.D.) in Trier. In Raphael’s fresco Parnassus, painted in 1510 for the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, they accompany the central figure of Apollo. In the eighteenth century (as with Hebe) sitters were often painted as Muses, for example Mrs. Siddons as The Tragic Muse by Joshua Reynolds (1784, now in San Marino, California). In the twentieth century the Muses were repeatedly reinterpreted by the sculptor Constantin Brancusi (e.g., Sleeping Muse, 1910, now in Washington) and by the surrealistic painter Giorgio de Chirico (e.g., The Disquieting Muses, 1918, now in Milan). The Muses still inspire creativity in the arts and literature.



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