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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Painting Greek Gods

Gods of Olympus, 1534-35, Giulio Romano.                                               
The "lantern" drum above the dome is a painted, optical illusion.                                         
Cupid and Psyche, 1798,
François Pascal Simon Gérard
When people mention God and art in the same sentence everyone immediately pictures some ancient religious painting, probably Michelangelo's Creation of Adam. That's only natural. Starting centuries ago, (and today as well) artists have discover discovered there's good money to be made depicting man's spiritual side. About the same time, not long before the Renaissance, artists (often the same artists) also found there was quite a demand for paintings of pagan gods as well. With only a few exceptions, their being classically oriented, that meant the whole extended family of the Greek gods and their soap opera goings on. Though far more sinful than Adam and Eve at their worst, these royal deities were, nonetheless, as lucrative to paint, and a hell of a lot more fun than characters out of the Bible. (And, they were mostly naked too!) Any "fun" to be found painting Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had to be quite subtle, or else risk being cut off from one's daily bread and wine by the Catholic Church. I wonder if any of that ever crossed the mind of the Italian Mannerist painter, Giulio Romano in 1834 as he labored high above the floor of the Sala Dei Giganti of the Palazzo del Te, in Mantua, Italy, painting in fresco the pagan version of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling.
The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans, 1600, Joachim Wtewael
For all intents and purposes, Romano's Gods of Olympus (top) amounts to the whole damned family tree of the mighty Zeus and his wife, Hera, (and his many lovely lovers). Painted on the inside of a soaring dome in a daring, tromp l'oeil manner, Romano's work can be seen as a surprisingly successful effort to match or surpass the great master (who was still alive at the time). Whether Michelangelo knew (or cared) about Romano's work in uncertain, but I'd wager he did, and may even have traveled from Rome to Mantua to see it. Though not quite as ambitious or as well done, Jaochim Wtewael's The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans (above) from 1600, seems to have been painted with the same attitude. This zeal to "out paint" the great Renaissance masters was so common among artist of the 16th, and 17th-centuries as to become a virtual hallmark of all Mannerist painting.

The ZEUS Family Tree.
Do the Greek deities wear name tags at family reunions?
Apollo, Greek ceramic art,
ca., 475 BC.
The difficulty in studying paintings based upon mythology is that in the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses there are so damned many of them. Artists have long found them a fascinating content pursuit, but the problem is, they often find the relatively minor gods far more interesting than the major ones. There are far more paintings featuring Apollo (left), for instance, than those with his father, Zeus. The goddess, Hera, Zeus's faithful wife, is so rarely seen in paintings, few people recognize her. But Aphrodite (Venus) who hangs well out on the furthest branches of the family tree (above), suffers from such painted overexposure as to have become a quite trite joke among art lovers--"...ohh, not another Venus..." The offspring of Zeus and his wife are, in that sense, quite like the royalty of their human counterparts. The young and restless (and beautiful) get all the coverage (or more often, un-coverage).
The Triumph of Neptune, 1634, Nicholas Poussin
(casual day at the beach).
As if this inequality of representation wasn't bad enough, lovers of Greek mythology have a second hurdle to overcome. Many of the Greek gods have an assumed (Roman) name. Not only do we have to remember that Athena was Goddess of Wisdom (and apparently in charge of the women in Ares' army), but that her Roman name was Minerva. (Minerva? Minerva who?) I've put together a little chart (below) to help with the AKAs.
GREEK                        ROMAN                           OCCUPATION
         Zeus                             Jupiter                            King of the gods
         Hera                             Juno                               Queen of the gods
         Aphrodite                     Venus                             Goddess of Love & Beauty
         Eros                             Cupid                              God of Love
         Athena                         Minerva                          Goddess of Wisdom & War 
         Hephaestus                 Vulcan                            God of the Forge and Fire
         Ares                             Mars                               God of War
         Poseidon                      Neptune                         God of the Sea
         Apollo                           Apollo                            God of Music
         Hermes                        Mercury                          Messenger of the gods
         Artemis                        Diana                              Goddess of the Hunt
         Pluto                            Hades                             God of the Underworld

And her frumpy cousin, Diana,
1848, Pierre Auguste Renoir
The beautiful Venus, 1848,
Jean-Auguste Ingres

Ares, ca. 2010, Genzo.
If Ares were alive today...
As with most star entertainers, the popularity of each deity has waxed and waned over the years. Thanks to computer games, Ares is "in" while Artemis has rather faded. Also, due to the gaming industry, drawing, painting, and playing with virtually ALL the Greek gods has grown considerably in the past ten years as computer graphics almost daily seem to get sharper and better able to display all the mundane and highly esoteric details of each god. Not only that, but designers have faithfully dug back through even the most obscure annuls of Greek mythology in search of details, character traits, flaws, and resumes of each Greco-Roman Olympian. One has to laugh, though at perhaps the greatest departure yet in the depiction of the such mythological monarchs. The Greeks called him Pluto, the Romans named him Hades, and Walt Disney (below) turned their dastardly monster straight from the depths of hell itself into Mickey Mouse's lovable, playful, but none-too-intelligent puppy dog. Talk about your makeover!
Hades                  Persephone                   Pluto
as seen by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Walt Disney.
(Can you name the other dog seen above?)

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