Mythological paintings. The main characters and symbols

Botticelli Spring

Ancient Greek myths are exciting adventures of gods, heroes, and evil creatures. They are interesting in every respect.

They are more entertaining than Hollywood blockbusters and give an opportunity to understand a completely different mindset of people of pre-Christian civilization.

But not only ancient authors gave us knowledge about mythology.

Artists who lived before the Common Era, also created lots of frescos depicting mythological plots. And some of them managed to survive down to our days.

A fresco in Stabiae
Dionysus (Bacchus) meets Ariadne on the island of Naxos. A fresco in Stabiae, Villa Ariadne, 1 BC

However, for almost 1.5 thousand years myths disappeared from the art.

They we reintroduced in painting only during the Renaissance era. In the 15th century in Rome, sculptures from the Roman Empire era were discovered and excavated (copies of works by ancient Greek masters).

People got interested in ancient Greece. Reading of the ancient authors became fashionable and later mandatory.

And as soon as in the 16-17 centuries, myths became one of the most popular topics for paintings.

Mythological paintings for the modern audience

When visiting a museum, you will hardly stay long in front of the paintings depicting mythological plots. For one simple reason.

We don’t know much about ancient Greek myths.
Of course, we know Hercules. Have heard about Perseus and Andromeda. And can remember a couple of ancient gods like Zeus and Athena.

But who can now boast of reading Homer’s Odyssey at least? Personally I read it only when I was 33.

And if you don’t understand the plot of a painting, it will hardly be able to enjoy it, since you’ll face a barrier of bewilderment “And who are all these people?”

However, if the plot is clear, the pictural features immediately open up before our perceiving eyes.
This article is a small collection of mythological paintings.

At first, I will help you to understand their characters and symbols. And then, we will enjoy all the excellency of these masterpieces together.

1. Botticelli. Spring

Botticelli Spring
Sandro Botticelli. Spring. 1478. The Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Botticelli was the first of European artists (after ancient Greeks and Romans) who began to paint mythological characters.

Botticelli’s mythological paintings are sometimes unflatteringly called pictural comics. The characters are depicted in a row. They don’t interact with each other. They lack only their speech frames.

But it was Botticelli who after 1.5 thousand years was the first to depict myths. So we won’t blame him for that.

Moreover, such a linear position does not prevent Botticelli’s “Spring” from becoming one of the most beautiful paintings in the world.

At the same time, “Spring” is one of the most mysterious paintings. It has lots of interpretations.

I have chosen the one that personally I believe to be the most plausible. And added a bit of my own reflections to it.

You can read about the painting in the article: “Spring” by Botticelli. The main characters and symbols of the masterpiece”.

2. Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne

Titian Bacchus and Ariadne
Titian. Bacchus and Ariadne. 1520-1523. The National Gallery, London

In the Renaissance era, Botticelli was followed by many artists who depicted myths. However, Titian was the most prolific.

His myths are completely different. He depicted full-fledged stories like “Bacchus meets Ariadne on the island of Naxos”.

His paintings are full of harsh movements, such as the god of wine jumping from his cart at the beauty’s feet.

We can see emotions expressed in poses, like Ariadne’s surprise and fear. At the same time, the background landscape is realistic.

About the painting you can read in the article: “Bacchus and Ariadne. The main characters and symbols of the Titian’s masterpiece”.

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3. Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda

Rubens Perseus and Andromeda
Peter Paul Rubens. Perseus and Andromeda. 1622. The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

After Titian, mythological paintings finally came into fashion. The next generations of artists have learned all the lessons of the great master.

However, they made the compositions much more complicated.

The above-mentioned Rubens literally threw his characters’ bodies together. And we see an incredible interweaving of arms, heads, and legs.

That is why it is so difficult for us to enjoy the mythological paintings of the 17th century. Not only are the plots unknown, but we need to make out the characters.

But I have studied one of Rubens’ works in detail. Read about it in the article: “Perseus and Andromeda. The main characters and symbols of the painting by Rubens”.


Thus, the golden years of mythological paintings is 16-17 centuries.

In the 18th century, they were slightly challenged by completely earthy and sweetest Rococo beauties.

And by the end of the 19th century they were forced out by realism and impressionism. Myths were completely out of fashion.

But mythological paintings are still hanging in museums. After all, they are an extremely important cultural layer. And only small gaps in our knowledge prevent us from enjoying them to the full.

I hope I have helped you a little to understand them. Which means that your next visit to a museum will be much more pleasant for you.


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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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