Athena or Athene (Greek Ἀθηνᾶ), often prefaced by Pallas, and known to the Romans as Minerva, is a major Olympian goddess who is associated with a wide range of qualities including wisdom, crafts including weaving and fibrecraft more generally, and warfare. She was born from the forehead of Zeus, and is the patroness of the city of Athens, a role which she won in competition against Poseidon. For that, its Parthenon on the Acropolis is dedicated to her.
Her attributes are mainly drawn from her role as a warrior, and include a distinctive helmet decorated with red feathers or trimmings, a spear, and a shield which usually bears the image of Medusa the Gorgon. She’s also associated with owls (wisdom), olive trees, and snakes. She’s one of the virgin goddesses, despite her contesting alongside Hera and Aphrodite in the Judgement of Paris (see below).
Athena appears in many paintings of classical mythological subjects, although seldom on her own.
In Andrea Mantegna’s moralistic allegory of The Triumph of the Virtues, or Pallas Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue (1499-1502), Athena is at the left with her helmet and shield, chasing away figures representing the vices.
At the far left is a tree representing Virtue Deserted, and to the right of Athena’s feet is the armless vice of Idleness. Also in the pond is a centaur who carries a standing figure, usually read as Diana, on its back. At the far right is the virtue of Prudence represented as a message from within her prison, and in the sky are the virtues of Justice, Temperance and Fortitude.
An unusual and very personal twist is Athena’s spear. Although one of her normal attributes, its head has broken off and rests on the ground. This is a reference to a broken lance which Francesco Gonzaga presented to his wife Isabella d’Este following the Battle of Fornovo in 1495.
Correggio’s simpler Allegory of Virtues (1531) was also commissioned by Isabella d’Este for her studiolo, indicating perhaps her fondness for the goddess and her strong roles. The goddess’s spear once again bears her husband’s mark.
Unlike Hera and Aphrodite, Athena usually appears dressed. That makes Lavinia Fontana’s Minerva Dressing from 1612-13 the more unusual. In her final years in Rome, Fontana painted two versions of this motif, of which this is the more subtle, with elaborate details of the almost transparent voile on her back and the red and black cape.
Peter Paul Rubens’ Minerva Protects Pax from Mars from 1629-30 is one of the most elaborate compositions in which Athena is the lead goddess. Its central figures are those of Demeter, here in the role of Pax (the personification of peace), and Athena, behind her wearing black armour. In attendance are Ares, Hymen, Plutus, and Alecto, with sundry Bacchantes, a Satyr, putti, and more.
Gustav Klimt’s early masterpiece of Pallas Athena from 1898 is unusual in depicting the face of Medusa not in her shield, but wrought into her armour. This is her aegis, a controversial aspect of the goddess.
Although post-classical artists have almost universally assumed that Athena’s aegis is the face of Medusa on her shield, that isn’t consistent with several of the classical accounts, which cast doubt over exactly what the aegis is. One plausible explanation is that it’s the face of one of the Gorgons – not necessarily Medusa – on her armour, as shown here by Klimt.
Elihu Vedder made a beautiful mosaic of Athena in the central arched panel leading to the Visitor’s Gallery of the Library of Congress: Minerva of Peace (1897). Shown here as the Minerva/Athena of peace, Vedder stressed that this was attained by warfare, and shows a miniature statue of Nike, the Greek winged goddess of victory, known to the Romans as Victoria. Nike holds the palm frond of peace, and the laurel of victory.
Athena’s helmet and shield rest on the ground, but she remains ever-vigilant in holding a spear in her right hand. Her left hand holds a scroll, which she gazes at, listing the fields of learning, from Agriculture to Zoology and Finance. These show her association with wisdom and knowledge. To the left of Minerva’s right knee is her owl. The inscription below, Nil invita Minerva, quae monumentum aere perennius exegit, means Not unwilling, Minerva raises a monument more lasting than bronze, and is quoted from Horace’s Ars Poetica.
Best-known among the myths involving Athena is her role in the Judgement of Paris, hence the events leading up to the Trojan War.
Jacob Jordaens’ finished version of an original sketch by Rubens now known as The Golden Apple of Discord (1633) shows its opening scene at a wedding feast of the deities.
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, Athena reaches forward for it. In front of her, Aphrodite, her son Eros at her knee, points to herself as the goddess most deserving of the apple. On the other side of the table, Hera reaches her hand out for it too. This sets up the beauty contest between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, although as a mere mortal its judge Paris isn’t present.
Rubens’ late Judgement of Paris dates from 1632-35, and is one of the finest paintings in London’s National Gallery. The three goddesses are, from the left, Athena with her shield, Aphrodite, and Hera with her peacock. Paris is just about to give Aphrodite the golden apple of discord, as Hermes leans on the tree behind.
One of the more memorable myths told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the story of the weaving contest between Athena and Arachne, resulting from the mortal woman’s boast of her prowess at weaving. This leads inevitably to the contest between the goddess and mortal, in which Arachne obviously doesn’t stand a chance.
Originally attributed to Jacopo Tintoretto, this brilliantly projected view of Athena and Arachne in the throes of their weaving contest may have originated in a design by Jacopo, but wasn’t painted by him.
Arachne tells an unexpurgated account of the misbehaviour of deities in her weaving, and incurs Athena’s wrath. Wishing death upon herself, the mortal is transformed into a web-weaving spider, an arachnid.
One current reading of Diego Velázquez’s Las Hilanderas (c 1644-48) 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. Are they Athena’s attributes?
Athena appears in some more obscure myths and legends. One of the more elaborate, again told by Ovid, follows her visit to Perseus and Andromeda in Seriphos. She then heads for Helicon, the mountain abode of the nine Muses, with whom she often appears. The goddess has heard that Pegasus, the flying horse ‘born’ from the blood of Medusa, has brought forth a new spring on Helicon, which arose from his hoof-print.
Jacques Stella’s Minerva and the Muses (c 1640-45) is a fairly complete account of Ovid’s story on the slopes of Helicon. In the distance on the left is Pegasus, being mobbed by putti. Athena is on the right, armed with her spear and aegis. Several of the nine Muses are accompanied by appropriate attributes, and two are engaged in conversation with the goddess.
There’s not a spider in sight.