The Greek Myths in Art

Many artists over the years have chosen the Greek Myths as the subject of their work. During the late 15th and 16th centuries classical mythology was a particularly popular subject of paintings. Perhaps this is why many of the Renaissance paintings remain timeless for they have tapped into the universal nature of humanity and in them we are able to see ourselves reflected. Due to the vast amount of artwork based on mythology I include here a small selection of my favourite paintings and myths.

'The Birth of Venus' - Sandro Botticelli

Greek goddess Aphrodite emerged from the sea fully-grown after the titan Cronus slew his father Uranus and threw his genitals into the sea. She is the goddess of love, beauty and pleasure and is depicted above in Botticelli's famous 'Birth of Venus'.

'Hermes' - W. B. Richmond (1886)

Hermes is the Greek god of speech, travellers, shepherds, merchants and thieves. He stole his brother Apollo's cattle the same day he was born. Hermes is often depicted wearing winged sandals and a helmet. He was the messenger of the gods and in his role as psycho-pomp guided souls to the underworld. 

In Ancient Greece Hermes was originally a phallic god connected with fertility. Stone herms were used to honour him and they were placed at boundaries and crossroads in the hope they would ward off evil.

Pallas Athene Visiting Apollo on the Parnassus - Arnold Houbraken

Athene was the goddess of arts, inspiration, skill, and the strategic aspect of war. She was her father Zeus's favourite child and he granted her wish to remain a virgin. The city Athens was named in her honour after she offered the gift of the olive tree to its residents. She is depicted in the painting above paying a visit to Apollo.

Apollo and the Muses - John Singer Sargent

Apollo is the twin brother of the goddess Artemis and is one of the twelve Olympians. He is the Greek god of just about everything. Among his many responsibilities are creative pursuits such as music, poetry and art. He is also a favourite subject of artists and is depicted in statues and painting throughout history. He is shown above surrounded by the Muses who are the personification of creative inspiration.

Engraving by E. Jeaurat

Hephaestus was the lame blacksmith of the Greek gods. Despite his deformities, he was a craftsman who created objects of unequalled beauty, as well as magical tools such as Achilles' armour and the winged sandals of Hermes.

Athena Scorning the Advances of Hephaestus - Paris Bordone

Unlike most of the Greek gods, who were models of perfection, Hephaestus was both unattractive and lame. Whether he was lame from birth or because his mother Hera threw him from Olympus is not certain. Like many of the gods he desired the virgin goddess Athene, but she rejected his advances. He later married Aphrodite however his love was not reciprocated and she chose his brother Ares as a lover instead.

'Flaming June' - Sir Frederick Leighton (1895)

Hera was Queen of Olympus and wife to Zeus. Most myths tell of her bitter rage as Zeus jumps from one lover to the next. In more ancient times she was seen as a fertility goddess and to the Greeks she was patron of mothers and wives. She is often depicted with a peacock and to the Romans she was known as Juno.

'Zeus, Semele and Hera' - Jan-Erasmus Quellinus

When jealous Hera discovered her husband Zeus had taken the mortal Semele as a lover she tricked her into making Zeus promise to reveal himself in his true divinity. Despite his begging her to withdraw her request he inevitably revealed himself and thus killed her instantly.

Attic red figure vase painting of the birth of Dionysus

After Semele died, Zeus saved the unborn infant from her belly and sewed him into his thigh. He was later reborn as Dionysus, the god of wine and religious ecstasy.

'Circe Invidiosa' - John William Waterhouse

The Greek goddess and witch Circe was the daughter of the sun god Helios and the nymph Perse. She transformed the maiden Scylla into a monster and as a result she was exiled to the island of Aeaea.

'Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses' - John William Waterhouse

On his travels Odysseus spent a year on her island at which time she transformed his men into pigs through the use of a wand and herbs. In one version of the myth she bore Odysseus a son who later accidentally killed him.

'Pan and Psyche' - Edward Burne Jones

Pan was the god of nature, woodlands and all things wild and rustic. He roamed Arcadia often terrifying unsuspecting travellers by leaping out of them. It is as a result of this that the word panic is derived from his name. Over time he came to represent fertility and spring. 

'Sleep and his Half-brother Death' - John William Waterhouse (1874)

Hypnos and his brother Thanatos are the Greek gods of sleep and death respectively and are said to reside in the realm of Hades.

'Prometheus Bound' - Rubens

The titan god Prometheus loved the human race so much that he gifted them with fire, so angering Zeus that his punishment was to be eternal suffering. He was bound to a rock and each day an eagle would swoop down and tear out his liver only for it to regrow so the same could occur the next day.

'Portrait of a Woman as a Vestal Virgin' - Angelica Kauffman

Hestia was the Olympian goddess of hearth and home. In some accounts she gave up her position on Olympus to make way for the god Dionysus. Greeks worshipped Hestia as the hearthfire and in Roman mythology she was known as Vesta. Her temples were served by the vestal virgins which was the inspiration for the painting above.

'Thetis dips Achilles in the Styx' - Peter Paul Rubens

Thetis is one of many Greek Nereids or water nymphs, known most famously as the mother of the hero Achilles. She was also a goddess of the sea in more ancient times. When Achilles was an infant Thetis dipped him in the River Styx so he would be protected.

'The Death of Achilles' - Peter Paul Rubens

During the Trojan war Achilles was shot through the heel and killed, which is the origin of the term 'Achilles heel' used to refer to our weaknesses.

'The Golden Apple of Discord' - Jacob Jordaens

There's always someone who tries to spoil the party! In Greek mythology it was the goddess Eris who, during the wedding feast of Peleus and Thetis, threw the golden apple and thus started a sequence of events that ultimately led to the Trojan war.

'Psyche in the Garden of Eros' - John William Waterhouse

The story of Psyche and Eros tells of the maiden Psyche who falls in love with the god of love himself. He makes her promise not to look at him and all of their encounters occur in the dark. One day, out of a curiosity resulting from her jealous sister's taunts, she decides to sneak a look at him. A drop of oil from her lamp falls and wakes him and he flees in horror. Ultimately the lovers are reunited, but not before Psyche is set a multitude of seemingly impossible tasks, gives up all hope and then finally obtains the mercy of the goddess Aphrodite.

'Pallas and the Centaur' - Sandro Botticelli

Centaurs have the body of a horse and the torso of a man. They feature prominently in Greek mythology and were said to live in tribes in the mountains. The most famous centaur was Chiron, the tutor to many young heroes such as Achilles, Jason and Herakles.
'The Dryad' - Evelyn DeMorgan

The dryads were tree spirits or tree nymphs who watched over and protected the tree they were born in. Originally dryads were the spirits of oak trees but later they came to represent all trees. It was said that when the tree they guarded died, so to did they.

'The Nereids' - Adoplhe Lalyre

Nereids were the nymphs of the sea. In art they were portrayed as beautiful young maidens and were said to be attendants of the god Poseidon.

The book that inspired my love of Greek Mythology in art was Thomas Bulfinch's 'The Illustrated Age of Fable'. For those wishing to learn more about Greek mythology, Theoi Greek Mythology is a great place to start online. Also, Stephen Fry's recent 'Mythos' is a great introduction. I would also highly recommend Madeline Miller's absolutely wonderful novels 'The Song of Achilles' and 'Circe'.