Visual art is one of the most important facets of ancient culture. Not only is visual art aesthetically pleasing to the senses, but it aids us in grasping the concepts of civilizations and stories that we could not fully understand in simple text. Greek mythology has bred some of the most beautiful works of art ever created. These works tell the stories they represent in lively form, color and style. One of the most famed works of art representing Greek mythology originated in 460-450 BC. This is the statue of Zeus.
There are arguments about whether it is Zeus or Poseidon, because they are both pliable possibilities, but for simplicity’s sake, let us assume it is Zeus. The statue of Zeus is one of great pride. He stands without hesitation. He appears to be in his 40s, but his physical body is muscular and shapely. His very stance is once that demands attention and respect. This represents his role: Zeus the chief god. Zeus is strong, powerful, and just. In the statue, Zeus is about to throw one of his lightning bolts of justice. His face is very stern and focused, as if he is seriously concentrated on the matter at hand.
He stands unashamed of his exposed manhood, which is very representative of Zeus’s character. Zeus is most known for his tendency to spread his seed throughout both the goddess world and the mortal woman world. It was considered a great honor to be a son or daughter of Zeus. Years and years later, in 1622, a sculptor named Gian Lorenzo created the sculpture Pluto and Proserpine. This sculpture represents the story of the capture of Persephone by Hades. Hades, the Roman Pluto, is depicted holding Persephone, the Roman Proserpine, by her waist and thigh.
Persephone is turned away from Hades, pushing his face away. She attempts to squirm free of his strong grasp, a look of horror and fear on her face. It would seem this represents the moment Hades brings her to the underworld and tells her she is to be his queen. It is clear they are in the underworld because of Hades’ dog at his side. As Persephone pushes him away, he almost looks offended at her refusal. It is clear she cannot escape, for his body is obviously strong and muscular, and both her feet are off the ground, but her attempt is a feisty, determined one.
This shows how much she does not want to stay with Hades in the underworld. The pain she feels is so apparent; her other arm is raised, as if reaching for some sort of escape, and her face is turned, as if she wouldn’t even look at him. The open mouth of Hades’ dog also indicates that there’s some sort of struggle going on, like it is barking. There is so much violent, sexual energy in this sculpture. It probably also represent the very moment before Hades ravishes Persephone. Moving further through time, the beautiful painting Cupid Kissing Psyche is created by Francois Gerard in 1798. This piece is absolutely mesmerizing.
In the story of Cupid, or Eros, and Psyche, Eros is commanded by his mother Aphrodite to shoot his arrows at Psyche and make her fall in love with an ugly creature because she is jealous of her beauty. When Eros sees Psyche, he himself falls in love with her, and takes her away to be his secret bride. The only condition she must follow is that she cannot see him, for she can’t know his true identity. At first Psyche is frightened, but begins to love Eros, still unknowingly. This painting represents this stage of the story, where Psyche’s love for the unidentified Eros is growing.
The very color scheme of this painting is intensely calming and serene. Psyche sits amidst beautiful scenery, staring straight ahead. Eros is next to her, but she does not seem to notice. His hands are so close to her, but it’s hard to tell whether he is touching her or not. The beautiful youth of Eros is obviously deeply in love with her. Though Psyche cannot see Eros, her face seems to sense him there, and there is no trace of fear. Though it is a painting of Eros and Psyche together, I believe the painter intends for it to be an expression of their love, and not a literal scene.
(Meaning, Eros is not actually there beside her. ) She is holding herself tenderly, as if treasuring a memory. Both their bodies are painted so softly and so insanely beautiful that the mind is overcome by their love when viewing this work. In 1809, painter John Vanderlyn painted Ariadne Asleep on Naxos. Ariadne was a beautiful brown-haired maiden who fell in love with the hero Theseus. Ariadne aided Theseus in his slaughter of the Minotaur, and in return, requested to be his bride. Theseus accepted her offer, and after defeating the Minotaur, brought her with him.
On the island of Naxos, however, Theseus abandoned her as she slept. This painting represents the moment Theseus sails off, as seen in the background to the right. Ariadne sleeps, stretched out on the ground, her body exposed and relaxed. She looks peaceful, as if she is happily dreaming of her lover, Theseus. The red shades used around her body give her a sexual energy, and yet she rests on a cloth of white, representing her innocence and virginity. Perhaps she is dreaming of her long-awaited wedding with Theseus and the birth of her sexuality.
It is tragic in the sense that she may be thinking all these things, while her fiance is sailing off without her and she has no idea. But because she is portrayed in such a desirable way, it almost hints that there will be someone else. As one story goes, the god Dionysus finds her on Naxos and makes her his wife. There is a burst of light where Theseus is sailing away, representing a love that leaves her. But there is another burst of light coming from the opposite direction, hidden in the left, illuminating her body, possibly representing a love that finds her.
Painted more recently, in 1908, is Apollo and Daphne by John William Waterhouse. The story behind this painting begins with a conversation between the sun god Apollo and the god of love, Eros. Apollo asks why such a youth like Eros is carrying around weapons of war, and Eros becomes offended. Eros shoots Apollo with the gold-tipped arrow, making him fall desperately in love with the wood nymph Daphne, while he shoots Daphne with the lead-tipped arrow, making her despise Apollo.
Apollo pursues Daphne and she rejects him. Daphne is soon transformed into the laurel tree, and Apollo is seen professing his love to this tree. This painting shows the end of the chase. Apollo is reaching for her, his face locked to hers. In his other hand is his musical instrument, ready to woo her. Daphne looks distressed and frightened because of Apollo’s persistence. The roots begin to hold her in place, beginning the transformation. In their faces, you can see the results of Eros’ arrows.
Apollo is so focused on winning Daphne’s affections that there seems to be nothing else in the world for him to do. Daphne seems so repulsed by him, you can almost hear her scream “Leave me alone! ” just by looking at her face. These five examples really express the importance of visual art in mythology. Because we can see these pieces whenever we want, we can relive the stories whenever we want as well. They allow us to really see the thematic emotion behind each story and each god, goddess, nymph and mortal. They take the immortals and make them, well, immortal.