Exercise: Study some mythological subjects

This exercise is posted in the course material with two differing sections:

  1. ‘Choose two or three paintings of a mythological subject and research the story behind these paintings.  Where did the story originate, for example? Think about how the myths you’ve chosen could be harnessed to promote Christian values.’

titan - diana and actaeonThe first painting I have chosen is the one I also chose for one of my annotations – Diana and Actaeon by Titian.  This is one of a series of paintings which Titian called his poesie which literally meant ‘visual poetry’ – all were commissioned by Phillip II of Spain.  Diana and Actaeon was one of a pair which are linked by a stream running through them – the second is Diana and Callisto and both are held now in the National Gallery in London (both paintings started in 1556 and worked on over a 3 year period).

Note this work is oil on canvas.

The originating story, or rather poem, to this painting was written by Ovid, a Roman poet. The poem is called ‘Metamorphosis’ and the story is that the hunter (Actaeon) stumbles on Diana who was the goddess of the hunt.  Diana is refreshing herself within a glade or grotto along with her nymphs and clearly all concerned are shocked.

To ask myself the question of how could this work be harnessed  to promote Christian values – firstly the scene is one of women in a glade or grotto and considering that Diana was also the protector of virginity and hence all who are either sent or come to her I ask myself the question whether this is also about the Christian values of purity before marriage.  I state that because until marriage no man would have potentially seen a woman naked so the shock of the women and Actaeon.

Apparently the temples of Diana were also sanctuary and refuge for women – worth noting here that the Greek name for Diana was Artemis and the subject of my 2000 word essay is Artemisia Gentileschi  who in fact was the subject of a rape herself.  However in this painting the fact that the Diana is in a grotto or glade this seems to be in place of the Greek temples and bear in mind churches have always been seen as sanctuaries for those in need.

There are symbols of fertility in this painting such as the little dog but lust or unbridled sexuality would have been deemed a sin in the Christian values of the day.  For me the women are afraid of the hunter and they would be reliant on the protection of their goddess in much the same way as the priests of the church would have been deemed the protector of his flock or congregation and their moral values – the question arises here is whether this painting would have been a moral lesson of having faith in the church to protect those values.

IMG_4046As in my drawings below of the Birth of Venus my drawings are somewhat rudimentary and I decided primarily to focus on the background of the stonework, the trees and a little of the fabric beneath Diana  but also attempted to sketch Acteon himself.  What fascinates me from an artistic point of view is the use of colour and the rendering of the textures – to capture the stonework and fabrics with the limited use of pigments of the time required skills and knowledge of colour mixing as well as direct observation. I have never painted in oils and my sketches are done in modern Inktense pencils but the oils would have enables layers of paint that built up to create depth and allowed for blending of colours over a large area that would not have been possible before – tempera being able to be done only in very small areas.

Having read more (separate blog post) on colour pigments I am now further understanding the use of oil paints and the glazes available – just in my artistic studies and additional reading of different media as I choose my own art materials I am overwhelmed with the variety available to the modern artist but when you then look at the works of the Renaissance period and realise that they usually mixed their own paints and oils and glazes you come to really understand the term ‘masterpiece’.

uranus - vasariMy second painting is one by Giorgio Vasari and apparently considered the most important text for the history of the Renaissance.  Vasari was the first art history and wrote ‘The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects in or around 1550.   There is a second painter linked to this work: Cristofano Gheradi.  This is a fresco work in the Sala di Cosimo I, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence and painted around 1560.

What is immediately worthy of note is to contrast the two paintings in terms of their colours – the work by Titian is oil on canvas and this a fresco – the latter is much more muted colours and from all photos I have seen of this it is easy to see how it was worked in sections.  I also note the stylistic differences in the way the figures are painted but this is probably down to the fact that male figures in the centre of the Uranus work are gods as they have been portrayed larger than the others and more muscular and this is common with the other gods within the scene too.  I also note the contrapposto poses of the figures too in both paintings which bring life and energy to the pieces.

The story of the painting is that Uranus was the son and mother of Gaia (Mother Earth) and Uranus himself is Father Heaven.  In summary the story is of Olympian creation myth and that that Gaia bore Uranus many children when he visited earth every night.  However he did not like them and so imprisoned Gaia’s youngest children deep within the earth in a place called Tartarus – by doing this deed Gaia was caused great pain and so fashioned a sickle and asked her sons to castrate Uranus.  Only one was willing to do this (Cronus) and so he ambushed his father and carried out his mother’s wishes.  The full story which is complex can be found in my Bibliographic link below – The Castration of Uranus  – I fully admit I find it a complex and fascinating one and which I feel is portrayed brilliantly in the painting.

Going back to the question of how this could be harnessed to promote Christian values – in this piece I feel it is simpler to say as this is a work about the creation in Olmpian myth and that could be then used to portray the Christian church story of creation.  Uranus is clearly being defeated by his son as he is castrated and that could be seen to be the defeating of evil by good  and the Christian morality of faith defeating the evil of sin.  There is clear reference to the heavens and astrology which were still revered by the Renaissance artists and humanists so I question is this piece a Christian morality piece or has it got more humanist overtones (Vasari was a Renaissance humanist and scholar) – bearing in mind the location of this work is in a secular building.

However even if this was done purely for humanist reasoning for me personally it is still clearly connected with that story of creation from the Book of Genesis – ultimately the earth and the heavens created man and the creation of sin but with humanism man is responsible for his own morality too. Vitally for this painting humanism rejects God and puts man at the centre of the universe which is portrayed very clearly here – the figures of the gods are next to symbols of the universe and astrology which were very much part of the study of Renaissance man.

So in essence I now feel I chose one painting with Christian values and the second with humanist values and interestingly paintings that were done at almost identical times – the first in 1556 and the second in 1560 and therefore they demonstrate almost perfectly the two sides to the Renaissance … one the Christian and one the secular.  I do like the fact that two different techniques are used too – the later work being done with the pigments suitable for the fresco and the earlier the oil paints that Titian was to become a master of.

2.’ Find two paintings by different artists that represent the same mythological story and make notes in your learning log on the similarities and differences between them.  Think about why the two artists may have made the different artistic choices that they did.  Do some drawings and sketchings in your learning log.’

botticelli venusThis is the second question of this research point and I could not resist the famous painting of Venus by Sandro Botticelli of the early Renaissance as my starting point.  This work is tempera on canvas and painted between 1484-1486 and very typical of the period.

cabanel venus


This scene has been painted by many artists but I particularly liked the contrast with the later work by Alexandre Cabanel  painted in 1875 and in the medium of oil (on canvas). It seems the first version created quite a stir at the Salon in 1863 and went on to be purchased by Napolean III for his private collection.

I have not yet studied the period of the later work and this lack of knowledge at this point means I am relying here on direct comparison – I have decided to purposefully not do too much research on the period so as not to colour my judgement.

Both pieces are taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses  or possibly a hymn by the classical poet Homer.  Botticelli’s work is according to one website unusual in that many Renaissance artists used themes from Catholic church teachings but this I disagree with a little as Titian later used the same poem of Ovid’s but this piece is earlier than his poesie  series and I have to take this into account.

Both works are very classical in the portrayal of the figures for me and also very idealised I feel.  However Venus in Botticelli’s work is looking directly at the viewer and is rising from her clam shell with other goddess’s and gods surrounding her including those of the Goddess of the Seasons and also the God of Winds.  The destination for Botticelli’s work  was a country villa of the Medici and hence was almost certainly commissioned originally by the family whilst the second piece, at this moment I cannot for certain ascertain the reason for the painting.

However Cabanel’s work is very much typical of the time and many artists used the same theme of Venus being born of sea-foam and then carried to shore – a direct contrast to Venus in her clam shell.  Despite the fact that Cabanel’s work is of the 19th Century the style makes apparent reference to that of Ingres from the French Neoclassical period – something I look forward to studying now.

What I do immediately like is the sensuousness of both figures but the later piece is softer and silkier and clearly the technique of oil on canvas and the mastery of later centuries has enabled the artist to perfect this.  Venus is more erotic but in the way that many that artists portrayed at the time – they wanted eroticism without offence and so the contrapposto pose is such that it achieves this.  I also prefer the cherubs that surround the figure of Venus in the later work – it is almost more innocent and adds to the allure of the piece.

Botticelli’s is of a period which I have learnt to love but find the figures without the expressions and the characters that were later to be mastered in the 16th and 17th centuries by later artists – the faces are almost static and the poses although depict movement do not yet have the energy.  However the Venus in Botticelli’s work is delightfully modest too – her hand across her breast and her hair covering herself with decorum – also her leg is posed in a way many women still stand today with a slight shyness that is also portrayed in the tilt of her head.

Then you go forward and look again at Cabanel’s work – Venus is lying with her leg slightly forward that although protecting her modesty is also sensual.  Venus has her body twist and her arms above her head with her hair splaying out behind her but with her hand just starting to cover her eyes and no hand covering her breast – ‘alluring’ is a befitting word.  The cherubs are playful around her and delight in the birth of the new goddess as the waves lap with a beautiful and energetic realism – compare to the difference in portrayal of the waves and sea creatures in the earlier work.

In Botticelli’s work there are also small flowers in the air as she has been brought to land but in Cabanel’s the goddess is still very much at sea.  The figures surrounding Botticelli’s Venus are partly clothed and as with the goddess herself all are much more modest – I keep repeating that word but that is what for me is so special about this piece …Venus is nude but covering herself, the figures either the same or dressed and yet instead of detracting from the mysticism it adds to the mythology particularly because the clothes are not of antiquity but are of Renaissance period.  In Cabanel’s work there are no clothes and the nudity is almost celebrated – this piece hung with a number of others at the Salon which was nicknamed the ‘Salon of the Venuses’.

The two works cannot be more different in style and although as an art student I love the brushwork and the realism although idealism too of the later piece I prefer the innocence of Botticelli and the style of the Renaissance – maybe this is because when this was painted the art world was on the cusp of change with the advent of oil painting and the changes that came with the Reformation and Counter Reformation.

IMG_3996My sketches of Botticelli’s piece focus primarily on the shell and that of Zephyrus, God of Winds and Aura who he carries and are very rudimentary – as becomes apparent I am not one who can draw figures.  However as I look closely for details to focus on I am very interested in the depiction of the sea and the shell – the sea has a gentle calmness about it with just a hint of waves under Zephyrus – on the scale of my photograph these are hard to see although I suspect they are more prominent when seen in reality.  The shell strikes me as drawn from a primary source as the realism is striking – my sketch I just aimed to capture the contrast between the light and dark areas and some of the colour.  I did attempt to draw Zephyrus (albeit badly) to note the naturalistic style and the use of contrapposto albeit it with subtlety – I am also interested from an artistic (as opposed to historic) point of view how Botticelli has rendered the textiles and the tones of the robes flowing over the Gods and also the maidens on shore as he captures the wind and the movement in the use of shading.

Having read more about the pigments used (separate blog piece) I am now more conscious of the  limited range available to the Renaissance artists – pigments that were very much those from the earth.  This clearly meant that for both my chosen pieces from this period that colour mixing was perfected to get the very best from the hues but helps me understand the importance of the use of light and dark shading (chiaroscuro) and interestingly the use of the colour wheel.  In Botticelli’s work red and green are direct complementary colours as are blue and orange (a tetrad) and provide both contrast and harmony through the whole work.  Titian has used the same technique with the blues and oranges in his Diana and Acteon above – complementary colours of blues and oranges throughout in different tones to provide a harmony but also a contrast that immediately draws the viewers eye in … my eyes are drawn through the oranges of his robes to the blue skies in the background before they dance around the whole scene taking in the surprise of the maidens and the Goddess whilst all the time being enthralled by the colours and rendering of the piece.


Enclyopedia Britannica  (2016).  Giorgio Vasari Italian artist and author [online] [Date Accessed: March 2016]. Available at:  http://www.britannica.com/biography/Giorgio-Vasari

Musee d’Orsay (date unknown).  Alexandre Cabanel The Birth of Venus [online] [Date Accessed:  March 2016] Available at:  ww.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/painting/commentaire_id/the-birth-of-venus-7137.html?cHash=2d4e4c9917

Museums of Florence (date unknown) Palazzo Vecchio and Piazza Signoria [online] [Date Accessed: March 2016].  Available at:   http://www.museumsinflorence.com/musei/Palazzo_vecchio.html

Haggerty, B (2016) . Cross-curricular ideas: Themes in ‘Diana and Actaeon’ [online] [Date Accessed: March 2016].  Available from:   http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/learning/teachers-and-schools/picture-in-focus/picture-in-focus-cross-curricular-ideas/cross-curricular-ideas-themes-in-diana-and-actaeon

Guide to the Uffizi Gallery Museum (date unknown).  The Birth of Venus by Botticelli [online] [Date Accessed: March 2016]. Available at:  http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/the-birth-of-venus-by-sandro-botticelli/

Utah Street Networks, inc (2016). The Castration of Uranus. fresco by Giorgio Vasari and Cristofano Gherardi [online] [Date Accessed: March 2016].  Available from:   http://tribes.tribe.net/b9b544af-89e5-4aa7-8dec-c917f83c3bd7/photos/e270ea6c-8d9f-4545-b6b4-76c2238db2a9

Waterfield, K and Waterfield, R (2011). The Greek Myths Stories of the Greek Gods and Heroes Vividly Retold. London. Quercus Editions Limited.




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