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May 05, 2006
Writing about web page /teamcolour/entry/Mythology/
What was the appeal of classical mythology as a subject for artists and patrons?
Within the history of art the time of antiquity has set the foundations for the progression of painting, sculpture and architecture. The supremacy of Greek innovation and the strength of the Roman Empire have been felt throughout the ages as new archaeological findings have revealed more about the artistic merits of antiquity. It is these merits of design and formulation of artwork that has been further developed and continually referred to by artists of other centuries and therefore makes classical culture highly influential on contemporary times and artworks. Yet, the time that is more commonly associated with the revival of antiquity is that of the Renaissance, as the term itself, is defined as re–birth or revival which corresponds with the re–birth of classical culture, as shown by the resurgence classical mythology as a sole subject matter for art.
In classical literature, one of the most influential figures was that of Ovid. His epic poem “Metamorphosis” sets down the myths of the Roman gods, their actions and the subsequent consequences of their often detrimental behaviour. It is this work that was the basis for the depiction of classical mythology both in the time of antiquity but also succeeding centuries, most prominently that of the Renaissance as Svetlana Alpers describes it to have been the “painter’s bible”. “Metamorphosis” helped to change traditional subject matter in art from Christian depictions to that of the classical pagan mythology. This was a significant change in the art world as it strained the moral boundaries that had been upheld whilst artists had created works for religious patrons or the Church. Yet, classical mythology appeared to oppose moral behaviour as Ovid graphically described the seemingly immoral actions of the gods, an infamous example being that of the rape of Europa by the head of the Olympian gods, Jupiter, whilst posing in the disguise as a white bull. The early fourteenth century audience had previously revered the Christian works of the Middle Ages that had portrayed dominant themes of Christian beliefs, acting as a direct contrast to the more sexually and decadently charged works that came as a result of Ovid’s poem.
The Renaissance artists succeeded the tradition of depiction of biblical scenes taken from the Old and New Testament, leaving a limited scope of artistic licence as most scenes were based on the finality of mortal existence which held little interest for both artists and patrons. The introduction of classical mythology allowed a wider range of subject matter as portrayal of sexual love, civic pride unrelated to God and ambiguity over the power of God, as well as human possibilities, were exposed to the potential of the artist. Looking at Gianlorenzo Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne” the viewer is attentive to the moment in which Daphne begins her transformation. Alike to the work of Antoine Pallaiuolo, Bernini depicts the moment in which Apollo finally manages to make contact with Daphne but instead of feeling flesh he can see her skin slowly turn to bark as she is transformed into a tree to protect her from the overpowering god. This depiction of the actual transformation is unusual as Nigel Llewellyn supports the view that “few artists sees to the catch the moment of transformation” , as it was seen to be too contentious in the eyes of the Church as it went against the idea of 1 Corinthians 6:19, that the body is a temple given by God therefore meaning it should be treated in a respectful manner. Also this deformation of the human body did not adhere to the public idea of decorum in art as the human body was being distorted in full view of the spectator, therefore crossing boundaries of social convention and beliefs abut the sacred quality of the human body.
Despite the introduction of this more ostentatious subject matter the depiction of mythological scenes still fell under the category of history painting and resumed the most prominent position in the genre hierarchy. In this way the works of Titian, Rubens and Correggio were highly successful in attracting the attention, as well as the appreciation of patrons as “mythology was most obviously appealing in its rich repertoire of love stories” . Yet, attention was also gained from the church authorities who were concerned by the sexually explicit nature of these pieces, as seen by Correggio’s portrayal of Danäe as she sits nude in her bed chamber surrounded by cherubim, being produced but were unable to hinder the scale of popularity of the mythological paintings. In this way it became a show of power and wealth for patrons to commission works by prominent artists for the decoration of their palatial homes. When talking of artists, there is the understanding that unlike contemporary painters or sculptors today, artists before the sixteenth century were craftsman, rather than individuals who painted out of pleasure. The presence of patrons is highly important as it was this group of wealthy or influential characters that controlled the aesthetics and subject matter of an artwork as it was produced to become their property. This sense of ownership is a notable theme in the production of art works in the history of art as it was only a select group of people who could afford to commission works, therefore leaving a clear definition of class and monetary wealth within society.
Although boundaries of decorum were being pushed with works like Titian’s “Danäe and the Shower of Gold” , as the female protagonist lies naked on her bed in an overtly sexual position, a compositional set–up used by Correggio in his piece of the same title. Yet, despite the blatant eroticism of both pieces Titian’s works were described as poesie, meaning that they were symbolic and not a purely erotic visual. This was not a boundary that had been experienced with pieces artwork as the Middle Ages had concentrated on religious scenes which did not share the pagan and immoral connotations associated with classical mythology. Yet, this display of nudity and eroticism was not the stance all artists took in the conversion of literary myth to visual myth. The artist Edward Burne – Jones depicts the same myth of Danäe in his 1887 piece “Danäe and the Brazen Tower” , but depicts an earlier section of the myth leaving Danäe fully clothed in a more rigid and sculptural stance, therefore shifting the focus of the painting onto her emotional turmoil as her look of apprehension is evident as she looks onto the brazen tower being constructed in her father’s courtyard. In this way there was the appeal of the artist’s ability to interpret the different sections of the Metamorphosis poetry and as there was no visual guide it was left to the control of the artists, a new way of painting that led into the sixteenth century and progressed until the modern day.
The use of classical mythology was important for both artists and patrons alike as it incorporated a greater sense of elitism as those who would have commissioned a painting and those who would have executed the design would have had to have enough intelligence in order to translate and understand the Latin text set down before them by Ovid. This theme of classical mythology being used by artists in order to show intellectual superiority was used by the men training in France at the Ećole des Beaux Arts. This is described by the eighteenth century artist Jean–Baptiste–Siméon Chardin as he recounted how he would shed tears infront of the classical sculptures of the Satyr, Venus and Gladiator . This helped to educate young artists about the style of classical art as well as learn the mythology behind the scultpures they studied, thus it could be argued that it provided their work with a greater variety of influence and depth as the classical myths opened a range of poetic images that could be arranged by the artist without revoke as it was taken from literature rather than an exsting piece of art. This view is supported by Goncourt Brothers as they admit “…Ovid and Boucher. A page of the former has all the briliance, fire, the style and the appearacne if a canvas by the latter…”. This reveals how classical mytholgy was a challenge taken by artists as they wanted to capture the same spirit of literature in a compositional set–up. This desire that was furthured as Ovid’s standing in literature was as one of the most influential writers, thus if his work could be transferred to painting, the status of mythogical painting and the artist would be raised in turn.