Hephaistos (Greek Ἥφαιστος, also commonly spelled Hephaestus), and his Roman counterpart Vulcan, is the blacksmith and artisanal fabricator to the gods, although generally considered to have been cast out from Olympus, only to be rehabilitated later. There’s also general agreement that his mother was Hera, and if he had a father it was most probably Zeus.
He had the misfortune to have been born lame, as a result of which Hera tried to be rid of him, and threw him into the sea. He was there cared for by Thetis and others. He later assumes his role as the god of fire, volcanoes, and crafts allied to blacksmithing, including sculpture. Inevitably, his attributes derive from his role, and include the hammer, anvil and tongs, as used in the working of metals.
In paintings, Vulcan is characteristically seen in his forge, as in Tintoretto’s painterly Vulcan’s Forge (1578), one of four mythological paintings which he made for the Atrio Quadrato in the Palazzo Ducale in Venice.
It’s not clear how, but Hephaistos married Aphrodite, a union which was marked by the overt unfaithfulness of both partners. Hephaistos had a series of relationships, and Aphrodite’s adulterous affair with Ares (Mars) is one of the most celebrated stories in classical mythology, and the basis for a great many paintings.
It is the version in Homer’s Odyssey which is probably best-known, and most frequently the basis for paintings. After he met Nausicaä on the island of the Phaeacians, Odysseus is entertained by King Alcinous. To cheer Odysseus up, the bard Demodocus tells the tale of the affair between Ares and Aphrodite. Hephaistos catches the couple making love in his marriage bed, and quickly forges a very fine but unbreakable net to throw over them. Once they have been made captive by his net, he summons the other gods, who come and roar with laughter at the ensnared couple.
Homer’s story is retold by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the likely source for Diego Velázquez’s The Forge of Vulcan from 1630. This shows Apollo, at the left, visiting Hephaistos (to the right of Apollo) in his forge, to tell him about this infidelity. As shown in the faces, this arouses great shock.
Paintings showing the adulterous couple naked together have long been one of the most risqué themes in art.
Tintoretto’s Venus and Mars Surprised by Vulcan from about 1545 offers an unusual interpretation: Hephaistos is inspecting his wife, as Ares cowers under the bed at the right. A small dog is drawing attention to Ares’ hiding place, and Aphrodite’s child, Eros, rests in a cradle behind them.
Within this is skilful mirror-play: the circular mirror behind the bed reflects an image of Hephaistos leaning over Aphrodite (below). The artist also shows off his technique in other ways, in a glass jar on the window sill at the upper right, and optical effects in the window glass.
Joachim Wtewael is not only known for his ostensibly unpronounceable surname, but for his remarkably explicit figures. In Mars and Venus Surprised by the Gods from about 1606-10, he gives a full visual account of the story, and leaves the viewer in no doubt as to what the couple were doing, even adding a flush to the cheeks of Aphrodite.
He uses multiplex narrative too: Hephaistos is seen forging his fine net in the far background, and again at the right, as he is about to throw the finished net over the couple. Ares’ armour is scattered over the floor, and there is a chamber-pot under the bed. Behind Hephaistos the other gods are arriving, and laughing with glee at the raunchy scene being unveiled to them.
Homeric Laughter (1909) is one of Lovis Corinth’s most complex, even abstruse, paintings of classical myth. He provides a good clue as to its interpretation in his inscription (originally in German translation):
unquenchable laughter arose among the blessed gods as they saw the craft of wise Hephaistos
together with the reference to Homer’s Odyssey book 8 line 326.
In this first version, Corinth shows Aphrodite recumbent on the bed, shielding her eyes from the crowd around her. Ares struggles with the net which secures the couple, looking frustrated. Hephaistos, clad in black with his tools slung around his waist, is talking to Poseidon (who wears a crown) with Dionysos/Bacchus behind him (clutching a champagne glass). At the right edge is Hermes/Mercury, with his winged helmet. Sundry putti are playing with Ares’ armour, and an arc of putti adorns the sky.
Corinth also painted a second version, which he etched in 1920 for prints.
Some painted references to the story are more curious still, including the first painting commissioned of Andrea Mantegna by Isabella d’Este for her private collection.
Mantegna’s Mars and Venus, known better as Parnassus (1496-97) was probably painted largely in tempera, only after his death being repainted using oils.
The lovers are shown standing together on a flat-topped rock arch, as the Muses dance below. To the left of Ares’ feet is Aphrodite’s child Eros who is aiming his blowpipe at Hephaistos’ genitals, as he works at his forge in the cave at the left. At the right is Hermes, messenger of the gods, with his caduceus and Pegasus the winged horse. At the far left is Apollo making music for the Muses on his lyre.
It’s an unusual theme for a woman of the time to have chosen, although it has largely been interpreted with reference to a contemporary poem which seems less concerned with the underlying story of adultery exposed.
There’s another more obscure and unusual myth which has been painted occasionally, in which Hephaistos is either trying to rape Athena, or about to consummate marriage to her, and his ejaculate ends up on the earth, where it impregnates Gaia, who gives birth to Erichthonius, who was later to become the king of Athens, hence the city’s allegiance with Athena.
Tintoretto’s Minerva, Vulcan and Cupid (Birth of Erichthonius) (1541-42) shows Hephaistos at the left, about to try to rape Athena, stood at the right, with Eros quite inappropriately in the sky above them.
Hephaistos’ forge is the source of weapons and armour for the gods, and in rare circumstances for certain mortals.
Benjamin West’s Thetis Bringing the Armour to Achilles was painted in 1804, and shows some influence, perhaps, by the neo-classical narrative works of David.
During the Trojan War, Achilles, the son of Thetis (who you will recall cared for Hephaistos after he was rejected by Hera) and greatest of the Greek warriors, took Briseis as a prize of war. At the start of the account in the Iliad, Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, has decided that he will take Briseis for himself. Achilles resents this, and withdraws from involvement in the fighting.
In Achilles’ absence, his close friend Patroclus leads a battle in which he wears Achilles’ armour. Patroclus is killed there, and Achilles laments over his corpse. His mother Thetis visits Achilles during this, to console him in his grief, and promises to return with impregnable armour forged by Hephaistos.
When she does return with the shield and armour, Achilles is still lamenting over Patroclus, worried now that his friend’s body will decay if he returns to battle. Thetis protects the body of Patroclus with ambrosia and nectar, enabling Achilles to return to battle and kill Hector, the leading warrior of Troy.