Those who are well-versed in Greek mythology likely recognize many scenes from myths in famous artworks. In fact, apart from religious scenes, images from Greek mythology are one of the most common themes in European art.
Greek mythology is prominent in art dating from antiquity through to the renaissance and even in contemporary artwork.
During the Renaissance particularly, Greek and Roman mythology became very popular due to a renewed interest in antiquity brought about by humanism.
The cultured and educated elite prided themselves on deep knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman art, literature, culture, and history, which naturally involved a study Greek mythology.
Scenes of nymphs, gods, and mythic creatures such as satyrs are common in art of the Renaissance, and as the period served as the foundation for much of later European art, these themes carried on throughout the centuries.
While mythology is a popular theme in art generally, there are a number of specific myths that are particularly common in great works of art.
The Three Graces are common figures from Greek mythology found in art
While Botticelli’s masterwork “Primavera” features countless figures from Greek and Roman mythology, the three women in diaphanous garments in the foreground are particularly iconic figures — the three Graces.
The three Graces, or Charities, are found throughout centuries of art history. They are easily identifiable as they are almost always depicted together.
Most often, they are shown as three beautiful, nude women clasping hands or holding onto each other’s shoulders. Frequently, the two Graces flanking the third are depicted facing the viewer, while the woman in the middle has her back to the viewer.
In Greek mythology, the three figures are known as the Charities, but they were called the “Gratiae,” or Graces, in Roman myth. Collectively, they are considered the goddess of beauty, charm, creativity, and goodwill, and their roles often changed from myth to myth.
The Graces, Aglaea, “Shining,” Euphrosyne,”Joy,” and Thalia, “Blooming,” are often referred to as the daughters of Zeus and an Oceanid named Eurynome. Homer associates the three women with Aphrodite, the goddess of Love.
Their most important role in Greek myth was as attendants to the twelve Olympian gods. Often, they are described as either preparing a feast for the gods, or dancing for them. They also help Aphrodite bathe and get dressed, and even weave her clothes.
Worship of the goddesses is quite ancient, as many scholars argue that their cult dates back to the Pelasgians, or the archaic ancestors of the ancient Greeks.
The story of the Trojan War
Scenes from the Iliad and Odyssey are very common in art, as knowledge of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” was considered a part of basic education for centuries. It was expected that most educated people would immediately recognize scenes from the war upon seeing them depicted in a painting.
Although many scholars have debated whether or not the Trojan War as we know it from the works of the great poet Homer truly occurred, it is generally agreed upon that the Trojan War as described in the Iliad and the Odyssey can be considered myth.
In fact, it is believed to be one of the most important and foundational stories in Greek mythology. Featuring some of the most iconic figures from myth, including Agamemnon, Achilles, Paris, Hector, and of course a number of the Olympian gods, scenes from the Trojan War feature prominently in European art.
The Trojan War began after the Trojan prince Paris took Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, back with him to Troy. Paris had been promised the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world after he deemed Aphrodite the most beautiful in a competition against Hera and Athena.
This act brought about 10 years of fighting, and the Greeks besieged the city of Troy for a decade before finally gaining access to the city by using the famous Trojan horse.
Some of the most widely-depicted fighters from the Trojan War are Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector, who were involved in one of the most famous episodes from the war.
Hector was the greatest of all Trojan warriors — so great that even his enemies, the Greeks, admired him. Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, soon became the target of Hector.
The Trojan warrior wanted nothing more than to defeat his enemy in battle, but Achilles refused to fight after the Mycenaean king Agamemnon took away his “battle prize,” a Trojan woman named Briseis.
While Achilles sat in his tent, fuming over the loss of Briseis, Patroclus, his closest friend and who many argue may have been his lover, donned the Greek hero’s distinctive armor and went to battle.
Thinking that Patroclus was Achilles, as he was wearing the warrior’s iconic armor, Hector killed him.
When word got back to Achilles, he was so enraged that he went on a killing spree, massacring the Trojan forces, while seeking out Hector.
When he finally found the warrior, he chased him around the walls of Troy three times until Hector was convinced to face Achilles face-to-face by the goddess Athena.
Hector accepted that he would likely be killed by Achilles after he tried to strike the hero and missed. Rather than plead for his life, Hector simply requested that his body be treated with respect after his death.
But Achilles, full of rage, dragged Hector’s body by its heels with his chariot around the city’s walls. The corpse of Hector was a frequent subject of paintings, and is even alluded to in the famous work “Liberty Leading the People” by French painter Delacroix.
American artist Cy Twombly, who frequently drew inspiration from Greek myth in his artwork, explored the story of Achilles, Hector, and Patroclus in his 1978 work “Fifty Days at Iliam: Shades of Achilles, Patroclus, and Hector.”
Leda and the Swan: Greek mythology and eroticism in art
Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, was known for his infidelity to his wife, Hera. In one of the most famous and surely most bizarre myths on the subject, Zeus transforms into a swan in order to seduce the beautiful Leda, who was already married to the Spartan king Tyndareus.
As a swan, Zeus tricked Leda by falling into her arms after being pursued by an eagle. According to myth, the sexual act, which many consider nonconsensual, occurred on the same night that Leda had sex with her husband.
So, after falling pregnant, Leda “gave birth” to two eggs, one of which contained Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, famed wife and murderer of Agamemnon, and the twins Castor and Pollux, who were known as the Dioscuri.
The paternity of the children varies from myth to myth, but most commonly, Helen and one of the twins, Pollux, are the children of Zeus, and the others, Clytemnestra and Castor, are fully mortal.
The story of Leda and the Swan became wildly popular in Renaissance artwork. Both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo both painted the scene, but the originals of their work are now lost, and only copies from other artists remain.
Most art historians believe that the two works were likely destroyed deliberately, as the scene was considered highly erotic at the time.
Painters were more free to paint overtly erotic works on the theme than they would be if the couple had been two human beings, but the scene still inspired controversy amongst people who objected to eroticism in art.
The most famous surviving work featuring the scene in Renaissance art is “Leda and the Swan” by Coreggio, but it was not immune from damage and controversy either. It was attacked with a knife by Louis, son of Philippe II, the Duke of Orleans, while in his collection.
Louis was known to love painting, but was also guilty about his life of excess and sex, which was likely the reason for the attack.
The story of Leda and the Swan was also the inspiration for William Butler Yeats’ 1923 sonnet of the same name. The work is known as a masterpiece, as it both tells of the violent rape of Leda, as well as the events that the attack brings about — the Trojan War and the death of Agamemnon.
Perseus freeing Andromeda
The scene in which the Greek hero Perseus swoops in to save Andromeda, perhaps the first “damsel in distress,” was a favorite of painters, as it allowed them to paint a beautiful nude woman, a fearsome sea monster, and a beautiful seaside landscape.
According to Greek myth, Andromeda, an Ethiopian princess is chained to a rock as a sacrifice to a horrifying sea monster. The monster, named Cetus, began to torment the kingdom after the princess’ mother Cassiopeia began to claim that she was more beautiful than the Nereids, or the sea nymphs who accompanied Poseidon.
The god of the sea punished Cassiopeia for her arrogance by sending Cetus to the Ethiopian coasts. After seeking advice from an oracle, Andromeda’s father, the king Cepheus, learns that he must sacrifice his daughter.
He then chained her to a rock along the sea, where she could be eaten by the terrifying sea monster.
Luckily, however, Perseus happened to be flying by the coast of Ethiopia on his winged sandals after killing Medusa.
Upon seeing her as he flew by, Perseus fell in love with Andromeda, and immediately went to ask her father Cepheus for her hand in marriage. The king agreed, but only if Perseus could save his daughter and kill the monster in his seas.
The hero manages to kill the beast with the same sword, called “Harpe,” that he had used to kill Medusa.
The famous story of Daedalus and Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun, is one of the most well-known tales from Greek myth.
According to the story, variations of which are found in the works of Greek writers Homer and Herodotus, and the Romans Ovid and Virgil, the great artisan Daedalus searches for a way to escape the complex labyrinth of his own making with his son, Icarus.
The father and son were trapped in the maze by King Minos, who ordered Daedalus to construct the labyrinth to hide the Minotaur, a fearsome creature and the product of his wife Pasiphae’s affair with a bull.
In order to leave the labyrinth, Daedalus decided to construct wings of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus, so they could fly.
When the moment to escape arrived, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, but the disobedient boy did not listen to his father and he fell into the sea when the wax in his wings melted and fell apart from the heat of the sun’s rays.
While many depictions of the famous myth focus on the figure of Icarus and the moment he begins to fall, the most well-known depiction of the painting almost ignores the crucial moment completely.
Most viewers standing before Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” likely do not even spot Icarus at first glance.
Instead, they admire the intricate landscape, which features men working in the fields, the sea, and even cities far in the background.
Upon closer inspection, however, one can make out a small pair of legs flailing in the sea in the lower right corner of the work.
The scene depicts the moments after Icarus plunged from the sky into the sea, and focuses on the world around him instead of on the dramatic moment.
In this work, Bruegel is exploring the version of the myth told by the ancient Roman poet Ovid in his famous work “Metamorphoses,” which describes a fisherman, plowman, and shepherd at the scene. Ovid describes them as “astonished” as they marvel at the pair flying above them, yet Bruegel shows them all hard at work, except for the shepherd, who presumably looks up at Daedalus, who is not featured in the painting.
— M 2 3 (@M23projects) July 3, 2014
The great French artist Matisse also explored the theme of Icarus in one of his famous Cut-Outs, which were made out of paper. His work “Icarus” was included in his illustrated book “Jazz,” which was released in 1947.
Notably, Matisse’s figure does not have wings at all, and seems to float in space, surrounded by the stars. In his version, the once tragic figure may not have fallen at all after losing his wings, but ascended even further into space. Conversely, it could depict the moment before Icarus falls out of the sky.