Gods, Goddesses and Mythology in art

ARH Project

The Birth of Venus is probably Botticelli's most famous painting. Venus rises from the sea, looking like a classical statue and floating on a seashell, in what is surely one of the most recognizable images in art history. On Venus' right is Zephyrus, God of Winds, he carries with him the gentle breeze Aura and together they blow the Goddess of Love ashore. The Horae, Goddess of the Seasons, waits to receive Venus and spreads out a flower covered robe in readiness for the Love Goddess' arrival.
The cupids in the sky, the lush setting, and the sensuous nude lying on a bed of flowers indicate that the subject of this painting is love. The male figure on the right is the Greek god Pan, a satyr who personifies lust. The sleeping nude in the foreground may be the nymph Echo, and the old woman at the center of the group could be Echo's protector Terra. Next to the old woman and dressed in a green gown, billowing red cape, and armor is a mysterious and yet to be identified woman.
Ovid describes at length how the young prince Actaeon, hunting in the forest, stumbled accidentally upon the grotto where Diana and her companion were bathing. To punish him for the glimpse of divine nudity, the goddess turned him into a stag. He was pursued and torn to pieces by his own hounds. The painting depicts when Actaeon has sprouted antlers. He staggers backwards as his own dogs spring at him.
In Roman mythology, Diana meaning "heavenly" or "divine" was the goddess of the hunt, the moon and birthing, being associated with wild animals and woodland, and having the power to talk to and control animals. She was equated with the Greek goddess Artemis, though she had an independent origin in Italy. Diana was worshipped in ancient Roman religion and is revered in Roman Neopaganism and Stregheria. Diana was known to be the virgin goddess of childbirth and women. She was one of the three maiden goddesses, Diana, Minerva and Vesta, who swore never to marry. Cesari’s Diana has an oval face, blond hair and dark eyes, flowing classical drapery, carries a bow and arrow, and is accompanied by two dogs.
In Greek mythology, Nessus was a famous centaur who was killed by Heracles, and whose tainted blood in turn killed Heracles. Nessus attempted to have his way with Heracles’ wife Deianira after ferrying her across the river Euenos, but she was rescued by Heracles, who shot the centaur with a poisoned arrow. As he lay dying, Nessus persuaded Deianira to take a sample of his blood, telling her that a potion made of it mixed with olive oil would ensure that Heracles would never again be unfaithful. When Deianeira’s trust in Heracles waned she spread the centaur's blood on a robe and gave it to him. Heracles went to a gathering of heroes, where his passion got the better of him. Meanwhile, Deianeira accidentally spilled a portion of the centaur's blood onto the floor. To her horror, it began to fume by the light of the rising sun. She instantly recognized it as poison and sent her messenger to warn Heracles but it was too late. Heracles lay dying slowly and painfully as the robe burned his skin.
In Achelous and Hercules Thomas Bulfinch uses mythology to represent a modern issue. As a river god, Achelous normally provides "life-giving irrigation," but takes the form of a destructive bull at the time of flooding. Hercules' conquest of the river-god was meant to evoke the taking of Missouri waterways by Kansas City pioneers; the horn that Hercules snaps from Achelous' head symbolizes the cornucopia of midwestern agriculture. Deianira, over whom Hercules and Achelous fought, represents fecundity. She is seated on a proleptic cornucopia—the bull's horn has yet to be severed—from which fruits and vegetables spill. The timber in the foreground provides an important natural resource while clearing the land for farming. The Midwest is envisioned as "abundant and fertile and full of promise." Benton wrote this description of the painting: "The story is thus applicable to our own land," "It fits our Missouri River, which yet needs the attention of a Hercules."
In Greek mythology, Andromeda is the daughter of Cepheus, an Aethiopian king, and Cassiopeia. When Cassiopeia's boasts that Andromeda is more beautiful than the Nereids, Poseidon, influenced by Hades sends a sea monster, Cetus, to ravage Aethiopia as divine punishment. Andromeda is stripped and chained naked to a rock as a sacrifice to sate the monster, but is saved from death by Perseus.
The original title of this painting is unknown. It was first called La Primavera by the artist/art historian Giorgio Vasari, who only saw it some 70 years after it was painted. Various interpretations of the figures have been set forth, but it is generally agreed that at least at one level the painting is, "an elaborate mythological allegory of the burgeoning fertility of the world."
Pandora was the first mortal woman, created by Vulcan at the orders of Jupiter to punish man for the impious deeds of Prometheus. Vulcan, the god of smiths, fashioned Pandora out of clay from the earth and all the gods presented her with gifts. This included a box from Jupiter who instructed her to give it to her husband. Mercury took Pandora to Prometheus, but he could see through this trick of the gods and sent her away. Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus was not so clever and married Pandora. When he opened the box, out came sorrows and evils which spread themselves throughout the world and which would never cease afflicting the human race. All that remained in the box was Hope, as all mankind can rely on during times of trouble and strife. Pandora is shown being crowned with a garland by the Seasons who drift above her. On the right sits Venus with Cupid and crouching on the left is Vulcan, her creator.
Shortly before his death, Makart had completed the fanlight paintings depicting “classical heroes of painting” and their “favorite materials”. The powerful allegorical figure holds out in her left hand a statuette of Nike the goddess of victory. With her right hand she points a stylus to an as yet blank canvas that is held by a youthful genius, whilst a matching figure opposite leans upon a reflecting shield. He who is victorious is interpreted thus as he who creates a “true” likeness.
The figure which is slightly off center in this painting is often identified as Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees. The figures which surround her are easily recognized as nymphs and satyrs. The work is believed to relate to the Ovid myth of the introduction of the horn of plenty.
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