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Representations in Art

Creation Myths. Creation myths are not shown in Greek art. In later Western art, even when it has been most clearly influenced by classical myths and models, biblical stories are likely to be the artists’ sources—for example, in Michelangelo’s frescoes of the Creation in the vault of the Sistine Chapel (1506–12). Similarly, the preeminent musical representation of the Creation, Haydn’s oratorio The Creation (Die Schöpfung, 1798), was set to words based on Milton’s Paradise Lost. Nevertheless, the “Representation of Chaos,” with which the work begins, is profound and moving, and it shares in the spirit of the Greek creation myth, whose purpose is to show how order emerged from Chaos (i.e., the void). The English painter G. F. Watts, in 1896, painted “Chaos,” part of the design for his projected history of man called The House of Life, and he painted several other works about the creation of the universe.

The Birth of Aphrodite. The birth of Aphrodite has been portrayed in all ages. Eros was shown receiving her on the base of the throne of Zeus at Olympia (ca. 450 B.C., known only from literary descriptions). On the altar known as The Ludovisi Throne (ca. 460 B.C., whose marble reliefs are in Rome and Boston), Aphrodite is shown rising from the sea, attended by two women on shore. This relief (now in Rome) is the most beautiful of all ancient representations of the scene, and it is the canonical version from which many later artists have derived their inspiration. Of later versions by far the most famous is that of Sandro Botticelli (1486, in Florence), which shows Aphrodite standing on a shell being propelled towards the shore by gentle breezes. There female attendants wait to clothe her. Whatever the allegorical meaning of the painting, its classical inspiration is undeniable. A second very beautiful representation is the oil-sketch by Peter Paul Rubens (1636, now in Brussels), which shows Aphrodite as a young woman wringing out her hair on the shore after emerging from the sea. This sketch was prepared for the decorations of the Torre della Parada near Madrid illustrating (for the most part) Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The Children of Uranus and Gaia. The children of the sacred marriage of Uranus and Gaia are frequently shown in art. Depictions of the Titans Hyperion and Prometheus will be mentioned below. In the nineteenth century the Titans were the subject of several paintings: notable is The Titan’s Goblet by Thomas Cole (1833, in New York) and the designs by G. F. Watts for his House of Life series (1882, one in Liverpool, and another in London), and other studies of various dates (now at Compton in Surrey). The Cyclopes are shown in scenes of the forge of Hephaestus, usually as muscular blacksmiths. A memorable example is The Forge of Vulcan (1630, now in Madrid) by Diego Velázquez. The Hecatonchires are shown as part of the Titanomachy (the battle of Zeus against the Titans), possibly the subject of the west pediment of the temple of Artemis on Corfu (ca. 580 B.C.). A fine representation is an oil-sketch by Rubens (1636, now in Brussels) of The Fall of the Titans.

Hyperion. Hyperion has some importance in literature, and many artistic representations of the sun could as well be depicting him as Helius or Apollo. John Keats wrote two epic fragments (1818–1919), Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, which are allegories (possibly about poetry and poetic inspiration) that take as their starting point the fall of the Titans. The love for the youth Endymion of Selene (the moon, later equated with Artemis and Diana), daughter of Hyperion, is the subject of a beautiful painting by Poussin (ca. 1630, now in Detroit). Quite different is the striking small painting by G. F. Watts (1873, in a private  collection) on the same theme. The horses drawing the chariot of the sun rise from, and those drawing the chariot of the moon sink into, the sea on the east pediment of the Parthenon at Athens (ca. 440 B.C.), thus setting the birth of Athena in cosmic time. The fall of the son of Helius, Phaëthon, has been popular with artists at all times: representative are the oil-sketch by Rubens (1636, now in Brussels) and a series of paintings by Odilon Redon (1896–1910). Eos (the dawn), also a daughter of Hyperion, is shown in Greek vase paintings watching her son, Memnon, fighting Achilles at Troy, or mourning over his corpse (best known is a vase by Douris, ca. 490, now in Paris). The myth of Cephalus and Aurora (Eos) was especially popular with artists in the seventeenth century, for example Poussin (ca. 1625, now in London) and Claude Lorrain (1645, also in London). Aurora (Eos) is also the subject of a watercolor and gold paper collage on silk (ca. 1820, now in Williamsburg) by an unknown New England artist.

Uranus and Cronus. This subject has been painted by few artists (e.g., Giorgio Vasari in Florence, 1556), and the myth has been less popular than that of Cronus devouring his children. Saturn (i.e., Cronus) Devouring [One of] His Sons has been most memorably painted by Rubens (1636, in Madrid) and Goya (1821, also in Madrid). Rhea offering the stone in place of the infant Zeus is shown on a Greek red-figure vase (ca. 450 B.C., now in Paris).

The Nurture of Jupiter. Of many postclassical representations of the childhood of Zeus on Crete, an exceptionally beautiful one is The Nurture of Jupiter by Poussin (ca. 1635, now in Dulwich).

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