Reading paintings isn’t always easy, and one of the most common problems involved is identifying gods and goddesses from classical mythology. Changing society, culture and education during the last two centuries have resulted in most of us being unfamiliar with the rich collections of myths which had endured through Europe for the preceding couple of millenia. Most of us are now more familiar with characters and storylines from Friends than we are with those of the deities of Mount Olympus.
In ancient times, many of the images on pots and other painted artefacts came with labels.
For example, this depiction of the Meeting of Electra and Orestes at the Tomb of Agamemnon from 340-330 BCE shows Orestes meeting his sister Electra at their father’s tomb. In case you’re unsure who is who, the artist has kindly labelled the two figures using Greek characters, with which few of us are now familiar. In upper case Modern Greek, they are ἨΛΈΚΤΡΑ and ὈΡΈΣΤΗΣ.
Although a few paintings make identification obvious, you’re usually left to do this yourself. And some artists definitely didn’t want to help, using indirect references rather than the standard attributes which are more easily recognised.
Botticelli certainly wasn’t being transparent to the viewer of his Primavera from about 1482. Some, including Mercury (left), the three Graces, Cupid and Venus (centre) should be easy to identify, but this gets decidedly more complex at the right of this huge panel. Even knowing that the woman with the floral robe is Flora may not help much either.
Although Flora is referred to in several sources, the most complete account of her origin is given not in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but in lines 194 to 220 of Book 5 of his Fasti, covering the day of 3 May. Fasti is a calendar of feasts and gods, detailed in Latin verse, a source which is obscure to the great majority of those who try to read this painting. These explain how Zephyrus, the god of the west wind shown at the right edge, raped and then made a bride of the nymph Chloris (between Flora and Zephyrus), who then metamorphosed into Flora.
Over the coming weeks, I’m going to write and publish here a series of articles which are intended to help you identify Greek and Roman gods and goddesses. They’re also intended to show some of the finest paintings and other visual art, and hopefully to both entertain and delight.
Some famous paintings are group images of deities which suddenly make sense once you recognise who’s there. Jacob Jordaens’ finished version of an original sketch by Rubens now known as The Golden Apple of Discord (1633) is a case in point. This wedding feast of the deities is the opening scene in the long story leading to the Greek war against Troy.
The facially discordant Eris (Discord), seen in midair behind the deities, has just made her gift of the golden apple, which is at the centre of the grasping hands, above the table. At the left, Minerva (Pallas Athene) reaches forward for it. In front of her, Venus, her son Cupid at her knee, points to herself as the goddess most deserving of the apple. On the other side of the table, Juno reaches her hand out for it too. This sets up the beauty contest between Hera (Juno), Athena (Minerva or Pallas Athene) and Aphrodite (Venus), although as a mere mortal its judge Paris isn’t present.
Other major paintings still present problems with identification. My example here is Velázquez’ intriguing Las Hilanderas (The Spinners) from about 1644-48, whose reading still hasn’t been resolved almost four centuries later.
One current reading of this painting – given by Kilinski and many others – is that the foreground section shows the weaving contest between Athena, as an old woman on the left, and Arachne, as a young woman on the right. The background area then displays their completed tapestries, of which Arachne’s is visible, and shows a copy of Titian’s The Rape of Europa, a Greek myth identified as the first offensive scene woven by Arachne in the contest.
But there are plenty of problems with that proposal. Nothing about the figure at the spinning wheel associates her with Athena, and identifying her a second time in the background scene is dependent on your interpretation of the helmet and a vague vertical line as a spear.
I’m structuring these articles using three main sources: Giovanni Boccaccio’s Genealogy of the Pagan Gods (in Jon Solomon’s translation for the Tatti Renaissance Library), supplemented by the writings of Hesiod, which Boccaccio largely ignored, and more recent work in Timothy Gantz’s masterly Early Greek Myth, a Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. That’s the same Boccaccio who wrote The Decameron, and this is a work of great scholarship which goes far beyond anything previous.
This starts with the formation of the classical Universe, in a primordial deity known as Chaos (c 1875–82) or Chasm, shown in one of George Frederic Watts’ more cryptic paintings, usually dismissed as symbolist. The first difficulty here is the name, as we associate chaos with disorder and confusion, which isn’t the meaning of the original Greek Χάος which we transliterate to Chaos. Instead, the word refers more to a gap or Chasm, which Watts shows between giants at the left, struggling to free themselves from fire and vapour, and others at the right struggling to release themselves from the earth. The chain of much smaller figures at the lower right represents the establishment of ordered time and space, and the emergence of the rich cosmogony which informs this series.
The first article, looking at Nyx, goddess of the night, appears here in two days time. I look forward to seeing you there.