Amor vincit omnia, et nos cedamus amori.
Love conquers all things, so we too shall yield to love.
Conceived without a mother, Athena sprung fully grown and dressed in full armor, ready for war, from her father’s forehead. Prometheus stole the fire from the gods and was punished by being tied to a rock while an eagle tore at his liver. Zeus seduced Leda by transforming himself into a swan. Acteon inadvertently comes across Diane bathing; he is transformed into a deer; Callisto is turned into a bear; centaurs and satyrs roamed the earth.
The fluidity between gods, humans, and nature that abounds in Greek mythology, as narrated by Hesiod, Homer, and later by Ovid, and the complex characters and their relationships provided rich inspiration for some magnificent paintings.
Births, marriages, deaths
The Olympus power couple was Zeus, the highest of divinities, and his wife and sister, Hera, the goddess of marriage. Ironically, theirs was not a happy marriage due to Zeus’ many dalliances. In order to seduce (and/or rape) the women he chose, Zeus transformed himself — not into a handsome young man, but into a bull, a swan, a golden rain, an ant, a cloud of smoke. Renaissance painters embraced the opportunity of featuring naked ladies in a state of sexual ecstasy in a natural setting, alongside elegant animals, and creating images of unnatural phenomena.
A fresco at Pompeii, contemporaneous with Ovid, features Europa, a Phoenician princess, abducted by Zeus, who took the form of a bull. The story also inspired works by Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens, Guido Reni, Veronese, and Goya. In their paintings, Europa is struggling, being carried on the back of a bull, her clothes and hair in disarray, but there is also a level of sympathy and tenderness towards the lovelorn animal; the white bull is wearing a diadem of small flowers, while amorini (small cupids) float happily above. In the story of Jupiter and Io, the most powerful god doesn’t transform but rather envelops himself in a dark cloud. In Correggio’s sensual painting, Jupiter’s face is barely visible above the ecstatic figure of a naked Io. Her body, which we see from the back, is illuminated by desire and erotic bliss.
Other Olympic marriages were not more successful. Beautiful Aphrodite/Venus was married against her will (and some say without her knowledge) to Hephaistos, god of fire, and had several affairs, most famously with Mars/Ares, the young virile god of war, and with the handsome Adonis. But despite these stories of adultery, it appears that Olympus held marriage in high regard. Diane/Artemis, the virgin goddess, protected young girls and helped them preserve their chastity until marriage.
A character of great physical beauty, Adonis was conceived by the incestuous relationship between Myrrha and her father, Cinryas. Myrrha escapes her father’s ire and asks the gods to turn her into a being that doesn’t belong to the living or the dead. She is changed into the myrrh tree, and her bark splits open to allow the birth of the child Adonis.
Dionysus also had a spectacular birth: at her request, but incited by jealous Hera, Zeus appeared to his mistress Sémélé in all his splendor, fire and thunder, a sight that killed her. Zeus removed their unborn child from Sémélé’s womb and transplanted it into his thigh, from which the baby emerged after the period of gestation was duly completed. Rather than the moment of birth, Gustav Moreau has chosen to paint the image of a powerful and bejewelled Zeus and the dying Sémélé on the god’s hip, with a splash of blood on her ivory-white abdomen indicating her ordeal and the miraculous birth to come.
The goddess of beauty and love, Aphrodite/Venus, daughter of Zeus and Dione, or, according to Hesiod, the daughter of Uranus, was born at sea, where Cronos threw the severed genitals of his father after mutilating him. The sea breeze carried her to the island of Cythera, then to Cyprus. In one of the most famous Renaissance paintings, 'The Birth of Venus' (1486), Botticelli depicts Venus as a fully grown woman, standing on a shell, her pose pudic, hiding the area below her stomach with a mesh of her long hair, the other hand attempting to hide (or draw attention to) her breasts. Zephyr, the spring wind, and Aura, the sea breeze, are flying from the left of the composition, while on the right, one of the graces is bringing her a flowery cape. There is no mention of Uranus or his genitals.
Like in fairy tales a few centuries later, nobody actually dies. The gods are, by definition, immortals. Saturn, one of the original Titans, devoured his children as soon as they were born in order to avoid the fulfilment of a prophecy that one of his sons would overthrow him. But one of them, Zeus, who survived thanks to his mother’s ruse, gave Saturn a potion to make him regurgitate all his children (Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, Juno, Ceres, and Vesta), and they lived happily ever after.
Of love and revenge
Too often, the gods get angry, sometimes with other gods, sometimes with mortals. Their anger is formidable and vindictive, and the judgments are abrupt and without right of appeal. There is a goddess of indignation (Nemesis) and a god who punishes those who scorn love.
Romantic love, passionate love, obsessive love, enduring love, platonic love, unrequited love, and self-love—the gods were just as prone as mortal humans to succumbing to love and lust. The cause of so much feeling in Olympus as on Earth was a sweet creature, a chubby baby, armed with lethal weapons: Cupid and his arrows. The offspring of Venus, goddess of sex and procreation, and Mars, the god of war, Cupid ruled over both attraction and conflict. And he was as ruthless as he was playful. Even his mother Venus was touched by one of his arrows, and she fell in love at first sight with Adonis.
In one of the most famous paintings featuring Cupid, he is portrayed by Caravaggio as a mischievous boy with a cheeky smile, cavorting naked and playing with a bow and arrows. On a very human, preadolescent body, he wears strong, brown eagle wings. At his feet, musical instruments, an armour, a square and compass, and a manuscript—all symbols of human endeavour—are trampled on and defeated by the great power of love. Mythological paintings made room for images of Cupid’s associates: the putti, adorable chubby children, often with wings, sometimes lancing an arrow from their pretty bow. Like cherubs in Renaissance and Baroque religious paintings, especially those of Madonna and Child, their presence indicates that love is in the air. And ultimately, love conquers all.