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Classical Mythology in Art

Classical Mythology in the Art of Late Antiquity

The following discussion of the uses of classical mythology in art is meant to serve as a broad overview and proceeds chronologically. For in depth treatment on specific mythological themes and characters in art consult the individual Representations in Art sections in the relevant chapters.

Despite the decline of the influence of the gods in the life of the cities and individuals, they continued to be a source of allegory, especially in funerary art. With the spread of inhumation (from about a.d. 140), wealthy patrons commissioned reliefs on sarcophagi (i.e., marble or stone coffins), whose mythological subjects were allegories of the resurrection of the soul (the finding of Ariadne by Dionysus, illustrated on p. 605, was especially popular in this connection), the triumph of virtue over evil (e.g., the Labors of Heracles or scenes of battles with the Amazons), or hope for everlasting life (symbolized especially by Dionysus and the vine). These subjects were equally appropriate for pagan and Christian patrons, and so classical mythology continued to provide material for artistic representations even after the triumph of Christianity.
Here are a few examples from the third and fourth centuries. In the cemetery beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is a third-century wall mosaic showing Christ with the attributes of Apollo as sun-god (see p. 268). He ascends in the chariot of the sun, whose rays, as well as the cross, emanate from his head, while in the background the vine of Dionysus is both a decorative and a symbolic feature. Also in the third century, Christ appears as Orpheus in a fresco in a Christian catacomb in Rome, and a century later Hercules is shown killing the Hydra in another Christian catacomb fresco. In the fourth century, a Christian woman, Projecta, had her splendid silver-gilt wedding casket decorated with figures of the Muses and of sea-gods and goddesses attended by mythological monsters. The Muses and sea divinities appear in mosaics from the provinces, including Britain and Germany, and the myth of Actaeon is the subject of a third-century mosaic from Cirencester (the Roman Corinium) in Britain.
Of all mythological figures, Dionysus proved the most durable, in part because the vine was a powerful symbol in Christian allegory, in part because Dionysus and his myths were associated with mysteries that gave hope of salvation to individuals. The myth of Ariadne (mentioned earlier) often appears for this reason. In the Church of Santa Costanza at Rome, built in the fourth century to house the sarcophagi of members of the Christian emperor Constantine’s family, the vault mosaics show Dionysus and the vintage in a Christian context. The vintage is again the subject of the reliefs on the sarcophagus of Constantine’s daughter. In contexts that may be Christian or pagan, Dionysus and his maenads, along with Hercules and his lion, appear on the silver dishes from the fourth century that were found at Mildenhall in Britain. An opponent of Dionysus, the Thracian king Lycurgus, is the subject of a floor mosaic now in Vienna and of a famous glass cup, both showing Lycurgus trapped in the god’s vine.
Scenes from classical mythology continued to inspire painters of manuscript illuminations. For example, the “Vatican Vergil” manuscript of about a.d. 400 has forty-one miniatures, and there are ten in the so-called Vergilius Romanus manuscript, which dates from the fifth century (see p. 682). Mythological figures maintained their classical forms better in the Byzantine East than in the West. They appear in manuscripts, on ivory plaques (see the illustration on p. 559) and boxes, and in many other media, including silver work, pottery, and textiles.

Mythological Representations and the Stars

We have seen how the mythological figures survived in astronomy and astrology, and they were frequently depicted in astronomical and astrological manuscripts. The ninth-century manuscripts of Aratus (in Cicero’s Latin translation) show Perseus still in recognizable classical form, with cap, sword, winged sandals, and Gorgon’s head, and ancient classical forms still appear in a few manuscripts as late as the eleventh century.
Two other traditions, however, combined to change the classical gods beyond recognition, the one Western and the other Eastern. In the West, the artist would plot the position of a constellation and then link up the individual stars in the form of the mythological figure whose name the constellation bore. Since the artists were more interested in the pictorial qualities of the subject, the illustrations were usually astronomically inaccurate. In the East, however, the approach was scientifically more accurate, since the Arabs used Ptolemy’s astronomical work, which (by a corruption of the word megiste in the Greek title) they called Almagest. The Arab artists therefore plotted the constellations accurately, while the mythological figures took on new forms. Hercules appeared as an Arab, with scimitar, turban, and Oriental trousers; Perseus carried, in place of the Gorgon’s head, a bearded demon’s head, which gave its name Algol (Arabic for ‘demon”) to one of the stars in the constellation of Perseus. Some of these changes went back to Babylonian religion. In the Arab manuscripts Mercury is a scribe and Jupiter a judge, just as in Babylonian mythology the god Nebo had been a scribe and Marduk a judge. Even in the West, in thirteenth-century Italian sculpture (for example on Giotto’s Campanile in Florence) Mercury appears as a scribe or teacher, Jupiter as a monk or bishop, and other classical gods take on similar guises.

Mythological Handbooks and Their Iconography

We have already mentioned the importance of handbooks in the survival of classical mythology. In the later Middle Ages handbooks appeared giving detailed instructions for the appearance of the gods, for it was important in astrology and magic to have an accurate image of the divinity whose favor was needed. One Arab handbook appeared in a Latin translation in the West after the tenth century with the title Picatrix, and contained, besides magic rituals and prayers, fifty detailed descriptions of gods. Some, like Saturn with “a crow’s head and the feet of a camel,” were changed into Oriental monsters; but in some, for example, Jupiter, who “sits on a throne and he is made of gold and ivory,” the classical form remains.
An important iconography in this period was the Liber ymaginum Deorum of “Albricus” (perhaps Alexander Neckham, who died in 1217), which was certainly used by Petrarch in his description of the Olympian gods (Africa 3. 140–262), from which we give a short extract (140–146):
First is Jupiter, sitting in state upon his throne, holding scepter and thunderbolt. Before him his armor bearer [the eagle] lifts the Trojan boy [i.e., Ganymede] above the stars. Next with more stately gait, weighed down with gloomy age, is Saturn; with veiled head and a gray cloak, holding a rake and sickle, a farmer in aspect, he devours his sons.
A third type of handbook is represented by the Emblemata of Andrea Alciati (1531), in which woodcuts of gods, virtues and vices, proverbs and aphorisms, and many other subjects were depicted, each with a few lines of Latin elegiac couplets, usually containing a moral lesson. Friendship, for example, was represented by a vine with clusters of grapes entwined round the trunk of a leafless elm. Alciati concluded: “[The vine] warns us by its example to choose friends whom the final day with its laws may not part from us.” In 1571 a Latin commentary was added to the Emblemata by the French jurist Claude Mignault, which was extensive and important in its own right. The expanded work was frequently reprinted, including duodecimo editions small enough to be carried in the pocket or saddlebag of an artist or sightseer. Alciati’s Emblemata was one of the most important sources for the “correct” use of mythological figures as symbols or allegories, and his emblems can often be found in paintings of the later Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Two other handbooks were equally important. The Iconologia of Cesare Ripa was published in 1593 and reissued with woodcuts in 1603. Ripa’s commentary, which was in Italian, separated the mythological figures from their narrative contexts, so that they often became abstractions with a moral meaning. This approach was valuable for artists who wished to employ allegory, and the book was translated and reissued frequently until the end of the eighteenth century.
The other important iconography was the Imagines of Philostratus, a Greek work of the third century a.d. describing an art collection in Naples. It was translated into French by Blaise de Vigenère in 1578 and reissued in a splendidly illustrated version in 1614, with woodcuts, explanatory poems, and commentary containing a very wide range of classical myths.

Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art

The classical gods had survived in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, but in many disguises. Renaissance artists gave them back their classical forms. In Florence, Botticelli (1444–1510) combined medieval allegory with classical mythology in his allegorical masterpieces, The Birth of Venus, Primavera, Venus and Mars, and Pallas and the Centaur. In Venice, Giovanni Bellini (1430–1516), Giorgione (1478–1510), and his pupil Titian (1487–1576) also drew on a variety of traditions while representing the myths more or less in agreement with the handbooks. Great artists, of course, like the four named here, were hardly limited by these criteria, as can be seen in Bellini’s Feast of the Gods (see p. 670).
Besides the painters already mentioned, Michelangelo at Florence and Rome, Correggio at Ferrara, and Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto at Venice were sixteenth-century masters who found inspiration in classical mythology. One of the most extensive mythological programs is the great series of paintings by the Carracci brothers in the Gallery of the Farnese Palace at Rome (1597–1604) depicting the triumph of Love by means of one classical legend after another (see p. 198).
Two other Renaissance works show how the classical gods recovered their antique forms. One is the map of the sky published in 1515 by the German Albrecht Dürer in which the classical forms of the Western astronomical tradition combine with the scientific accuracy of the Arabs. Dürer gave the mythological figures their ancient forms; Hercules is a Greek once more and recovers his club and lionskin.
The second work is the decoration of the Vatican Stanza della Segnatura by Raphael, after 1508. Here the classical, allegorical, and Christian traditions combined to exalt the glory of the church and its doctrine. In the place of honor (though not supreme) was Apollo, surrounded by the Muses, the poets of antiquity, and Renaissance humanists. Classical mythology and Renaissance humanism had achieved the perfect synthesis.

Illustrated Editions of Ovid

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Ovid’s works were repeatedly issued in illustrated editions, which were frequently used as sources by artists. The series began with a prose translation of the Metamorphoses known as the Grande Olympe, published at Paris in 1539. The most important of the early editions was that of Bernard Salomon, La Métamorphose d’Ovide Figurée, published at Lyons in 1557 and reissued at Lyons in 1559 (in Italian) and at Antwerp in 1591. A German translation of the Metamorphoses was issued by Virgilio Solis at Frankfurt in 1563, and another at Leipzig in 1582, while an Italian translation by Andrea d’Anguillara was published at Venice in 1584.
The most influential editions were those of Antonio Tempestà and George Sandys. Tempestà published Metamorphoseon sive Transformationum Ovidianarum Libri Quindecim at Amsterdam in 1606. His book consists of engravings of 150 scenes from the Metamorphoses without text, and it became an important sourcebook of classical stories for painters. The importance of Sandys lay rather in his connection of pictures with the text and commentary, which we have mentioned earlier. In his preface to the 1632 edition he says:
And for thy farther delight I have contracted the substance of every Booke into as many Figures . . . since there is betweene Poetry and Picture so great a congruitie; the one . . . a speaking Picture, and the other a silent Poesie: Both Daughters of the Imagination.
Sandys was helped by the outstanding quality of his artist, Francis Clein, and his engraver, Salomon Savery. They engraved a full-page illustration for each book of the poem, in which the stories of the book were represented, choosing more often the moment of greatest drama rather than the moment of metamorphosis (see p. 717). In addition Clein designed a splendid title page and a portrait of Ovid, each decorated with allegorical figures from classical mythology.
The principle of the interaction of words and pictures has remained a regular feature of the influence of Ovid since the publication of Sandys’ 1632 edition. Ovid is the most visual of poets, and his landscapes and narrative invite pictorial representation, as can be seen in a large number of school editions of the Metamorphoses.

European Art of the Seventeenth through the Nineteenth Centuries

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) found in classical mythology a constant source of inspiration throughout his career. During his years in Italy, between 1600 and 1608, he studied and copied classical works of art and became thoroughly familiar with the representations of classical mythology. He already had a good knowledge of Latin literature, and through his brother, Philip (an excellent classicist), he had access to the brilliant circle of humanists that centered on his fellow countryman, Justus Lipsius. Rubens painted great numbers of scenes in which he showed with energy and brilliance his understanding of classical mythology.
In his last years, Rubens was commissioned to decorate the hunting lodge of King Philip IV near Madrid with a series of paintings illustrating the legends in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Rubens, who began the commission in his sixtieth year, completed no less than 112 oil sketches, of which about forty-five survive (see pp. 302, 581, 625, and 688). Only a handful of the final full-size paintings survive, still to be seen together in Madrid. This series is perhaps the most ambitious of all the illustrated Ovids, and the oil sketches are among the most beautiful of all the Baroque representations of classical myths. Rubens also turned to Homer and Statius for inspiration for his designs for the tapestries portraying the life of Achilles (see p. 503). Most of these oil sketches can still be seen together in Rotterdam.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), although French by birth, spent nearly all his productive life in Rome, and, like Rubens, he never ceased to draw inspiration from the classical legends and to meditate on their deeper meaning beyond the narrative. Among painters he is the most intellectual interpreter of the classical myths, and those who wish to understand best what “classicism” means in the centuries following the Renaissance should study the long series of drawings and paintings done by Poussin on mythological themes (see pp. 169, 329, and  596).

Other Painters
From the time of Poussin to our own day, artists have returned again and again to the classical myths, and the ancient gods and heroes have survived in art as in literature. We cannot here satisfactorily survey even a corner of this vast field of study, but we can refer to some important stages in the use of classical myths by artists.
Painters in France and Italy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used classical myths for narrative paintings on a heroic scale, for these were considered to belong to history painting, the most highly esteemed genre. The leading painter at the court of Louis XV, François Boucher (1703–1770), produced a long series of classical scenes, often pastoral and usually erotic (e.g. Earth: Vertumnus and Pomona). In the last third of the eighteenth century, this somewhat sentimental approach to classical mythology gave way to a sterner view of the classical past, which placed a high value on the moral lessons to be drawn from history. In the nineteenth century, therefore, when painters in England and France returned to subjects taken from classical mythology, their approach tended to be moralistic, paralleling (as far as art can parallel literature) the approach typified by Hawthorne and Kingsley, discussed earlier.


Gustave Moreau (1826–1898) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898) were profoundly inspired by classical mythology, and their art goes far beyond the morality and symbolism of many of their contemporaries. Moreau’s great paintings Prometheus, Oedipus (see p. 417), and Heracles (see p. 569) probe the meaning of the classical texts and express a heroic humanism appropriate for the challenges of his time. In England, Burne-Jones, who shared with William Morris the ideals of the pre-Raphaelite movement, returned again and again to the classical myths to support his search for purity and beauty in the past. In Danaë and the Brazen Tower (1888: see p. 547), he focuses on Danaë’s feelings as the tower is built, not on the lust of Zeus and the anger of Acrisius. In the Pygmalion Series (1878: see p. 193 for The Godhead Fires) and the Perseus Series (1887: see p. 556), Burne-Jones turns from the anger of the gods and the violence of the hero to the ideals of piety, chivalry, and chaste love. Yet these very ideals involve the psychological and sexual tensions that Freud (1856–1939) at the same time was beginning to explore.

Classical Mythology in American Art

During the first century of the American republic, mythological subjects were often copied by schoolgirls from engravings (the illustrations for Pope’s translation of the Iliad were a favorite source) or were imaginatively treated by women in their spare time at home (see p. 526). Artists who studied in Europe copied paintings of classical subjects and exhibited them when they returned. The earliest such exhibition, given in Boston in 1730 by John Smibert (1688–1751), aroused great public interest. Ten years earlier, a Swedish immigrant, Gustavus Hesselius (1682–1755), painted the earliest known American mythological works, Bacchus and Ariadne (now in Detroit) and Bacchanal (now in Philadelphia).
While the leading American painters (such as Copley, West, Allston, and Vanderlyn) sometimes painted mythological subjects, American taste soon turned to historical themes and to the dramatic potential of the American landscape. One of the best American mythological paintings is John Vanderlyn’s Ariadne, painted in 1811 and now in Philadelphia. It depicts the scene described in Ovid’s Heroides (10. 7–10), as Ariadne wakes to find herself deserted. When it was first exhibited it aroused interest and controversy. But by Vanderlyn’s time it was already clear that American painters would find material in sources other than classical mythology.
In sculpture, however, the classical influence continued to be strong. Horatio Greenough (1805–1852) used Pheidias’ statue of Zeus at Olympia as the basis for his seated statue (1832–1839) of George Washington, now in the National Museum of American History but planned originally for the Rotunda of the Capitol. On the sides of Washington’s throne are mythological reliefs, on one side Apollo as the sun-god rising into the sky with his chariot and on the other the infants Heracles and Iphicles with the serpents sent by Hera. Greenough wanted Heracles to be an allegory of North America, which ‘struggles successfully with the obstacles and dangers of an incipient political existence.”
A group of expatriate American artists living in Rome is described in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1859). Among these was Harriet Hosmer (1820–1908), whose busts of Medusa, and Daphne (both completed in 1854) were meant to express her views on celibacy and beauty. Her Oenone was based on Tennyson’s poem Oenone rather than directly on Ovid’s Heroides.

Classical Mythology in Art Since 1900

Classical mythology has continued to be a vigorous source of inspiration for artists since 1900. In France and Spain especially, Georges Braque (1882–1963) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) returned frequently to classical themes. Perhaps the most famous example of such inspiration is Picasso’s long series of works involving the legend of the Minotaur, which he used (especially in the period of the Spanish Civil War) to comment on the horror and violence of much of modern life as he observed it (see p. 603).
In recent decades, artists have interpreted the classical myths allegorically, and many have been influenced by psychological theories (especially those of Freud). The series of sculptures by Reuben Nakian on Leda and the Swan is an outstanding example.  Our text includes Nakian’s Rape of Lucrece (see p. 693). A group of neoclassical artists have interpreted the classical myths more realistically, sometimes depicting them in a modern landscape (e.g., Milet Andrejevič, Apollo and Daphne [n.b. image is at the bottom of the page] is set in a city park), or in a starkly formal classical setting that recalls an action completed long ago (e.g., David Ligare, Landscape for Philemon and Baucis, see pp. 653 and 684). Finally, Romare Bearden (see pp. 167 and 535) has effectively interpreted the myths of the Trojan War and the returns with black heroes and heroines, in settings that do homage (Bearden’s own word) to the Renaissance artists’ interpretations but have been transformed into his own. Indeed, the classical myths will continue to inspire all who care for the creative use of the imagination.

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