The story of Zeus and Callisto is part of Greek mythology and involves Zeus, the king of the gods, and Callisto, a beautiful nymph and one of the companions of the Artemis, goddess of the hunt and the equivalent of Diana in Roman mythology. Zeus is the same king of the gods as the Roman god Jupiter. The story of Zeus and Callisto serves as a tale about the capricious nature of the gods in Greek mythology. One of the most well-known versions can be found in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”.
According to the myth, Callisto was a devoted follower of Artemis (Diana) and like the other companion nymphs in the group of Artemis, Callisto also swore to remain a virgin for her entire life. They are hunting together, bathing together and were a great subject for painters throughout the centuries to depict a group of female nudes. With the exception of Vermeer, who portrayed Artemis and her nymphs in a very discreet and decent manner.
However, Zeus, known for his numerous affairs and infidelities, set his eyes on Callisto and decided to seduce her. Disguising himself as Artemis, Zeus approached Callisto and took advantage of her, resulting in Callisto becoming pregnant.
When the truth came to light, Callisto faced the wrath of Artemis, who was furious at her for breaking her vow of chastity. The goddess could not bear to look at Callisto anymore, and she banished her from her company. Callisto was devastated and left to live a life of solitude.
As her pregnancy progressed, Callisto’s appearance began to change and she now has a baby belly. Hera, Zeus’s wife and the queen of the gods, noticed these changes and grew suspicious of her husband’s involvement. Feeling betrayed and enraged, Hera sought revenge on Callisto. After the nymph gave birth to a son named Arcas, Hera transformed Callisto into a bear.
Arcas, son of Zeus and Callisto
In the meantime Arcas, the child of Zeus and Callisto, grew up and became a skilled hunter. He lived in a beautiful land and was chosen to be the king of that peaceful and pastoral area, called “Arcadia”, named after Arcas. Throughout history the name “Arcadia” has continued to be a symbol of an unspoiled and idyllic natural world.
As a bear, Callisto was forced to roam the wilderness, unable to communicate or return to her human form. Years passed, and one day, Arcas, now a young hunter, came across his mother-bear in the forest. Unaware that the bear was his own mother, he prepared to shoot it with his arrow. However, Zeus, who had been watching the events unfold, intervened to prevent a tragic outcome. To protect Callisto and her son, Zeus turned Arcas into a bear as well and placed them both among the stars, forming the constellations Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (the Smaller Bear). In this way, they were immortalized in the night sky, and their bond was forever preserved.
Hera did not like this at all; too much honour for Callisto and Arcas to be in the sky as stars. So, Hera descended from heaven and arrives with her carriage drawn by peacocks on sea-level, to complain to her friends the god Oceanus and his wife Tethis, a sea-goddess. Hera tells them that, in punishment for having such honorable place at the sky, they should never let the Callisto and Arcas, as Great and Smaller Bear, touch their waters and be able to wash themselves. Hera therefore instructs the gods of the sea that they shall not let either constellation sink below the horizon, and passing into the waters of the ocean. Indeed neither Ursa Major nor Ursa Minor ever set below the horizon, viewed from most regions in the Northern hemisphere.
Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Smaller Bear)
The Big Bear constellation is also known as Ursa Major, which means “Great Bear” in Latin. The more popular term “Big Dipper” is actually a colloquial name for a prominent asterism within the Ursa Major constellation. The Big Dipper is a group of seven bright stars that form a distinctive shape resembling a ladle or a dipper. This shape is a well-known feature of the northern night sky. The Great Bear has served as a navigational tool for travellers to determine directions.
Polaris (North or Pole Star)
Polaris, commonly known as the North Star or Pole Star, is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Smaller Bear). It holds a special place in the night sky because it appears very close to the celestial north pole, the point in the sky around which all other stars appear to rotate as Earth spins on its axis. This makes Polaris a valuable navigational reference point, especially for travellers in the Northern Hemisphere. Polaris appears relatively stationary in the sky while other stars appear to move in circles around it as the night progresses. This unique characteristic made Polaris an important celestial marker for ancient sailors, explorers, and navigators who used it to determine their northward direction. Polaris can be found by extending the two outer stars of the Big Dipper’s bowl (from the constellation Ursa Major) in a straight line. This extension leads you to Polaris, making it a helpful guide for finding true north in the night sky.
Greek and Roman Gods
The three gods involved in the story of Zeus and Callisto are:
Zeus (Ζεύς) is the god of the sky and thunder, and king of the gods, married to Hera. His symbol is the eagle. The Roman equivalent is Jupiter, also knows as Jove. Read more about Zeus in The Twelve Olympians.
Hera (Ήρα) is the goddess of marriage, women and family and the queen of gods, wife of Zeus. Her symbol is the peacock. The Roman equivalent is Juno. See Hera in The Twelve Olympians.
Artemis (Ἄρτεμις) is the goddess of the hunt, and to be recognised by the moon crescent as tiara on her head. Her Roman equivalent is Diana. More about Artemis in The Twelve Olympians.
In religious contexts, the term “apostles” typically refers to the twelve individuals chosen by Jesus Christ to be his closest followers and to spread his teachings. They are also known as the Twelve Apostles or the Apostles of Jesus. The apostles played a significant role in the development and early spread of Christianity. They witnessed Jesus’ teachings, miracles, crucifixion, and resurrection. After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the apostles became central figures in the formation of the early Christian community. They preached the gospel, performed miracles, and established churches in different regions. The word “apostle” comes from the Greek word “apostolos,” meaning “one who is sent out.” The twelve apostles are traditionally identified as:
Peter: fisherman, leader of the apostles and first pope according to Catholic tradition.
Andrew: brother of Peter, also a fisherman.
John: “The Beloved One”, known as the author of the Gospel of John.
James: the pilgrim, also referred to as James the Greater.
Matthew: former tax collector, maybe the author of the Gospel of Matthew.
Thomas: known for his initial doubt about Jesus’ resurrection.
Bartholomew: preaching as far as in India and Armenia, skinned alive.
Philip: baptised an Ethiopian courtier.
Simon: martyred by being sawn in half.
James: also known as James the Less.
Judas Thaddeus: not to be confused with Judas Iscariot.
Judas Iscariot: infamously known for betraying Jesus.
After Judas Iscariot’s betrayal and subsequent death, Matthias was chosen to replace him. The apostle Paul (originally known as Saul) is also considered an apostle, although he was not part of the original twelve. Paul played a significant role in spreading Christianity throughout the Mediterranean and authored several spiritual letters (epistles).
It’s worth noting that in some religious traditions, the term “apostle” may be used more broadly to refer to other individuals who were not part of the original twelve but were influential in the early Christian movement. For example, the apostle Paul is often considered an apostle due to his significant contributions to the spread of Christianity through his missionary journeys and his epistles included in the New Testament.
Petrus (“Petrus”) was a fisherman named Simon. Jesus called him and his brother Andrew to be Jesus’ followers. He received the name “Cephas” from Jesus, which means “rock” in the local Aramaic language; hence “Peter” (Πέτρος, Petros), which means “rock” in Greek, the language of the first bible books. Peter is recognised as the leader of the 12 apostles and as the first Pope and Bishop of Rome. He was crucified in Rome under Emperor Nero around AD 65. Peter’s attributes are a set of keys, one gold and one silver, which are The Keys of Heaven. He is buried in the St Peter Basilica in Rome.
A story from the life of Peter is as follows. When Jesus was arrested, Peter had followed at a distance. On the painting hereunder we can see what happened next. A servant girl apparently recognised Peter and said to him, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus. “ Peter denied it. But then she said it to some bystanders. Again Peter denied it. Finally, the bystanders said it to him as well and, for the third time, he denied knowing Jesus. This time he swore, “I do not know this man of whom you speak”. Then the cock crowed for the second time and Peter remembered the words of Jesus, “Before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times.” Then Peter broke down and wept (New Testament, Mark 14:72).
Andrew, in Latin “Andreas”, is the brother of Petrus. Both Andrew and Peter were fishermen by trade, hence the tradition that Jesus called them by saying that he will make them “fishers of men” These narratives record that Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee and initially used a boat, described as being Peter’s, as a platform for preaching to the multitudes on the shore and then as a means to achieving a huge trawl of fish on a night which had hitherto proved fruitless.
Andrew is said to have been martyred by crucifixion in the year 60, bound – not nailed – to a Latin cross of the kind on which Jesus is said to have been crucified. Yet a tradition developed that Andrew had been crucified on a cross of the form called crux decussata (X-shaped cross, or “saltire”), now commonly known as a “Saint Andrew’s Cross”, supposedly at his own request, as he deemed himself unworthy to be crucified on the same type of cross as Jesus had been. The “Saint Andrew’s Cross” is now also the national flag of Scotland. Several legends state that the relics of Andrew were brought by divine guidance from Constantinople to the place where the modern Scottish town of St Andrews stands today. Andrew preached along the Black Sea and the Dnieper River as far as Kiev, and from there he travelled to Novgorod. Hence, he became a patron saint of Ukraine, Romania, and Russia.
Andrew is traditionally portrayed with a long beard and a saltire cross. How to remember: the flag of Scotland and The Saint Andrews Golf Club, one of the oldest and most posh golf clubs worldwide
In the painting hereunder we find Jesus calling his first disciples. He approaches two fishermen at work on the Sea of Galilee: Simon, called Peter, and his brother Andrew. Their net is full when Jesus says to them: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (New Testament, Matthew 4:18).
The Apostle John, also known as Saint John the Evangelist and not to be confused with John the Baptist, holds a significant place in Christian tradition and the New Testament of the Bible. John had a brother named James (often referred to as James the Greater). John, James and Peter, formed the inner circle of disciples closest to Jesus. They were present at all the important events in Jesus’ life and ministery. John is often referred to as “The Beloved One”, the disciple whom Jesus loved. He is portrayed as having a close and intimate relationship with Jesus. According to tradition, John is also credited as the author of the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation. According to legend, John the Evangelist was given a cup of poisoned wine that he drank without harm. As emblems of the tale, John’s chalice symbolizes the Christian faith prevailing over death. In the painting above, Rubens depicted John with the chalice.
John (or Johannes) has an important presence at the crucifixion, as depicted in the painting hereunder. Immediately after Christ’s death, his followers lifted Jesus Christ down from the cross and lamented over his body. At the heart of the composition, the weeping Virgin kneels beside her dead son, supported by John. From the cross, Jesus had entrusted the care of his mother to his most beloved disciple. Joseph of Arimathea supports the dead body, Nicodemus holds up one end of the shroud. According to the Bible, these two men would anoint and bury the body. On the left, three women let their tears flow freely. One of them is Mary Magdalene (identified by her ointment jar), who dries her eyes with her cloak. On the right, by Christ’s feet, kneels a bishop, undoubtedly the man who commissioned the work. He is accompanied by Peter (with the keys of heaven) and Paul (with the sword used to behead him). The skull in the foreground is an allusion to Calvary, the site of the Crucifixion. The skull belongs to Adam, who was supposedly buried there. Van der Weyden rendered the bishop’s episcopal robes in breathtaking detail. The fact that the twelve apostles are depicted on the embroidered borders of the cope is significant. The bishop, after all, had followed in the footsteps of the apostles who spread the gospel after the Crucifixion. The presence of Peter and Paul behind the bishop can be explained in that light. As the first Bishop of Rome, Peter also had a special significance: he was the most eminent predecessor of the man who commissioned this painting.
James the Greater
James the Greater, in Latin “Jacobus Maior”, preached the message and teachings of Jesus in Spain and became the patron saint of Spain and, according to tradition, his remains are held in Santiago de Compostela. This name Santiago is the local evolution of his name “Sancti Iacobi”. The traditional pilgrimage to the grave of the saint, known as the “Way of St. James”, has been the most popular pilgrimage in Western Europe from the Early Middle Ages onwards. James is styled “the Greater” to distinguish him from the Apostle James “the Less”, with “greater” meaning older or taller, rather than more important. James the Greater was the brother of John. James, along with his brother John and Peter, formed an informal triumvirate among the Twelve Apostles. He is mostly depicted clothed as a pilgrim, with a scallop shell (Coquille St Jacques) on his shoulder, and his staff and pilgrim’s hat beside him. Pilgrims to his shrine often wore the scallop shell as symbol on their hats or clothes.
How to remember? Think: Coquille St Jacques and Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
Before becoming an apostle, Matthew (“Matheus” in Latin) worked as a tax collector in Capernaum. Tax collectors were often despised by their fellow Jews because they were seen as collaborators with the Roman authorities and were associated with greed and corruption. However, Jesus called Matthew to be one of his disciples, demonstrating his inclusive message of grace and forgiveness. As an apostle, Matthew witnessed Jesus’ teachings, miracles, and ministry firsthand. He was chosen by Jesus to be part of the inner circle of disciples and was present at significant events such as the Transfiguration and the Last Supper. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Matthew, along with the other apostles, was entrusted with spreading the message of salvation and establishing the early Christian community.
Matthew is traditionally regarded as the author of the Gospel of Matthew, which is the first book of the New Testament. This gospel focuses on presenting Jesus as the Messiah, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, and the teacher of the new law. According to tradition, after his time with Jesus, Matthew traveled and preached the Gospel, possibly in regions such as Ethiopia or Persia. However, the historical records regarding his later life and martyrdom are limited and not universally agreed upon.
The painting hereunder depicts the story from the Gospel of Matthew (New Testament, Matthew 9:9): “Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the tax collector’s office, and said to him, “Follow me”, and Matthew rose and followed Him.” Ter Brugghen depicts Matthew as the tax collector sitting at a table with few companions who seem to be more interested in the money and earthly tax collecting business. Jewish tax collectors in the time of Christ worked for the occupying Roman government, so they were especially hated in Israel. If that were not enough, tax collectors commonly took more than was required by the Romans in order to pay themselves. This meant tax collectors were frequently much wealthier than most Jewish citizens, who were just barely getting by day by day. The typical stereotype of a tax collector, in that time, was that of a greedy, sinful, traitorous sinner. On this painting Jesus Christ has entered the room, and is pointing at Matthew. Matthew is surprised and seems to say: “Who, me?”. This is a depiction of a moment of spiritual awakening and conversion, the moment when Matthew abandons everything and joins the circle and life of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Thomas, also known as “Doubting Thomas”, is particularly known for his initial skepticism regarding Jesus’ resurrection. After Jesus’ crucifixion, the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen the risen Jesus. However, Thomas expressed doubt and insisted that he needed to see and touch Jesus’ wounds to believe. Later, when Jesus appeared to the disciples, he specifically addressed Thomas and invited him to touch his wounds. Thomas, upon seeing and touching Jesus, declared, “My Lord and my God!” This incident reflects Thomas’ transformation from doubt to faith. Thomas’ subsequent activities and ministry are not extensively documented in the biblical texts. However, early Christian tradition suggests that he may have traveled and preached the Gospel in regions such as Parthia (part of modern-day Iran) and India and maybe even into China.
The subject of this painting herunder is taken from the Gospels (New Testament, John 20:24–28). The scene depicts the moment when Thomas, seeking proof of the Resurrection, places his fingers in the wound in Christ’s right side. Thomas not only rejected all the evidence of the Resurrection, but he also demands the most absolute, personal proof possible. He wants more than visual proof. He insists on disbelieving until he can physically touch the wounds in Jesus’ resurrected body. Which Christ allows him to do so. Here he gained his nickname: “Doubting Thomas.” This is the theme of human weakness in believing and the tendency to disbelieving.
The Apostle Bartholomew, in Latin “Bartholomaeus”, is listed among the apostles but is not as prominently featured as some of the others. He is mainly mentioned in the context of being one of the twelve and participating in the ministry of Jesus. According to early Christian traditions, Bartholomew is believed to have traveled extensively as a missionary, spreading the teachings of Jesus. Some traditions suggest that he traveled to India and Armenia, where he preached the Gospel and established Christian communities. The accounts of his martyrdom vary, but many sources indicate that he was martyred for his faith, with some accounts suggesting that he was flayed or crucified upside down.
One famous painting that features the apostle Bartholomew is “The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo. It is a monumental fresco located on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. In this painting, Bartholomew is depicted holding his own flayed skin, as he was said to have been martyred by being skinned alive. In Michelangelo’s depiction, Bartholomew holds his skin in one hand, while his other hand holds a knife, symbolizing the instrument of his martyrdom.
Bartholomew is the patron saint of tanners, tailors, leatherworkers, bookbinders, and butchers.
According to the Bible, Philip was from the town of Bethsaida in Galilee, like Andrew and Peter. He is first mentioned in the Gospel of John, where he is called by Jesus to become his disciple. Philip played a role in several significant events in the New Testament. For example, he was present when Jesus fed the multitude of thousands with five loaves of bread and two fish. After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Philip continued to spread the teachings of Jesus and played a role in the early Christian community. Philip is particularly known for his encounter with an Ethiopian courtier or eunuch. He explained the Scriptures to the eunuch and baptized him, leading to the spread of Christianity in Ethiopia. A note: this could also have been Philip the Evangelist; it’s unclear if these two are one and the same Philip or both different ones. Philip the Apostle’s later life and his ultimate fate are not extensively recorded in the Bible. However, according to tradition, he continued to preach the gospel and performed miracles in various regions, including Syria and Greece. It is believed that Philip died as a martyr, having been crucified upside down. He is therefor often depicted with a cross.
Rembrandt painted the scene related to the baptism of an Ethiopian eunuch. In his painting, Rembrandt depicts the biblical episode found in the Book of Acts (New Testament, Acts 8:26-40), where the apostle Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza. The eunuch is reading a passage from the Book of Isaiah but does not fully understand its meaning. Philip explains the Scripture to him, and upon their arrival at a body of water, the eunuch requests to be baptized. Rembrandt captures this pivotal moment as Philip performs the baptism.
The apostle Simon, also known as Simon the Zealot, was also one of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus Christ. Not much is known about Simon’s background or his activities outside of being an apostle. The name “Simon the Zealot” suggests that he may have been a member of the Jewish political group called the Zealots, known for their fervent patriotism and opposition to Roman rule. As an apostle, Simon was entrusted with spreading the message of Jesus after his death and resurrection. Tradition holds that Simon continued to spread the Gospel after Jesus’ ascension, possibly traveling to Persia or further regions. Historical records regarding his later life and martyrdom are sparse and not widely agreed upon.
There are several paintings that depict the apostles, including Simon. However, there are no definitive or widely accepted artistic representations of Simon the Apostle, as there is no specific physical description of him in the biblical texts. In religious artwork, the apostles are often portrayed as a group or in scenes related to specific biblical events, such as the Last Supper or the Pentecost. In these depictions, Simon is typically included among the twelve apostles, but he may not always be individually highlighted or distinguishable. There is a vague story that Simon was martyred be being sawn in half and therefore in art, Simon sometimes has the identifying attribute of a saw.
James the Less
The apostle James the Less is called “Less” to indicate his relative obscurity or younger age compared to James the Great. Not much is known about James the Less beyond his designation as an apostle.
The martyr symbol traditionally associated with Saint James the Less is a fuller’s club, as he was said to have been martyred by being beaten to death with a club or a similar instrument. A fuller’s club was a tool used by fullers, the workers in the wool industry who beat or thump the cloth to clean, shrink and thicken it. James the Less is still the patron saint of the fullers and textile workers.
Judas Thaddeus is one of the twelve original apostles, but information about him is limited. Although he certainly played an important role in spreading the teachings of Jesus Christ after his death and resurrection. Judas Thaddeus is believed to have traveled to various regions, including Syria, Mesopotamia, and Armenia, where he is highly venerated as one of the founding apostles of the Armenian Church. His attributes are ambiguous. It can be a club as symbol of his martyrdom, or a book as general “scripture” reference, or a flame around his head which represents his presence at Pentecost, when he received the Holy Spirit with the other apostles. I like the option of a carpenter’s square the most, as a metaphorical symbol of Judas Thaddeus being an architect of the church. Judas Thaddeus is the patron saint of desperate situations and lost causes; good to know!
A note: Judas Thaddeus is to be clearly distinguished from Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus prior to his crucifixion.
Judas Iscariot was chosen by Jesus Christ to be one of his apostles but is known primarily for his betrayal of Jesus. According to the Gospels, Judas agreed to betray Jesus to the religious authorities in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. He identified Jesus to the authorities by giving him a kiss, leading to Jesus’ arrest. This event ultimately led to Jesus’ crucifixion. The act of betrayal has been widely condemned, and Judas is often portrayed as a symbol of treachery and betrayal. Judas’ story concludes tragically. After the betrayal, he reportedly felt remorse for his actions and attempted to return the money. However, overcome by guilt, he ultimately hanged himself.
On the frescos by Giotto, both from the wonderful Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, we can see (above) Judas who just plotted his betrayal and received the bag with the thirty pieces of silver; firmly in grip of the devil! And (below) Judas identifies Jesus Christ with a kiss, an act of friendship he would turn into betrayal.
The Apostle Matthias was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot as one of the twelve apostles following Judas’ betrayal and subsequent death by suicide. After Jesus’ ascension, the remaining eleven apostles felt the need to replace Judas Iscariot in order to restore the number of apostles to twelve, a significant symbolic number. They believed it was essential to have twelve apostles to fulfill the mission and ministry that Jesus had entrusted to them. To select a new apostle, the remaining apostles prayed and sought guidance from God. They determined that the new apostle must be someone who had been with them from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and had witnessed his resurrection. The apostles prayed, cast lots, and ultimately chose Matthias as the one to take Judas’ place. Matthias was then counted as one of the twelve, and he joined the other apostles in spreading the message of Jesus Christ. The biblical account does not provide extensive details about Matthias’ activities or specific teachings, and he is not mentioned again in the New Testament after his selection. In art, Matthias does not have a well-defined or universally recognized symbol. While he is often depicted as one of the twelve apostles, his individual attributes or symbols are not as established or consistent as those of some other apostles.
The Apostle Paul, originally known as Saul, is recognized as one of the most influential and prolific writers of the New Testament. Paul’s life and teachings played a crucial role in the spread of Christianity. Before his conversion to Christianity, Paul was a zealous persecutor of early Christians. However, his life took a dramatic turn when he encountered a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. This encounter led to his conversion and subsequent dedication to spreading the Gospel. Paul’s epistles, or letters, form a significant part of the New Testament. They provide theological insights, practical guidance for Christian living, and address various issues faced by the early Christian communities. Paul’s teachings contributed significantly to the development of Christian theology and helped shape the early Christian community. His writings continue to be studied and revered by Christians worldwide.
In addition to his theological and missionary contributions, Paul also endured hardships and persecution for the sake of the Gospel. He was imprisoned multiple times, faced opposition from both Jewish and Roman authorities, and eventually died as a martyr, traditionally believed to have been executed in Rome. Rubens includes Paul in his series of apostles, as many other artists also did. The depiction of Paul with a sword is primarily influenced by his writings and teachings. In his letters, Paul frequently uses metaphors related to warfare and battle to describe the Christian life and the spiritual struggle against evil. He speaks of the “sword of the Spirit” as a metaphor for the Word of God, emphasizing its power and authority.
And hereunder the Caravaggio painting with the moment of the apostle Paul’s conversion as described in the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible. Paul (then still known as Saul) is shown falling from his horse and extending his arms to the blinding divine light that emanates from heaven, in a gesture of astonishment and surrender.
Peter and Paul
And to make the circle round, here is an El Greco painting that brings “Peter”, the first apostle, together with “Paul”, the last one. These two apostles are the most prominent figures in the early Christian community and have a common feast day. Peter, was chosen by Jesus as the leader of the apostles and is considered the first Pope. Paul, formerly a persecutor of Christians who underwent a profound conversion and became a significant evangelist and writer of several Epistles in the New Testament. The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul is observed on June 29 to commemorate the martyrdom of these apostles and to celebrate the role of these apostles in spreading the Gospel and establishing the early Christian Church. The feast is marked with special Masses and liturgical ceremonies, and it holds particular significance in Rome, where the Basilica of Saint Peter and the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls are dedicated to these saints.
Today August 15 is the official feast day of the “Assumption of Mary”. It’s a holiday in many, mostly Catholic, countries. But what is it about and how has it been depicted in art? This day is to celebrate that the Holy Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, is taken up into Heaven at the end of her earthly life. It’s not so much a historic event, but it’s deeply embedded in the Christian tradition, belief and faith. The historic element is that somewhere around the year 41, Mary passed away. From around the 3rd century the belief was added that the body of Mary was taken up into Heaven and in that sense she followed her son Jesus Christ, who was crucified and subsequently taken into Heaven about 10 years earlier. From the 5th century onwards, it was added that all the apostles were present at this very moment, which is depicted on the many paintings with Mary’s Assumption. They are the group of guys looking up in astonishment when Mary is taken into Heaven, up into the arms of God. On most paintings Mary goes up with the help of angels, like on the gigantic Titian altar piece, almost 7×4 meters, which is still on its original location in the Frari Church in Venice.
There is still an endless dispute about the moment just before the heavenly Assumption of Mary. Did Mary only fell asleep, the so-called “Dormition”, and then went up? Or did she actually also really die? The official Catholic dogma around the subject is not clarifying this element. Pope Pius XII proclaimed in 1950 that Mary indeed “completed her earthly life” and that her body and soul went up into heavenly glory. The Pope used his Papal authority to declare this dogma and did so with “Papal Infallibility”. He made not clear if Mary just fell asleep and went up, or if she also really died before going up into Heaven. On the Titian painting, Mary goes up into Heaven and no indication of the moment just before the Assumption. On the Carracci painting from the Prado, Madrid, Mary is ascending from a tomb, which would indicate that Mary indeed died. On the Rubens altar piece, still in its original location in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, the tomb is also present.
I think the Assumption of Mary is a beautiful belief and it’s great to depict this story. Every viewer of a painting with the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Christ, has a mother him- or herself and many viewers are also “mother” themselves. And all those mothers will one day pass away. It must have given – and still gives – a lot of comfort to know or believe that Mary, as the mother of all mothers, was taken up into heaven after her death. It gives hope to everyone, and certainly to our mothers, that one day they will follow Mary up into Heaven. August 15 is a public holiday, but it’s above all the ultimate and sacred Mother’s Day.
On the 4th of June 1674, death of Jan Lievens, Dutch Golden Age painter and friend, colleague and rival of Rembrandt. Only a year younger than Rembrandt, they grew up together in Leiden and shared a studio in Amsterdam. Rembrandt became the well known favorite of all times, and Lievens always stayed in his shadow. But let’s look now at Jan Lievens’ “Samson and Delilah” painted around 1632. The story is from the Old Testament (Judges 16: 17-20) and goes as follows. The Israelite Samson is the strong invincible super-hero. Delilah is a treacherous smart woman, bribed by the Philistines, who seduces Samson into telling her the secret of his heroic strength. He tells her that he will lose his strength when his hair will be cut. When Samson falls asleep on her lap, she hands a pair of scissors to a frightened Philistine and in the next scene Samson’s powerful hairlocks will be gone. This is a scene of terror and suspense. On the painting it’s the moment when Samson still has all his strength, and the Philistine guy knows that and looks pretty anxious. But Delilah is determined and Samson’s hair (and strength!) will be gone in a second. This subject appeals to the viewer for a few reasons. It’s about a strong muscled guy, who now sleeps like a baby and will be powerless very soon. It’s also about women being smart and able to seduce men. And there is a moral: strong as you may be as a man, you are weak in the arms of a beautiful woman. And Lievens is depicting the moment when Samson still has all his power and strength. It can all still go wrong! There is suspense in this part of the story!
Here is also a painting that’s actually more a sketch. Over the centuries this small painting has been attributed on and off to Rembrandt or to Lievens. There are endless discussions between historians of art who the artists is behind this painting. Its for sure from the Rembrandt/Lievens studio, from around 1626, and it shows again the terrifying moment just before the cutting of Samson’s hair. Currently this painting is attributed to Rembrandt.
In the days of Rembrandt and Lievens, artists were using prints as source of inspiration. It could very well be that the below print has been seen by Rembrandt and Lievens. It’s a print from 1611 by the Dutch artist Jacob Matham, after a painting by Rubens made in 1609. Most likely Lievens and Rembrandt have never seen the Rubens painting and only know the work through the Matham print. Rubens is depicting the moment of cutting the hair. But Rembrandt and Lievens choose the moment just before that, creating masterly that sense of terror and suspense. It can still go wrong! That’s like a Hitchcock thriller, but painted in the 17th century!
On the 30th of May, 1640, death of Peter Paul Rubens, the most important Baroque painter from the Flemish Netherlands. Rubens was not only a well-educated scholar and painter, but also businessman and diplomat. He made religious altarpieces, portraits of royalty, mythological paintings and hunting landscapes. All his paintings are impressive big pieces with lots of color and typical Baroque-emphasized movement and sensuality. He run a large studio in Antwerp which is now the Rubenshuis Museum.
Here are two of his paintings. It’s “The Descent from the Cross” (1613), which is the 4×3 meters magnificent central panel of a triptych, which is still in its original place in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium. The body of Christ is lowered from the cross, with very energetic support of Saint John (in the red mantle). Mary Magdalena is gracefully supporting Christ’ leg and Mary, a mother in despair, is stretching out her arms towards her son. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are placed on both sides of the scenel.
Also here is a 2×3 meters big painting of the legendary hero “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (1614). Chief counselor to the Persian king, Daniel fell victim to his jealous co-officials. They plotted against him and threw him into a den of lions. But that plot truly failed! Daniel keeps on staring up and praying towards the light of heaven. And he stayed unharmed! Next day he was freed without a single scratch. A strong moral: look up when things get you down; keep your head up and think positive!