Zeus (Greek Ζεύς, Roman Jupiter) is the senior of the deities of Olympus, married to his sister Hera (Juno). A son of the primordial deities Kronos and Rhea, he led the revolt against the Titans and established himself as the king of the gods in the new order based on Olympus which succeeded the era of the Titans, the Titanomachy.
He is the god of the sky and specifically thunder and lightning. Many of the myths about Zeus concern his seemingly endless adulterous rapes of mortals, and the numerous demi-gods who result, including Perseus, Heracles (Hercules), Helen of Troy and Minos. He also fathered many divine children, including Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Persephone and the Muses.
Understandably, Hera is often jealous or hostile towards her husband’s many partners, and this establishes something of a meta-myth, in which Zeus takes a fancy to a woman, assumes the appearance of another creature or deity so that he can try to seduce them, then rapes or seduces the woman and gets her pregnant. Hera is constantly watching for his straying, and the couple use ingenious ploys to outwit one another. These myths are the most common circumstances in which Zeus appears in ‘modern’ paintings.
They were also popular in ancient times: this Attic red figure calyx krater from about 490-480 BCE shows Zeus sitting on a throne as he is being served a libation by Ganymede, in the god’s notoriously pederastic relationship. This also shows a classical representation of one of Zeus’s attributes, the large eagle-like bird perched on his staff. Others include thunderbolts, the bull and the oak tree.
This is the first of a series of twenty-four paintings which were commissioned of Peter Paul Rubens in 1621 to decorate the Luxembourg Palace, Paris, for Marie de’ Medici, the wife of King Henry IV of France. He shows the three Fates, above whom are Hera and Zeus, seen unusually as an amorous couple. Hera appears throughout Rubens’ series as the Queen’s avatar, and Zeus as the King.
Zeus’s eagle appears on a great number of paintings of various myths involving the god. This is Correggio’s Abduction of Ganymede (1520-40), which shows the same mortal being stolen from his duties as a shepherd, and flown to Olympus to serve drinks to the god.
The best-known of Zeus’s abductions is that of Europa, for which he assumes the form of a white bull to lure his victim onto his back. This is shown most famously in Titian’s painting of the myth. This copy, which is now in much better condition than Titian’s original, was painted by Rubens when he was in Madrid more than sixty years later.
Another of Correggio’s brilliant mythological paintings shows Zeus’s rape of Io. Knowing that Hera was watching for his transgressions, Zeus covered the earth with dense cloud to prevent his wife from seeing him in the act. The artist interprets this slightly differently from the account in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and turns Zeus into the cloud which is here embracing Io. Following this, Zeus disguises Io as a cow, which falls into Hera’s possession, leading to an elaborate resolution.
By far the strangest of the stories of Zeus’s adultery is his seduction of Semele. One day the god took a fancy to the human Semele, one of his earthly priestesses, apparently when she was swimming in a river to cleanse herself of sacrificial blood. As a result of this, Semele became pregnant.
When Juno discovered this, she disguised herself as an old crone and befriended Semele to discover the whole truth, and to sow doubt in her mind. When she next saw her lover, Semele asked him to grant her a wish. He inevitably agreed, and she asked him to reveal himself in his full glory, so as to prove his divinity.
Jupiter realised that this would put Semele at risk. Being the god of the sky and thunderstorms, she would almost certainly be killed by his divine power. But she insisted, so he gathered his weakest thunderbolts and smallest storms, and revealed himself. Unfortunately Semele was then consumed in flames from Jupiter’s lightning, and died. The god rescued her unborn baby, and continued the pregnancy by sewing him into his thigh. Months later, the baby was born, and became Bacchus, who rescued Semele from the underworld for her to be installed as a goddess on Mount Olympus.
Gustave Moreau’s last great Symbolist masterpiece shows an elaborate interpretation of this myth, but this earlier oil painting of Jupiter and Semele from 1889-95 is far simpler to read. It contains a curious composite of the story, in which Semele has not yet been harmed by thunderbolts, but the foetal Bacchus appears to be resting against her, and Zeus has assumed his divine form, with his eagle at the foot of the painting.
Zeus assumes other forms to facilitate his adulteries. These include Artemis (when raping Callisto), a shower of gold (Danae), a swan (Leda), and a serpent (Persephone). But not all of the myths involving Zeus concern rape and divine promiscuity: one of the gentlest stories is one of two flood myths in the Ancient Greek canon, that of Philemon and Baucis, which has inspired several masterpieces. In this, Zeus and his son Hermes (Mercury) visit mortals in human form, but no one will offer them hospitality apart from this elderly and impoverished couple.
Rembrandt’s Baucis and Philemon (1658) is one of his late works, and shows Zeus (looking decidedly Christlike) and Hermes (the younger, almost juvenile, figure) sat at the table in a very dark and rough cottage, lit by a lamp behind Hermes. This dramatic lighting is precursor to similar effects in his later Ahasuerus and Haman (1660) and Conspiracy of the Batavians (1661-2).
Philemon and Baucis are crouched, chasing an evasive goose towards Zeus. A humble bowl of food is in the centre of the table, and there is a glass of what appears to be beer. As is usual in Rembrandt’s narrative paintings, he dresses them in contemporary rather than historic costume.
Zeus warns the couple of an imminent inundation which will destroy the inhospitable mortals, and leads them to the safety of high ground. Even the great philanderer of Olympus had his moments of philanthropy.