Western culture has always been extremely interested in the mythic figures and stories of antiquity. For hundreds of years, mythologies of all kinds have been a staple subject of many art masterpieces and have contributed to a long tradition of epic narratives in art. From the Abrahamic religions to western mythologies, the stories we have used in the past to understand our place in the universe have all contributed to stunning works of consummate genius. These stories have informed our culture since their inception and have contributed to countless works of art. In order to better understand this rich and vibrant tradition, here are some of the most famous examples of mythology in art and the origins of their interesting stories.
Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam
Drawing on his own religion’s creation myth, Michelangelo created one of the most enduring artistic masterpieces ever to be composed, utilizing the biblical story of the creation of Adam as an integral part. While simply one mural among many, The Creation of Adam can be seen as the most important – not only due to its popularity, but also due to the significance of the story of Adam.
Taking place before the fall, this work focuses on the moment that God is ready to seemingly stamp his signature on humanity – Adam, freshly created, reaches his hand out to greet his creator and the artist-God reaches down, ready to finish the holy task. The mural captures this moment in its breathtaking anxiety – the fingers will never touch, no matter how much we want them to. The biblical creation of humankind is so important that the bible features the story twice – one of the many confusing passages in the scriptures – but Michelangelo’s treatment gives new, concrete life to the tale such as all his art masterpieces.
It is believed that Michelangelo’s inspiration derived from the biblical quote, “God created Man in his own image, in the image of God He created him,” and, indeed, no grander story could reasonably be told. Michelangelo tells the entire story of Christianity in the Sistine Chapel, and this piece in particular offers us the ability to more fully understand the myth as a whole. While continually referenced and parodied in numerous ways, there is no way to underscore the beauty and craftsmanship of this beautiful masterpiece.
Rodin’s The Kiss
Once again drawing on Christian mythology, Rodin’s famous sculpture concerns itself with a topic most don’t generally associate with it: Hell itself. The sculpture, originally a part of a larger work, The Gates of Hell, was reproduced by itself to the stand-alone form it maintains to this day.
The Kiss was not the first name for this sculpture, which was “Francesca da Rimini.” The name hearkens back to Dante’s Inferno where a noblewoman, Francesca, falls in love with her husband’s younger brother. They fall in love with each other while reading the tale of Guinevere and Lancelot, until they are unfortunately discovered and killed by the enraged husband. The book of stories, in fact, is in the hand of the lover in the statue as well.
The two, much the same way as Michelangelo’s Adam, never actually kiss – their heads are still slightly apart, giving the impression that the tragic murder of these lovers happened too quickly, not even giving them enough time to indulge in their sin for a moment. Despite this fact, the French public thought that the blatant sexuality of the piece (indeed, in the original version, the lover is in an excited and obvious arousal) was inappropriate, and the controversy surrounding the sculpture affected its showings.
While ostensibly a dark subject matter, utilizing Dante’s Inferno to portray a beautiful and timeless image of romance, passion, and love was one of the elements that made The Kiss such an astounding work among the art masterpieces. The myth of the Inferno has many bleak and dreadful elements, but the beauty in it can also rise to the surface.
Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus
The mythical Venus (the Roman name for the Greek god Aphrodite) was born from the foam of the sea, coming to shore in a seashell to begin her life as the goddess of love and fertility. Her attendant waits for her to come closer so she can dress her body as she is blown to shore. Botticelli was patronized to create his work, and he delivered one of the most famous and most beautiful venerations of Greek/Roman myth to date. It is difficult to study art in any form and not, at one point or another, find some parody or variation of the famous masterpiece.
Composed between 1482 and 1485, this landmark of 15th century Italian painting is a cultural milestone that venerates one of the oldest storytelling traditions in the western world. The Medici family is responsible for the commission of this masterpiece and, indeed, one can even interpret the painting as a tribute to them.
By utilizing the awe-inspiring myths of the classical world and mixing in his raw talent and vision, Botticelli was able to create art masterpieces as well as an enduring work that is firmly affixed to the cultural tradition and shows no signs of wavering.
Keeping in theme with the Greeks, another example of a brilliant blend of classical storytelling with contemporary (at the time) composition, style and skill is the painting of Narcissus by Caravaggio, painted between 1597 and 1599. It depicts the fateful instant where Narcissus bends over the pool of water to catch a glimpse of himself before falling fatally in love with the image.
As the story goes, a wood nymph, Echo, fell in love with a young boy named Narcissus. She would tease and play with him, hiding in the bushes, as he walked around the woods. Narcissus called to her, urging the wood nymph to meet, but she was too smitten and unable to proceed. Finally mustering up the courage, she threw herself at him only to be brutally rejected. Facing humiliation, sadness and anger, Echo killed herself by jumping off a cliff.
Narcissus eventually was cursed for his indifference and wasted away looking at his image in a pond of water, after believing it the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
This brilliant piece of art is being housed at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome and is yet another reminder of the power and beauty of the classic art masterpieces put into physical form. Not only did Narcissus become enraptured with the watery image of himself, but he, to this day, convinces us to be just as taken aback by the same vision.
James Doyle Penrose’s The Punishment of Loki
A turn from the more well-known mythological stories, in The Punishment of Loki, Penrose captured the fear, desperation and anguish of a subdued and tortured Norse god in his great work. Penrose was an Irish painter during the early 20th century and several of his works focus on the power and wonder of Norse mythology.
In the myth, the trickster god Loki plotted the death of his fellow god Baldur and slandered the names of the rest of the pantheon. The other gods, being tired of Loki and his treacheries, went out to capture him. In a series of shape-shifts and cunning tricks, Loki is eventually caught by his peers, then taken into a deep, dark cave. He was then lashed to the rocks, underneath a poisonous serpent, who would drip venom into his eyes until the end of the world, Ragnarok.
It is interesting to see the representations of all myths, including those that are slightly less well-known – despite having far less literature available to most western countries, Norse mythology still can inspire all kinds of emotions in its audience. The power and beauty of this work should always be kept in mind when we think of all the potential stories to tell and art masterpieces.
Art masterpieces are a vehicle for storytelling
While it is true that art is more overtly conceptual than literature (especially during the Modern period and beyond), it still does not diminish the importance of our mythological histories. Art, throughout the centuries, has been a way that we can converse with the past and with the future by depicting stories that are timeless and incredibly important to our collective culture. These stories maintain their value and their entertainment qualities because we still give them the reverence and attention they deserve – in return, they allow our great masters the canvas to apply their skill and dedication to. Epic stories need epic artists to tell them (just look at Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, for instance!) and these fantastic art masterpieces are simply several in a long tradition of epic storytelling. From paintings and sculptures to film and music, these mythical stories are still being told to this very day and will continue to be told forever onwards so long as the stories are not forgotten.
Judging by the way that mythology tends to crop up into everything, it’s hard to believe that these epic stories are going to go away anytime soon.