Category Archives: Mythology in the High Renaissance

Research Point: Mythology in the High Renaissance

Myth 1 The Judgement of Paris


 Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) 1639 oil on canvas

The Greek God Zeus held a banquet to celebrate the marriage of Peleus and Thetis.  All the gods were invited except the goddess of discord ‘Eris’ who it was decided would blight the party for everyone.  She turned up anyway with a golden apple from the Garden of Hespirades on which was written “to the fairest” which she through into the gathering goddesses when she was evicted.

Aphrodite, Hera and Athena tried to lay claim to the apple and asked Zeus to judge which of them was the fairest.  He was obviously reluctant to choose between them so asked Paris, a Trojan mortal to decide.  With Hermes as their guide they each in turn offered Paris gifts  to bribe him.  Hera offered to make him King of Europe and Asia, Athena offered wisdom and skill in war and Aphrodite offered him the world’s most beautiful woman, Helene who’s subsequent abduction lead to the Trojan War.

Myth 2 Apollo and Daphne


Apollo, lover of Daphne by Poussin 1664

The myth starts with a meeting between Apollo and Eros who we know as Cupid.  Apollo had just won Python, an earth dragon and was arrogant in victory that he told Eros to leave weapons to mighty gods like him which infuriated Eros who took his revenge by unleashing two arrows.  A sharp gold-tipped one pierced Apollos’ heart and the other blunt, lead-tipped struck the nymph Daphne. Apollo fell in love with Daphne but she rejected him.   He kept pursuing her and so desperate was she to escape him that she pleaded for the help of her father, Peneus, who transformed her into a plant with a delightful scent called ‘laurel’ but is called ‘daphne’ in Greece.

Myth 3  Hero and Leander


The Parting of Hero and Leander (oil on canvas) by Turner, Joseph Mallord William (1775-1851)


Hero and Leander by William Etty (1787-1849)

Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite who lived in a tower on the European side of the Dardanelles who Leander fell in love with, but he lived on the opposite side of the straits.  Hero lit a lamp on the top of her tower each night so he could swim across to see her.  Hero gave in to Leander’s words of love and their affair lasted throughout the warm summer.  On a stormy winter night though the waves tossed him about in the sea and the winds blew out the light that was guiding him.  He lost his way and drowned.  When Hero saw his body she jumped over the edge of the tower to join him in death.

Although both artists have used the same myth the painting are completely different in style.  Turner’s is atmospheric compared with Etty’s in your face depiction of the myth.