Tag: Titian

Zeus and Callisto

Zeus and Callisto

“…and Hera, the Great Bear and the Smaller Bear”

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.

Artemis (Diana) and her companion nymphs; Callisto was one of them. Diana can be recognised by the crescent moon worn as a tiara (c.1653).
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632 – 1675), 98x105cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague.
Artmis (Diana) and her Nymphs; Artemis with the crescent moon on her head (1702).
Willem van Mieris (Dutch, 1662 – 1747), 44×57cm, Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede, The Netherlands.

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.

Zeus (Jupiter), disguised as Artemis (Diana), even with the crescent mon on his/her head, seduces the nymph Callisto. The symbol of Zeus is the eagle and the arrows, which can be seen just behind Zeus, who now has the form and shape of Artemis (1727).
Jacob de Wit (Dutch, 1695 – 1754), 240x205cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Zeus in the Guise of Artemis (Diana), and the Nymph Callisto; Zeus’ eagle can be seen just behind the pink cloth (1759).
François Boucher (French, 1703 – 1770), 58x70cm), The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO.

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.

Diana and Callisto; the pregnancy discovered. Diana on the left side, with the crescent moon on her head (c.1635). Most paintings have in their museum-titles “Diana” opposed to “Artemis”, but the two goddesses are the same; Artemis the Greek version and Diana the Roman one. Detail not to be missed on this Rubens painting is Diana’s enslaved servant.
Peter Paul Rubens (Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577 – 1640), 203x326cm, Prado, Madrid.
Diana and Callisto; after Callisto’s pregnancy has been dicovered, she is sent away by Diana (c.1557).
Tiziano Vecellio (Italian c.1487 – 1576), 188x205cm, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh and the National Gallery, London.

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.

Hera still wants to take revenge and changes Callisto into a Bear. On the left the peacock-carriage in which Hera descended from the sky. On the right the next moment from this episode, Callisto, now as a bear, walks away. (1590).
Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558 – 1617), Engraving, 18×26cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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.

Many years later, when Callisto is wandering around as a bear, her son Arcas is hunting and encounters a bear; his mother, and Arcas doesn’t know that (c.1725).
Sebastiano Ricci (Venetian, 1659 – 1734), 65x54cm, latest at Sotheby’s London 2019.

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.

Callisto (as a bear) is hunted by her son Arcas. On the top right side, Zeus (with the eagle) is inviting Callisto and Arcas into the sky, where they will be the Great Bear and the Smaller Bear, the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor star constellations. (1590).
Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558 – 1617), Engraving, 18×26cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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.

Juno complaining to Oceanus and Thetis, ordering the sea gods to never let the Great Bear and Smaller Bear wash themselves in the ocean, to never have these star constellations sink into the sea (1590).
Hendrick Goltzius (Dutch, 1558 – 1617), Engraving, 18×26cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA.

Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Smaller Bear)

Map (c.1760) with the constellations of the Northern Hemisphere; Ursa Major, the Big Bear and on this map as La Grande Ourse on the left bottom and Ursa Minor, the Smaller Bear and on this map as La Petite Ourse, in the centre of the map (c.1760).
Phillipe de la Hire (French, 1640 – 1718), hand colored engraving, 50x50cm, The Barry Lawrence Ruderman Map Collection, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.

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.

The seven bright stars from the constellation Ursa Major (“the Big Bear”) together forming the Big Dipper; four stars forming the bowl and three stars forming the handle.
The Starry Night “La Nuit Étoilée” by Vincent van Gogh. It’s the starry night above the river Rhone. With in the center of the sky a bright depiction of the Big Bear (1888).
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853 – 1890), 73x92cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

Polaris (North or Pole Star)

Ursa Major (Callisto, the Great Bear), Ursa Minor (Arcas, the Smaller Bear) and 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.
Europa

Europa

How Europe got its name…

The European and Asian continent are both named after female characters from Greek mythology. Let’s have a closer look at “Europa” and her representation in art. It’s all about a beautiful princess who is abducted by a divine bull and gives her name to a whole continent.

Nöel-Nicolas Coypel (1690 – 1734), “The Abduction of Europa” (1722), 90×102cm, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond VA.

The story about Europa (Εὐρώπη in Greek) is simple. She was a beautiful princess from the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre, located on the southern coast of Lebanon. One day, Europa and her friends were picking flowers and playing on the beach. Zeus – or Jupiter, the Roman version – sees her and immediately falls in love. As King of the Gods and having a reputation for endless affairs, Zeus decides to take what he wants. He transforms himself into a marvelous bull with a snow-white body and walks towards the girls. Charmed by the bull’s docile behavior, the girls start petting him and decorate him with garlands of flowers. The bull Zeus lays down at Europa’s feet and pretends to be the most kind and gentle animal ever. Encouraged by her friends, Europa thinks she might ride such gentle beast and climbs on the animal’s back. Of course, this is exactly what Zeus had planned. Now he can abduct Europa!

Jean François de Troy (1679 – 1752), “The Abduction of Europa” (1716), 66x82cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Zeus gets up and slowly starts walking around. Soon however, the bull Zeus accelerates his pace and eventually breaks into a gallop, with Europa clinging on for her life. The King of the Gods and the frightened princess reach the seaside and dive into the sea, leaving Europa’s bewildered friends behind. Europa could do nothing but hold on in fear.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), “The Abduction of Europa” (1632), 65×79cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

The bull swam with her on his back, all the way from the coast of Lebanon to the isle of Crete. Here the Greek god regained his human form and, under a cypress tree, made love with Europa. She became pregnant and gave birth to three sons of Zeus, all becoming kings and famous heroes. Europa married the King of Crete, became Queen and she lived happily ever after. The story about Europa is a classic Greek tragedy, but this time with a happy ending.

Titian (1488–1576), “The Abduction of Europa” (c1560), 178x205cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston MA.

Europa riding the bull of Zeus was a popular subject in art. The earliest Greek reference is in Homer’s Iliad from the 8thcentury BC. The Roman poet Ovid (born 43 BC) describes the story in his Metamorphoses. Hereunder a fresco from the Casa di Giasone in Pompeii, dated before 79 AD as that’s the year when Pompeii was buried under 5m of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Pompeii, Casa di Giasone, “Europa seated on the Bull” (1st century AD), Fresco, 125x95cm, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples. Several frescos from the Casa di Giasone (House of Jason; Reg IX, Ins 5, 18-21) have been preserved and can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The house itself is in a seriously dilapidated condition having been neglected and left to the ravages of the elements since its initial excavation in 1878.

The abduction of Europa has long been a great source of inspiration for artists. Many of those produced superb works of art, but only a few have made serious attempts to tell this story faithfully to the myth. With two actors: Europa, a fair maiden, and a white bull, which the viewer must recognise as Zeus (or Jupiter) in disguise, and a setting full of suspense and male dominance. Most artists skipped the suspense part and turned the story into a fairytale image of beauty and romance.

Meissen Manufactory (Germany), “Europa and the Bull” (c.1760), Porcelain with colored enamel decoration, 2221x13cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, MA.

The story of Europa and Zeus is indeed an excellent subject for a light, pastoral and joyful scene with semi-nudeness, garlands of flowers, and stress-free pastime, like the Meissen figurine above or the painting by Jean-Baptiste Pierre hereunder. It’s in strong contrast to the paintings by Titian and Rembrandt which follow the myth more precisely. They depict a bewildered Europa raising the alarm to her companions on the shore, who watch helplessly and stare at the departing princess in horror. Europa holds on to the bull, not because she wants to, but because she would otherwise fall and drown. She was tricked by a friendly bull, one who coaxed her into taking a ride, one she even crowned with flowers before she realized who he was: a bullyish God! 

Jean-Baptiste Pierre (1714–1789), “The Abduction of Europa” (1750), 244× 276cm, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas TX.

Jean-Baptiste Pierre was First Painter to King Louis XV of France. His painting is a typical rococo confection, here is no serious drama anymore; it’s a lighthearted, elegant and frivolous composition. Few painters felt it necessary to include the eagle in their paintings of Europa. The eagle is the symbol of Zeus and Jean-Baptiste Pierre does this favour to the viewer, to be sure we will not miss the plot. Although he seems to have ignored the fact that the bull was white.

The ancient Greeks first applied the word Europa to the geographical area of central Greece and then the whole of Greece. By 500 BC, Europa signified the entire continent of Europe (although the Greeks were only really familiar with the areas around the Mediterranean) with Greece at its eastern extremity. The story of Princess Europa starts with her abduction from the shores of Lebanon, becoming Queen of Crete, giving her name to – and thus being godmother of – the European continent, and indirectly being the name-giver for the Euro! And on top of that, the story of the abduction of Europa is depicted on the modern Greek two Euro coin! 

Assumption of Mary

Tiziano “Titian” Vecelli (1488 – 1576), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1516), 690x360cm, Oil on Panel, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice.

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.

Annibale Carracci (1560 – 1609), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1587), 130x97cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

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.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “The Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1626), 490x325cm, Oil on Panel, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp.

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.