In Titian's painting of the mythological tale of Bacchus and Ariadne (the photo below), we see Ariadne just after her abandonment on the island of Naxus. She has been left there by the man she loves, Theseus. His ship has gone and she appears to gesture after it, towards the blue horizon, but her outstretched arm also seems to be to ward off a fresh difficulty. The god Bacchus, with a full and debauched contingent has suddenly emerged and is already leaping from his chariot towards her.
Titian 'Bacchus and Ariadne' (1522-23). National Gallery, London.
This is a relatively early work by Titian. It has a peculiar staged quality to it, with each of the figures in their own little tableau, caught in a moment of elaborate and characteristic pose. Titian, quite faithfully here, refers to elements that could work up into a Dionysian orgiastic frenzy; the wild dancing, the clashing of the cymbals, the raw devouring of the ripped bodies of live animals, the wrestling with the writhing snake. The characters, so intent on their actions, seem strangely disconnected from each other. Except for Bacchus and Ariadne. He has seen her and immediately been smitten by her beauty and he is going to take what he wants as a matter of course - "Easy it is for a god to take all".
And in the depictions of the gods, this theme repeats elaborately and with great excess and exuberance. Exuberance for the winners at any rate - for "those who take all", and despair and the most appalling fates for the losers; those who are often but mortal, or merely semi-divine.
The gods lust and plot and scheme, with the meanest of scruples and the basest of motives. They are the players in dreams of wish-fulfilment and nightmares of retribution. They indulge in unbridled emotions and the rawest elemental experiences and in the tales of mythology, their course is relentless. Their relations to each other have a ruthless grandiosity, which yet should only be expected, as they are, after all, the gods. Their escapades may be imagined, but few would dare to enact them. The relations and deeds of the classical gods are florid expressions of matters to remain in the fantasy realm, whether conscious or unconscious, in the lives of ordinary human kind.
"Easy it is for a god to take all". In fact this story of Bacchus and Ariadne has one of the happier contents. They fall in love and wed and Bacchus gives Ariadne the sky as a wedding gift and takes Ariadne's golden and bejewled crown, (she is a princess, the daughter of Minos, King of Crete), and throws it into the heavens.
Ovid describes his actions thus -
.......He took her crown
And set it in the heavens to win her there
A star's eternal glory; and the crown
Flew through the soft light air and, as it flew Its gems were turned to gleaming fires, and still
Shaped as a crown their place in heaven they take
Between the Kneeler and him who grasps the Snake.
Bacchus knew just how to win the heart of a girl.
And so in astronomy the jewels of Ariadne's crown still glitter as the constellation Corona Borealis, The Northern Crown, located between "the Kneeler" - the constellation of Hercules, and "him who grasps the Snake" - the constellation of Serpens, the Serpent. Titian places the stars high in the sky above Ariadne at the top of the picture.
Bacchus, as the god of wine and of ecstasy, became a favourite of the artists of the Renaissance and beyond. Some of the greatest took the subject on with relish. If Bacchus himself is not included, then the scene will still be celebrated in his name as a Bacchanale with the participants, Bacchanals.
Nicolas Poussin. 'A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Statue of Pan' (1632-33). National Gallery, London.
Poussin seems to have thoroughly enjoyed painting his 'A Bacchanalian Revel Before a Term of Pan' from about 1633. (A 'term' is a word for a statue). Though the picture is of a wild affair, the composition is in fact very carefully constructed - to make an effective painting, and to convey a sense of rhythm and movement in keeping with the dance as its subject. The dancers circle and then seem to fall into the figure on the right. Poussin, though a painter of several uninhibited Bacchanalian revels, was, in his work, a meticulous planner of design.
The events occurring around the conception, birth and early life of Bacchus show features that are typical in the behaviour of the gods. The Greeks and the Romans were fascinated by the love lives of their deities. It is like the tabloid newspapers and modern day celebrities; or the small child's interest in the parents' bedroom. These gods were no responsible parental figures though, but libidinal creatures ruthlessly pursuing their desires and often incurring terrible emotional consequences.
Bacchus was the child born of the illicit affair between Jupiter, the King of the gods, and Semele, a mortal, the daughter of Cadmus of Thebes. Jupiter's wife Juno, knowing of their secret liaisons, decided she should act. She disguised herself as Semele's old nurse, visited her, and with poisonous intent festered in her mind uncertainties - Was Jupiter really the god he claimed to be?
The doubting Semele now had to have the surety of this. When she next saw her lover, catching him in an amorous moment of thoughtlessness, she extracted from him a promise, the promise of a favour, and Jupiter, in ardour ready to grant anything to his beloved, swore that he would. He was aghast at the request that followed. Semele wished him to appear before her in his true godlike state.
"Give me yourself in the same grace
As when your Juno holds you to her breast
In love's embrace."
Ovid describes Jupiter's response.
......He would have locked her lips;
Too late her words had hastened on their way.
He groaned: her wish could never be unwished.
His oath never unsworn.
In bitterest grief He soared ascending to the ethereal sky......
Possibly by Jacopo Tintoretto. 'Jupiter and Semele', about 1545. National Gallery, London.
Juno's trap had now been sprung. She knew what the consequences would be. Compelled by his oath Jupiter must now appear before the mortal in his godlike form, flaming and charged with thunderbolts.
Ted Hughes in his 'Tales from Ovid' describes it as:
The nuclear blast Of his naked impact
- And the consequence -
Her eyes opened wide, saw him
And burst into flame.
Then her whole body lit up
With the glare
That explodes the lamp -
In the painting attributed to the 16th Century Venetian, Tintoretto, Jupiter sweeps into Semele's chamber, smoking and blazing. Semele is seen in a fraction of a moment before her destruction, but the deep red curtains above her bed already purport the imminent fire. The floor glows red and even outside the chamber a volcano stands on the horizon and the sky flushes.
We can see from the figure of Semele that she is already pregnant and this infant to be is Bacchus, her child with Jupiter. In the moment before she dies Jupiter snatches Bacchus from her womb and places him within his own thigh from where he will later be born, becoming the 'twice-born god'.
The gods are serial philanderers and Jupiter the most promiscuous of them all. There is a marked quality though to Jupiter's amorous adventures. The King of the gods is very worried about upsetting the wife. And with good cause; Juno is capable of a furious and revengeful jealousy - the burning and consuming force that reduced poor Semele to ashes. But Juno's propensity for indomitable pursuit and craft in matters of revenge can only really compare in proportion to Jupiter's cunning and relentless pursuit in matters of seduction. Both are phenomenal in their ingenuity in these dramas of provocation and retaliation; all this gratefully received as narrative potential by the artists.
The freedom to paint such libidinal and, in fact, such human activities, comprised one of those rich streams of new possibility that brought the great surge of vitality into and through the centuries of the Renaissance. The artists reached back for their inspirations, parting the sea of asceticism of the middle ages, to draw from classical culture, and the profane was allowed to mingle with the sacred.
And here was prodigious talent, and a new vitality of technique that could make possible a fit between the mythological subject matter and the two-dimensional works that sought to reproduce it. The imagination of the artist was now freer to encounter the archetypal stimulations and robust narratives from the Greek and Roman tales and to do so with relish.
Jacopo Tintoretto. 'The Origin of the Milky Way', 1875-80. National Gallery, London.
In Tintoretto's painting 'The Origin of the Milky Way', Jupiter places his illegitimate baby son Hercules, born of a mortal woman, on the breast of a sleeping Juno, so that he may feed from her and thus gain immortality. She wakes and in the ensuing commotion her milk squirts up into the sky, where it creates the stars of the Milky Way. If it were not for the fact that at some stage of its life the picture has had a section cut off from the bottom, we would see that the milk also spurted downwards to create the lilies of the field.
Art was now existing on a grand scale and it required suitably rich sources for its material. In a sense it had always been narrative in having at least alluded to a story. Even a Christian iconographic image, with all its timeless suggestion for a moment of meditation, has, behind it, a story. And in the Renaissance, narratives remained as the main source, but now, as well, they were secular and could thus turn towards the tales that were unredeemed, still full of ripe fruit; the myths that could now be tasted without attrition.
It was all there in the myths, ready to be mined. All the vicissitudes of human emotion; the predicaments, the conflicts, the troubled moral conflagrations, the ambitions and triumphs, the failures, the virtues and the sins, for the mythological gods behave as caricatures of humans.
And art, now less tied to religious patronage, had the confidence to go there and artists a greater sense of independence and individuality that indeed required this new scope of subject matter for its expression.
It was in the 1400s that the mythological subject really emerged and as something to be commissioned by a patron. The Florentine Botticelli was one of the earlier painters in this way to evoke the classical gods and so to paint poetry and romance and Botticelli is one of the most poetic of them all. This poetry might even be helped by a little gothic demureness that plays teasingly with the Renaissance sensuality which is also such a part of his vision.
Sandro Botticelli. 'Venus and Mars', about 1485. National Gallery, London.
The painting 'Venus and Mars' from around 1485 is a relatively uncomplex and playful allegory about the interplay between love and aggression, war and peace, men and women; 'women are from Venus, men from Mars. The two have made love and now a very comfortably poised, dressed and serene looking Venus reclines upon her red cushion, eyes open and awake whilst a still unclothed Mars is deep in post-coital slumber.
There is playful intent in this depiction by the artist and he allows the impish little satyr children to be instruments of his humour as they play with the great god of war's weapons and armour and even mock him by blowing in his ear through a conch shell.
The two gods have come together in love, but they now lie opposite each other, a reversion to their inheritant dualism. In the irony of the moment, the goddess of love seems far more powerful than the god of war. Boticelli treats the subject with tenderness.
Peter Paul Rubens. 'Samson and Delilah', about 1609-10. National Gallery, London.
Rubens about 125 years later in one of his greatest paintings, from 1609 or 10, took up this same male - female theme, displaying it through the biblical tale of Samson and Delilah and with a sharper point. Again the post-coital vulnerability of the man, here about to have his locks shawn by his enemies the Philistines and so to loose his magical strength and eventually his life.
The picture comes from a very exciting and relatively early period of Ruben's work from the years after his return from Italy where he had studied the Classical and Renaissance Masters.
The positioning of the figures in Botticelli's painting, with its consequent wide, rectangular shape, probably also suited the commissioning of the work; it is likely to have been painted to form and decorate the Spalliera (backboard) of a chest. This would have gone into a wealthy home. The new art patrons were successful and moneyed; men and women of the world and they now wanted decorative works, more racy, more worldly, more voluptuous, for their homes and indeed, for their bedrooms.
In the next century, particularly in Venice, a centre for individuality and independence, wealthy secular patronage, intellectual enquiry, artistic ambition and a new commerciality combined to promote huge canvases that told tall tales. Titian was the model for the wealthy, successful painter, favoured by royalty, aristocracy, rich businessmen, and still too, by the church. This was for his skills, but as well there now emerges the glamour of the artist and the cultural 'cred' of being in his circle. Titian was fully a celebrity.
So the opulent colouring of his 'Bacchus and Ariadne', Bacchus's confidence and flourish, the exotic props and pagan ribaldry amongst his train of followers, these express well the splendour and energy of the High Renaissance.
Bacchus, Dionysus in the Greek, was then, the offspring born of Jupiter's philandering with the mortal Semele. Later he was to become elevated to full god status. We have already seen the results of Juno's wrathful response to the discovery of the affair. It is a repeated theme.
It may seem rather a surprise that Jupiter, powerful enough to be King of the gods, should need to behave so surreptitiously; sneaking about, often in the most elaborate of disguises, in order to win the love of those lesser gods, nymphs, and humans who caught his ever roving eye. Also, of course, to avoid the ever-watchful eye of Juno.
And for the painters of the voluptuous and of high drama, these covert romantic missions of seduction, with their intricate fractures of consequence, created subjects to describe with relish, both as objects of delectation and arousal and also sometimes as more sombre meditations upon the aftermath.
Antonio Allegri da Correggio. 'Jupiter and Io', about 1530. Kunsthistoriches Museum of Vienna, Austria.
Io was the daughter of Inacus, a river deity. In Ovid's tale Io, returning from her father's stream, caught Jupiter's eye. He propositions her and she runs. He stops and catches her by surrounding her with a dark cloud and under cover of this he ravishes her.
The scene is portrayed in one of the regrettably few, imaginative mythological works painted by Corregio, from Parma. It comes from a series of four - 'The Loves of Jove', commissioned by the Duke of Mantua and completed around 1530. Corregio is truly one of the Renaissance greats, he can even rival Titian, and he brings into the depiction of these torrid and sensual tales his own special lyrical sensitivity, and an awareness too that sexual pleasure is something for both partners.
Here Io is shown as a most willing participant and Jupiter, cleverly and effectively painted by the artist, is not just covered by the cloud, he is the cloud.
Returning to the story, Juno had noticed the change in the daylight. These are Ovid's words:
Juno meanwhile observed the land of Argos
And wondered that the floating clouds had wrought
In the brightest day the darkness of the night.
These were no river mists! No clouds like these
The humid earth exhaled! She looked around
To find her husband; well she knew his tricks,
So often had caught him in his escapades;
And searched the sky in vain. "If I'm not wrong",
She thought, I'm being wronged", and gliding down
From heaven's height she lighted on the earth
And bade the clouds disperse........
Jupiter, fractionally ahead of the game, had just taken an evasive step and turned Io into a white heifer, still beautiful, but nevertheless, disguised now as a beautiful cow.
Pieter Lastman. 'Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io', 1618. National Gallery, London.
Pieter Lastman in his 'Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io', painted in 1618, captures the exact moment. Juno has arrived and made quite an entrance, accompanied by two of her special birds, the peacock, though you may notice something unusual about them in the picture. In between Juno and Jupiter is the figure of Deceit.
Juno, well aware of trickery, but tricky enough herself, praised the cow and asked Jupiter if he would allow this beautiful beast to be a gift for her. Ovid describes Jupiter's anguished conflict:
............What should he do?
Too cruel to give his darling! Not to give -
Suspicious; shame persuades but love dissuades.
Love would have won; but then - if he refused
His wife (his sister too) so slight a gift,
A cow, it well might seem no cow at all!
So Jupiter, for fear of his wife's wrath accedes and the white bull Io now becomes Juno's possession. Such punishment for both Io and Jupiter, but a terrible retribution for Io. She has lost her person, her identity, trapped within an alien form, and trapped again, as even the cow itself is captive, and Juno creates an everlasting, all-seeing jailer to secure her rival. She charges her henchman Argus, the god with a hundred eyes, to keep watch over her captive.
Ovid again, describing the situation:
Whichever way he stood he looked at Io,
Io before his eyes behind his back!
By day he let her graze, but when the sun
Sank down beneath the earth he stabled her
And tied - for shame! - a halter round her neck.
She browsed on leaves of trees and bitter weeds,
And for her bed, poor thing, lay on the ground,
Not always grassy, and drank the muddy streams;
And when, to plead with Argus, she would try
To stretch her arms, she had no arms to stretch.
Would she complain, a moo came to her throat,
A startling sound - her own voice frightened her.
She reached her father's river and the banks
Where often she had played and, in the water,
Mirrored she saw her muzzle and her horns,
And fled in terror from the self she saw.
Eventually Jupiter could no longer bear the terrible and continuing fate of his lover and he, in turn, hatched a deadly plan. He summoned his son Mercury and instructed him to come upon Argus disguised as a shepherd and to beguile him and to lull each of those hundred eyes into sleep by softly playing to him his pipes of reed.
So Mercury found Argus and played to him and continued to seduce him with a story, as to how those enchanting reed pipes had first been made. As often the case in the myths, it is a story within a story and yet another of ruthless amorous pursuit and profound consequence. This is the story that Mercury told to Argus:
Francois Boucher. 'Pan and Syrinx', 1759. National Gallery, London.
Living in Arcady was a naiad, a water nymph, (thus a mortal) called Syrinx. She had remained chaste even though she inhabited those places of river and fertile wooded valley, of thick and rich foliage, in which lurked lusting gods and satyrs.
Then along comes Pan, stomping through the undergrowth. Pan - hairy, horned, half the figure of a man, but below the waist, a goat; a god of the elemental, of the earthly sexual, of fertility and of Bacchanalian pleasures. Not the sort of creature that a pretty young virgin nymph would wish to bump into in a thicket. So Syrinx is not pleased to see him. Pan though is completely delighted. She flees with he in hot pursuit. She runs until she finds her way barred by a stream and there, desperately begs her water nymph sisters to save her. In Boucher's painting she is shown with one of them. And rather than be ravished by Pan she sacrifices her body, her form, her very existence and is changed into a more elemental part of nature, she is transformed into water reeds.
In Francois Boucher's painting of 1759, 'Pan and Syrinx', she lies next to her sister, in the stream, as Pan reaches out in the moment before her transformation.
In the end, all that Pan could clutch were just the water reeds and he sighed and as a breath of wind vibrated through their hollow stems, the reeds musically sighed too and Pan, left only with reeds, picked them and placed different lengths together and called this new instrument of music a Syrinx after the nymph who was now changed into just a wistful evocation.
"You and I shall stay in unison", said Pan.
Arnold Bocklin. 'Spring Evening', 1879. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.
The Swiss Romantic Symbolist Arnold Bocklin made many paintings of Pan. Bocklin, who was active during the second half of the 19th Century, stayed for a period in Italy and was influenced by the Classical and Renaissance artists and sculptors, but he was also part of a German Romanticism that had climaxed in the work of Friedrich, and a pantheistic tradition that in Friedrich's work was Christian, but for Bocklin becomes a much more primitive affair. (This painting is titled 'A Spring Evening').
By now the watcher and jailer Argus, the spy of Juno, full of Mercury's story and lulled by his music had let every one of his hundred eyelids drop and he slept and knew not the danger to himself as Mercury took his chance and with his sword cut off the head of Argus and threw it from the cliff on which they sat.
Argus lay dead, (says Ovid), so many eyes, so bright
Quenched, and all hundred shrouded in one night.
Juno later retrieved the eyes and placed them amongst the feathers of the bird that signifies her, the peacock. So that's how the peacock got its distinctive plumage, though yet to be so adorned in Lastman's painting. (Lastman worked in Amsterdam in the early 1600s. Rembrandt was one of his pupils).
This was still not the end of Io's suffering as a freshly enraged Juno set a Fury, a demon of the underworld, upon her, sending her fleeing in terror - "a cowering fugitive through all the world". Again, eventually, Jupiter could bear no more of Io's suffering and pleaded with Juno to relent, swearing that Io would never again be a threat to their marriage.
This time Juno did relent and Io metamorphed, returning to her original form, a beautiful woman again, yet one who, at least for a while, preferred not to use her voice, fearing that if she tried to speak there would instead be heard, just a moo.
Io later had better fortune and was herself made a goddess.
In order to seduce Europa, who in Ovid's version is the daughter of the King at Sidon, Jupiter transformed himself into a lovely soft, frolicking, white bull.
Guido Reni. 'The Rape of Europa', 1637-9. National Gallery, London.
He lay down before Europa on a beach and she could not resist but to climb upon his great broad back, at which he walked into the sea, further and further, till he was swimming and, quite out of her depth, all Europa could do was fearfully gaze back at the receding coast line as Jupiter swam her off to the Island of Crete. She later bore him three sons.
There are some interesting contrasts in the artistic interpretation of this event. For example, in Guido Reni's picture painted around 1640 as a commission from the King of Poland, Europa looks as if she is cruising the waves on an unusual kind of day trip. It reflects a somewhat sweeter vision that could ease itself in, post-Renaissance.
But Titian's earlier version of the event is one of tumultuous abduction, indeed the 'Rape of Europa', as the subject is usually called.
Titian. 'The Rape of Europa', C1550. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston.
The gusts of Europa's distress billow around her figure. Even the little cupids above look blown around by the force of the event. The colours and the treatment of the sky express both Jupiter's passion and Europa's panic.
Jupiter's attentions could stray to a male youth too. Transforming himself into an eagle he swept the beautiful Gannymede up to Olympus to be his cup-bearer, with all its consequent symbolism. The 16th Century Venetian Mazza's 'Rape of Gannymede' is one version of the scene.
Titian. 'The Rape of Ganymede', about 1575. National Gallery, London.
Jupiter disguised himself as a shower of gold coins in order to seduce Danae. This is Titian's version.
Titian. 'Danae', 1553-54. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Jupiter's most aesthetic and sensual transformation was as a swan and in this guise he made love to Leda, the daughter of Thestius, the King of Aetolia.
Peter Paul Rubens. 'Leda and the Swan'. Gemaldegalerie, Dresden.
Artists have had a very nice time with this subject and it is a Jupiter escapade that is never known with the prefix - 'The Rape of......'. Leda and the swan are usually both willing and fully committed. It is an event that has stimulated several notable versions. The Rubens copy of a lost Michelangelo shows a powerfully built Leda in full session with the swan.
But again it is Correggio who paints the most sensitively sensual version.
Correggio. 'Leda and the Swan', 1531-32. Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.
Though at first glance the picture may appear to show an orgy with swans, it is most likely that it represents three different moments. On the far right of the picture, in the water, the swan arrives; in the centre is the consummation; and just to the right of that Leda, now getting dressed, looks up smiling as the swan flies off.
Perhaps it would have been easier for some if the scene had been so formulaic as a rape. The warm and unbridled eroticism of Correggio's painting so incensed Louis, the son of Philippe duc d'Orleans, who owned the picture, that he attacked and completely destroyed the head of Leda. It had to be restored. It is an interesting thing too that he went for the face.
Religion serves as a source of provision and structure for the moral sense. It's God or gods are supreme beings whose prophets and teachers spread messages of virtuous actions conceived through the qualities of perfection of their particular deity. In such a context the gods of classical antiquity appear with a considerable incongruity. In fact, rather than the highest refinements of human potential, they seem to epitomise the basest.
They do of course have the authority to decree and to punish disobedience, but this is certainly not from the moral high-ground and is more likely to emanate from their own selfish motives. Instead of providing a mirroring for the high ideals of moral and spiritual life, they reflect the fallibilities of human relating, and the existential extremities in lives ruled by passion and desire. In matters of love they are at their most volatile - in their intensity of love for the object of desire, their jealousy and envious rage when thwarted, and their tragic sadnesses after loss.
In matters of jealousy, we have already seen how Juno literally incinerated Semele, the mother of Bacchus. Jealousy lives in the emotional family of hatred; it floods into the spaces that are emptied of love. But there is no jealousy without love, and it is the jealous destruction of the love that might have been, that creates the tragedy.
No more so than in the story of Cephalus and Procris. It was not only the male gods who would amorously hunt their human prey. Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, was smitten by the youthful mortal Cephalus and carried him off. Rubens imagined the scene in a work of 1636 - 7, 'Aurora Abducting Cephalus'. (This is an oil sketch, made on the way to producing the finished version).
Peter Paul Rubens. 'Aurora Abducting Cephalus'. About 1636-7. National Gallery, London.
But Cephalus was only just married, and far more virtuous than the goddess, he was determined to stay faithful to his wife Procris. Somewhat up against the odds though, as displayed in Poussin's painting 'Cephalus and Aurora'.
Nicolas Poussin. 'Cephalus and Aurora', 1630. National Gallery, London.
Cephalus is straining against the encircling arms of Aurora as one little Cupid holds up for him a picture of his wife, whilst another, clearly working for the other side, is in the act of disrobing the goddess. In the background the dawn sky has the flush of Aurora's frustrated passion.
In the end it is Aurora who capitulates, but the consequences are dire. The jealous goddess curses the couple, and this story describes well the viral being of jealousy, worming itself through the minds of suspicious lovers, as both Cephalus and Procris seem to become malevolently infected by Aurora's own jealousy, and cannot rest until each in turn has proved the other to be faithless, even though all their suspicions are groundless.
The tragedy culminates in the death of Procris. Obsessed with suspicion, she has hidden in the woods to spy on Cephalus on one of his hunting trips, fearing that surely, he cannot really go there just to hunt. She moves and rustles the bushes and he, thinking it the sound of a wild animal, flings his javelin.
The javelin, which had been a gift to him from Procris, was a magical weapon that could never miss its target, and Procris fell mortally wounded. The gift of love turned now by doubt and jealousy into an unfailing implement of destruction.
Piero di Cosimo. 'A Mythological Subject, a Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph', about 1495. National Gallery, London.
The work by Piero di Cosimo, painted in Florence in about 1495 does not for certain depict the Death of Procris, though it is often known by that name. The National Gallery have preferred to call it 'A Mythological Subject, A Satyr Mourning Over a Nymph'. But there is no disputing that this painting of a profound sadness, one of the most poignant works of art ever made, depicts a tragedy and in the making of this tragedy a great love has succumbed.
Piero was one of the first great painters of the imagination.
There is sadness too in the myth that describes the love affair and the embattled journey of courtship leading to the eventual and most hard won marriage of Cupid and Psyche. This too is a story of jealousy with a strong mix of its own discontented sibling, envy. Psyche in particular is to go through terrible trials. It is a tale that comes down to us in other forms as well, most notably in recent times as that of Cinderella.
Jean-Honoré Fragonard. 'Psyche Showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid', 1753. National Gallery, London.
As part of Cupid's courtship of Psyche, he bestows upon her the most wonderful gifts. She is showing these gifts to her sisters in a sumptuous picture by Fragonard. He painted it in 1753, incredibly at the age of twenty-one, whilst he was an art pupil in Paris. In this picture everything is stroked and cushioned in delicate Rococo finery, not only in its depictions, but in its style; an aristocratic art. These are the colours of sensuous and expensive fabrics and furnishings and they are mixed together by the artist unsparingly to create a full headyness. The skin of the women looks like perfumed icing sugar. This is not the cover of the box of chocolates, but the voluptuous contents.
It is the age of the court of Louis XV. By the end of Fragonnard's life Louis' successor Louis XVI had been executed in consequence of the French Revolution and the ensuing period of the 'The Terror' and Fragonard's fame had by then, all but disappeared. Times had indeed changed.
In the background of this picture to the viewer's left, above the sisters, the figure of Envy is raging. Psyche, naively, foolishly even, shares with her sisters the pleasures that she has derived from Cupid's gifts, whilst they, secretly, deeply resentful, fester ideas of sibling revenge.
The myths describe the power of certain feelings and they continue to exist because of their universality. This myth fits the context of Fragonard's painting of it. By the end of Fragonard's lifetime all this sumptuousness of the court had gone, the victim of its negative relation to the lack of others and the feelings of enraged injustice and murderous envy that collectively ensued.
Psyche's sisters are out to ruin her and she is a gullible and emotionally clumsy girl and falls easily prey to their plotting. Her relationship with Cupid is indeed spoiled and the two are forced apart.
Psyche's troubles by no means end there and she next has to suffer the brutality of Cupid's mother, an enraged Venus, who, already envious of Psyche's beauty, has now discovered that she is also her son's lover. Eventually an embattled and unconscious Psyche is found and rescued by Cupid.
Anthony van Dyck. 'Cupid and Psyche', 1638. Royal Collection.
This is (probably) the scene in Van Dyck's painting, 'Cupid Discovering Psyche'. The two lovers are re-united, Jupiter sanctions their wedding and Venus forgives and even does a dance for them at the celebrations.
She is a strange creature really, this Psyche; her name to be that given to represent the human soul, or in modern times the inner world of the individual, sometimes even serving science, and taken by Freud as that which will be analysed in his psychoanalysis. Quite how does this rather feckless and naive girl become a symbol and provide the nomenclature for the deeper and often more profound aspects of consciousness that give humanity its knowledge of itself and indeed, even of the divine?
Perhaps it is her very vulnerability, her mistakes, her clumsiness, the trials that she has to suffer. And perhaps too, the loss but the eventual re-finding of her true love, for the marriage of Cupid and Psyche is indeed a marriage that is eventually made in heaven. Artists and writers have been fascinated and taken up the myth of these two lovers since it was first set out by Lucius Apuleius, relatively late in AD123.
Claude Lorraine. 'The Enchanted Castle', 1664. National Gallery, London
In 1664 Claude Lorrain painted a picture that is known as 'The Enchanted Castle'. It is also a picture of Psyche, in solemn contemplation in a romantic landscape, as she sits outside the castle which is the home of Cupid. Apparently this picture influenced Keats in his writing of 'Ode to a Nightingale'.
And so, finally to the goddess of love herself, Venus or in the Greek, Aphrodite. The daughter of Jupiter and Dione, but alternatively, as portrayed here in the most recognised of all her representations, born of the foam of the sea.
Sandro Botticelli. 'The Birth of Venus', 1482-5. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Perhaps the thing about Venus is that she can personify all the facets of erotic life, from the decorative and beguiling, often obsessed with her own beauty, through to the hard drive of enduring passion and the tragedy of loss. She can be generous in her favours and in her patronage to her favourites, but enraged and revengeful when roused by jealousy and insult.
And so she is indeed, erotic love itself. But she is not spiritual love. In the story of her birth as depicted by Botticelli she has never been a girl. She is born a woman; young, modest, gracious, but no way a child. In this birth she rises from the sea, itself the feminine, or even from the concavity of a huge scallop shell. The two winged figures on her right hand side, flowers of love scattering around them are the zephyr and his consort Chloris, themselves, symbolically, symbiotically, entwined as a loving couple. The Zephyr blows the breeze that will now waft Venus along to the island of Cyprus. On her left side a Botticelli hand-maiden rises, reaching out with a robe to cover her.
Botticelli, with his strange mix of courtliness and eroticism, paints a paradox: he shows the goddess of love, and clearly she is this, just for a moment, as a virgin.
But, most often, Venus is celebrated as a mature woman and throughout the ages, as a depiction of the object of desire, and usually, also, reclining.
Giorgione. 'Sleeping Venus' (Dresden Venus), about 1510. Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.
Giorgione portrayed her in this way in a landscape and so, as also a pastoral scene, it can still just retain a feel of the mythological. But twenty eight years later, Titian, who had been a pupil of Giorgione, presented her more as a contemporary courtesan in her chamber, 'The Venus of Urbino'.
Titian. 'The Venus of Urbino', 1538. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
Velazquez, about a hundred years after that, at around 1650, as Venus at her toilet.
Diego Velazquez. 'The Toilet of Venus' (The Rokeby Venus), 1647. National Gallery, London.
The painting by Velazquez would have been a dangerous one for him to produce because of the disapproval at that time of the Spanish Inquisition. It survived the Inquisition intact, but not the attentions of a suffragette in 1914 who slashed it. It has been successfully repaired.
There are many of these Venuses and in this context the title is mainly one of convenience. But in the mythologies Venus serves to express the widely varied and rich emotions of sexual love, actual and sublimated. Those human experiences through which the self makes its own existential claim for a share of the purpose in the drives of biological necessity.
And it is important too that Venus is a mother, since she thus actualises one of the potential results of sexuality, but also, as she takes her eroticism into her relations with her child Cupid. This is as it is. Much sublimated in ordinary life. Far more overt amongst the gods. Cupid is often a chubby little boy, sometimes a dashing youth or young man, but we are constantly reminded of the erotic charge between the two and in the 1540 - 50 painting, 'An Allegory with Venus and Cupid', the artist Bronzino plays with his awareness of this.
Agnolo Bronzino. 'An Allegory with Venus and Cupid'. About 1545. National Gallery, London.
If this were a new work it would probably be considered shocking, but it is saved from this by its Renaissance origins. The placing of Cupid's hand is of course provocative, but the more interesting indication of the eroticism in this mother and son encounter, is in the portrayal of Cupid with the innocent head of a child but the buttocks and lower limbs of a developed youth. The split between the two is provided by Venus's arm.
The same artist, Bronzino, at around the same time, used a similar composition in a much more traditional rendering of a mother and child, 'Madonna and Child with the Baptist and St Anne or Elizabeth'.
Agnolo Bronzino. 'Madonna and Child with the Baptist and St Anne or Elizabeth', about 1540. National Gallery, London.
One treatment is sacred, the other quite profane.
Clearly the holy Virgin and child were now having to make at least a little room for the pagan goddess and her own son.
Venus was of course a lover of grown men too and one of her most passionate loves was for the mortal Adonis. Their relationship has been a favourite subject for artists, often focussing on the pivotal moment at which her immortality and his mortality will exclude each from the other forever more.
Workshop of Titian. 'Venus and Adonis', 1554. National Gallery, London.
Overly confident and against the distressed warnings of Venus, the beautiful Adonis goes hunting and will receive a deadly wound from a wild boar. Perhaps the couple might have faired better if Cupid, there in the background, in the version by the Studio of Titian, had not fallen asleep.
Adonis, the mortal, will die, but Venus will of course live on as the gods must and as they do for us today in the mythologies that have become timeless. The myths pass through the generations, no longer as religion, but as universal truths, and the gods must remain immortal as they enact in the most human of ways passions and conflicts, as well as the lesser foibles that characterise mankind, and their own immortality is merely an expression of that lasting characteristic of mankind in relation to living and loving, its resistance to change. Perpetual emotions, lived out by transitory beings.
And so it is appropriate that the mid-18th Century painting by the master of Italian Rococo, Tiepelo, contains both the figures of Venus and Time.
Giovanni Battista Tiepelo. 'An Allegory with Venus and Time', 1754-8. National Gallery, London.
The goddess of love, poised upon a cloud, with doves, beak within beak in mating ritual above her, and her own child Cupid hovering nearby with a quiver full of arrows, gracefully bestows upon Time a child. Born of timeless desire and the act of love, into mortality. Time sets down his scythe, his symbol of the inevitable passing of the seasons and the years, to receive the human child from the goddess. Thus divinity recedes, yet will perhaps remain in the mortal life as aspiration, a love of beauty in all its manifestations, and movement in the never-ending libidinal flow.
But so as to descend now from the heights of Olympus it may be helpful to contemplate a cooler kind of image from a Northern European artist, the German Lucas Cranach - 'Cupid Complaining to Venus'.
Lucas Cranach the elder. 'Cupid Complaining to Venus', about 1525. National Gallery, London.
In Cranach's typically quirky painting, a coquettish looking Venus, wearing nothing but a fashionable hat, listens as Cupid complains to her that he is being attacked and stung by the bees. The reason - he has had his hand in the proverbial honey-pot and now must take the consequences.
And Venus seems quite content for events to teach her small son a lesson - That perhaps, even for a god, it is not always so easy, after all, to take all.