References to classical mythology are common in both painting and sculpture. For instance, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts holds a French sculpture of the Greek hero Theseus killing a centaur from 1855, an Italian Renaissance storage chest featuring Phaeton (a child of the sun god) and a French painting of the Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice from 1910.
Medieval art emphasised Christian rather than classical allusions, and ancient mythology had only a minor role. The sculptors and painters of the Italian Renaissance turned to the gods and heroes of Greek and Roman mythology in order to strike out in a different direction, rejecting the aesthetic of the medieval artists for a new form of art that mixed Christian and pagan imagery.
A Mix of Allusions
The artists of the Italian Renaissance painted mythological figures such as centaurs or even pagan deities such as Jupiter, Apollo and Venus into Biblical scenes like the Crucifixion or the Nativity. Mythological images were used as allegories for basic conflicts in human nature, such as the battle between Ratio (Reason) and Libido (Passion). Such allegories could also be seen as symbols of a struggle between worldly pagan ideals and the spiritual ideals of Christianity. However, the Renaissance fascination with pagan mythology was such that some even believed the heroes of mythology were to be found in the Christian Heaven, and bas relief sculptures portrayed Adam and Hercules side by side.
One of the greatest Renaissance artists to explore mythological themes was Sandro Botticelli. Botticelli used his art to express the philosophical ideals of Neoplatonism, a revival of the philosophy of Plato. Botticelli created three paintings of the goddess Venus, using them to express his conception of beauty while making allusions to contemporary events involving the powerful Medici family. Botticelli is now seen by art historians as a major influence on later traditions of mythological allusion.
Once the tradition of mythological allusion was established in Western art by the great artists of the Renaissance, it went on to influence painters and sculptors for several centuries. For example, the sculptor Rodin created a number of pieces based on the Roman writer Ovid's famous work of mythological tales known as "The Metamorphoses," including a sculpture of the Cyclops Polyphemus from the tale of Acis and Galatea.
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