Alluring beauty and tragic tales in Greek mythology

In my August post for the Museum’s blog, Mythology at the Milwaukee Art Museum-Part 1, I focused on some great examples of Classical mythological figures in the Museum’s Collection—hopefully with the result that you will be able to identify those characters the next time you see them.

This month, I am going to explore another aspect of mythology in art.  (Don’t worry, we’ll still learn how to identify a myth or two.)  But we’ll also see that classical mythology can be both straightforward and convoluted at the same time.

First, let’s start with a basic question: what is “myth”?


There is a lot of scholarship on the definition and meaning of myth in disciplines such as anthropology.

The most basic definition of myth, however, comes from the meaning of the Greek word that serves as its root: mythosMythos means word, speech, tale, or story.  Although it might seem strange to have many different ideas conveyed by one word, it just shows how concepts in Ancient Greece can be very complicated.

We can investigate the more complicated role of myth in art history with a pair of paintings by Corrado Giaquinto (Italian, 1703–1766) in the Museum’s Collection.  One is The Rape of Europa, the other is The Triumph of Galatea.  They are pendant paintings, which means that they were designed to hang together.  You can find them in Gallery #6.


First, let’s summarize the stories that these paintings depict.  Europa was the daughter of a Phoenician king who lived in Asia Minor.  The god Zeus fell in love with her, and in order to gain her trust, he turned himself into a white bull.  While Europa was playing with her friends on the shore of the Aegean Sea, he approached them.  They were afraid of the bull at first, but eventually saw that it was very gentle.  When Europa moved to put a crown of flowers on the bull, Zeus took off across the sea to Crete with her on his back.


Galatea was a Nereid, a type of sea divinity who personified the waves, and lived in Sicily.  She loved the youth Acis.  A Cyclops named Polyphemus, however, loved Galatea, and he would sing for hours to try to woo her.  But because Galatea stood firm in her love for Acis, Polyphemus kllled Acis by throwing a boulder at him.  Galatea was so distraught, she turned Acis into a river so that she would always have him in some form.  The most popular moment shown in art is after this, when she is in triumph over the tragedy, riding the waves on a dolphin with all of her male and female sea attendants.  Polyphemus, meanwhile, lurks up on the cliff.

The pairing of these two myths was popular during the 18th century because it allowed for the artful depictions of beautiful women. What better subject to decorate the home?

But there is more complexity to the 18th-century admiration of these stories.


To understand what these myths represent in the 18th century, we have to go back to the Middle Ages.  Remember, classical myths are actually the religion of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  With the rise of Christianity, this ancient belief system was seen as a threat.  But as with any transition, the change was not smooth or immediate; the mythological stories would not go away.  They were, after all, appealing in their narratives.  To make them more appropriate for Christians, the myths we transformed into moralizing tales rather than religious ones.

One way this was accomplished was appropriating some gods to represent Christian values, making the myths parallel the lessons from stories in the Bible.  Not all Christian scholars believed in the propriety of this, but it certainly kept the myths alive for the Italian Renaissance humanists to “rediscover” in the 15th century.

The use of myth during the early Renaissance was complicated.  On the one hand, writers and artists felt that the classical past had value and they needed to regain what was lost.  On the other hand, these Italian Christians were a people far removed in time and culture from the original Greeks and Romans that saw myths as their religion and the way to explain the world around them.  What to do?

The answer that evolved was many pronged, but two of the most important ideas were allegory, which I will cover at the end of this post, and the concept of ut pictura poesis.


Ut pictura poesis is a line taken from the ancient Roman writer Horace.  Literally it translates to be “as is paintings, so is poetry.”  He used the phrase to suggest that painting, like poetry, is most successfully enjoyed with a general, overall view, not by looking at each individual element or line.  During the Renaissance, scholars took his philosophy one step further to say that painting was poetry in a visual format.

As you can imagine, since so much of what the Renaissance artists knew of mythology came through poets, particularly Ovid’s Metomorpheses, it was natural that painters would use the myths to prove that their paintings were just as expressive as poetry.

The perfect example of this is Titian (Italain, ca. 1488-1576), who even referred to his paintings of mythological subjects as poesie.  One of his most famous works shows the rape of the Europa.  This painting was part of a program of mythological paintings for the private rooms of King Phillip II of Spain.

Although there is much discussion on the meaning behind the eight paintings Titian did for this series, it is clear that both artist and patron considered works of myth to be appropriate for private enjoyment just like poetry.


By looking again our paintings by Giaquinto, we can certainly see why myth was a great topic to make paintings poetic—what better way to show dramatic stories with beautiful women and men than with plenty of drapery and details?

So this is how our two paintings reflect ut pictura poesis. They are also allegories, which is when something is used to represent ideas and concepts.  During the Middle Ages, these two myths took on a new, Christian meaning.

Europa’s movement from Asia Minor to Greece over the Aegean sea was compared to the movement of the soul from its earthly body to heaven after death.  Galatea was seen as the pure and moral Christian who triumphs over earthly desires represented by the violent and ugly Polyphemus.

We’ll have some more fun looking at allegory in later blog posts, so stay tuned!

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