Greek myths in art? We have to be honest. Sometimes artists throughout history have run the risk of being a little repetitive in terms of the themes of their works. Or if we want to see it from another point of view, they have decided to challenge themselves and others and use common themes known by the general public to tell their messages. Thus, for example, Greek myths and episodes from the Old and New Testament have become the protagonists of various visual works of art from antiquity to the present day. My name is Clelia and today I am going to tell you 6 Greek myths that you absolutely need to know if you want to understand some of the masterpieces of art.
My passion for Greek myths
As a child, unlike many friends and schoolmates who loved princesses, for a while I was obsessed with Greek myths. It was the time when my brother’s babysitter was forced to sip the full version of the Ulysses film accompanied by potato chips with lemon. Or the time when my mother found herself with the kitchen sink clogged with my little archaeologist’s plaster paste.
I liked Greek myths for many reasons: there was intrigue, happened, stories of love and betrayal. But above all in my view there was a story that seemed much closer to the reality of many other magical worlds. When I grew up, a couple of 4 in the first versions of the fourth high school made me pass the initial passion, which only returned to periods thanks to trips to Syracuse for tragedies or exams such as Aesthetics at the university.
Knowing the Greek myths so much since I was a child has always helped me a lot in interpreting the works. For this reason, today I have decided to tell you some of the most beautiful and also most widespread stories in the visual imagination of many artists.
1. Pandora’s box – Greek myths in art
From the first of these Greek myths, one of our most popular idioms was also born: do not open Pandora ‘s box . We use it on those occasions when we don’t want to start talking about something in particular because from there we know that further discussions could arise, not always pleasant. But where does the story come from and what does poor Pandora have to do with it? Hesiod talks about it for the first time in his poem The Works of Days, where he tells us that the king of the gods Zeus has some problems to settle with one of the titans Prometheus.
In fact, Zeus did not go down with the fact that Prometheus gave men one of the most important resources for their evolution, accessible until then only to the gods: fire. So annoyed by this thing he gathers all the gods of Olympus and thanks to their help creates the first mortal woman from nothing: Pandora. Each deity gives her a gift such as her beauty as Aphrodite and her life as Athena. Zeus instead gives her a vase. The only recommendation that God makes is to never open it for anything to the world.
What is poor Pandora doing?
But like all self-respecting stories, it’s just a deception. In fact, due to the curiosity given by Hermes, the girl who has just arrived on earth begins to wonder what is inside her. And in a very short time she opens the jar freeing all the evils of the earth and making all men mortal forever. But Pandora as soon as she understood what happened she closes the lid on the fly. In time to leave the only positive note inside: the hope, which will come out only when Pandora decides to reopen the box a second time after a while.
A story that has been told by many artists and among them by the Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti in one of his most beautiful works.
2. The Minotaur – Greek myths in art
The next myth is another classic of Greek history that is found in many works also of the ‘900: the Minotaur . According to legend, the Minotaur is a half man and half bull monster born from the union of Queen Pasiphae of Crete and a bull. How the two managed to unite is another story made of inheritance and betrayals in which I only tell you two of the most important gods of Greece Zeus and Neptune were involved.
However, the Minotaur not being accepted at birth by the king of Crete Minos is locked up in a labyrinth, designed for him by the inventor Daedalus. The problem is that being a monster he needs to be satisfied so as not to make him angry. So Minos decides to ask Athena in exchange for the life of his legitimate son killed by the Athenians for futile reasons, a pledge in young women and men.
Thus was born the legend as we know it in art, the symbol of the minotaur as the violent beast that devours the innocent. But also the embodiment of passion and instinct against rationality. There are two most famous representations of this animal in the history of art. Dorè’s 1861 engravings of the Divine Comedy and even more beautiful representations by Picasso who made this theme one of the central elements of his works.
3. Icarus – Greek myths in art
And again to stay on the subject of myths in which Daedalus, the inventor of the labyrinth that I mentioned earlier is co-protagonist, we have the myth all centered on his son Icaro . The story is a bit sad so you have to be prepared.
In fact, Daedalus is tired of living imprisoned by Minos in Crete. And so he decides to build wings for him and his son Icaro to fly away. He tests them and retests them and everything goes well: the wings work. He makes only one recommendation before leaving for Icarus. That of not getting close to the sun so as not to melt the wax that holds his wings together. So they leave, but in the middle of the journey, Icarus is attracted by Apollo towards the sun. And just as his father predicted, the wax melts and he falls into the sea drowning.
For this reason, the myth of Icarus has often been used in art and literature to represent the broader theme of the excess of pride and presumption. Among the many artists who have used it, one of my favorite works is certainly by Matisse. In fact, one of the first clippings of him has a human figure in the middle of the blue as the protagonist. It could be the sky from which Icarus falls or the sea in which he drowns.
4. Achilles – Greek myths in art
But the Greek myths are not made only of human beings or monsters, on the contrary the real protagonists are often the gods of Olympus, their illegitimate or presumed children. And the most acclaimed, fascinating and strongest of heroes in history has always been the protagonist of the Iliad: Achilles .
Historians have not yet decided why Achilles is so strong and semi immortal. In some texts it is said that his mother Teti had immersed him as a child in the River Styx by stretching him from the heel and thus making him immortal throughout the body except in that precise point.
Other stories instead tell us that the nectar of the gods was covered with ambrosia. The fact is that Achilles is truly the hero of heroes who fought a very long war in Troy for ten years.
But the reason why it becomes a symbol in art is also another. His love for him and the desire for revenge for Patroclus’ death make him the most human immortal hero there is. And the symbol of his weaknesses thanks to his weak point, the heel.
5. Leda and the Swan – Greek Myths in Art
And if we can define Achilles as one of the male protagonists of the Trojan war. So we can’t help but consider Elena one of the female protagonists. And the next myth I’m about to tell you is about her from afar. In fact, Elena is said to be a beautiful woman, daughter of the queen of Sparta: Leda .
And the story of Leda is what interests us. It is in fact one of the richest stories of wickedness and violence among the Greek myths. I honestly have never understood why it has been able to attract so many artists over time, especially from the 15th and 16th centuries.
Leda is the wife of Tindaro king of Sparta. And she gets along very well with her husband so much that she refuses the advances of the king of the gods, Zeus himself. But rejecting a god is not that simple. Thus Leda is raped in the middle of the night by a swan, Zeus transformed into an animal and she becomes pregnant with 4 twins: Helen, Pollux, Castor and Clytemnestra. The first two are believed to be sons of Zeus, the other two instead of her husband Tindaro.
What made this myth about the violence of a woman so famous in the history of art would seem to be more the consequence of the action of Zeus. Hence the birth of Helen, the trigger of the Trojan war. The fact is that great artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo and Tintoretto have told it in various works that have entered history.
6. Perseus and Andromeda – Greek myths in art
And the last Greek myth I want to tell you about concerns one of the most famous heroes: Perseus , the one who killed the Medusa. It goes without saying that he is one of the most represented Greek characters thanks above all to this very famous feat. I will not tell you about it because everyone knows it a little and it is easy to recognize even in the works of art.
Instead, I’ll tell you about the liberation of Andromeda, who will become his wife. Queen Cassiopeia, mother of Andromeda, boasts of her beauty and that of her daughter Andromeda morning and evening. She brags about it so much that she talks around that she is more beautiful than the Nereids, the sea nymphs. She probably she must have exaggerated a little too much and offended Neptune, king of the seas and brother of Zeus. For this reason the kingdom of Ethiopia is infested by a Ceto sea monster that devours the inhabitants.
In order to put an end to this tragedy, King Cepheus ties his daughter to a rock. And Andromeda stays there until, thank goodness, Perseus passes by, who deceives the monster and kills him with water games. And this is the episode itself that is often told in art as well.
What happens to Cassiopeia?
But while we’re here since I don’t usually dislike characters in life, except for characters from movies, books and TV series, I’ll tell you what happens to Cassiopeia shortly after. Perseus returns victorious with Andromeda in the arms of the king and the two get married. But Cassiopeia is not in favor so in the middle of her daughter’s marriage she organizes an ambush with one of her ex-Agenors. But Perseus is smart, he takes out Medusa’s head and petrifies them all, including the nasty mother-in-law Cassiopeia who finally ends up the way she deserves.
These are just some of the Greek myths to know because they are present in many ancient, modern and contemporary works. There would really be many others such as the labours of Hercules or Perseus and Medusa. And if you also have a favorite, write it on Instagram so as to find out more together. Also, if you liked this post take a look at my Youtube channel to not miss the next videos on art, travel and the market. Or take a trip to the blog to discover the stories of the most beautiful works of art in the history of art .