Mythological Passions: Titian, Veronese, Allori, Rubens, Ribera, Poussin, Van Dyck, Velázquez, The Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Love, desire, and beauty are intimately connected in Greek and Roman mythology, dominating the lives of gods and mortals. The texts that focus on these themes – Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Virgil’s Aeneid, among many others – were revered by Renaissance and Baroque artists, who aimed to represent them in a powerfully expressive manner. The socially elite collectors who commissioned paintings on these subjects enjoyed their erotic content while delighting in their own classical culture.

Venus and Adonis by Paolo Veronese, ca. 1580, Collection of Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The following is Arthur Golding’s translation from 1922 of the section of the tenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the love story of Adonis and Aphrodite:

That son of sister and grandfather, who
was lately hidden in his parent tree,
just lately born, a lovely baby boy
is now a youth, now man more beautiful
825 than during growth. He wins the love of Venus
and so avenges his own mother’s passion.
For while the goddess’ son with quiver held
on the shoulder, once was kissing his loved mother,
it chanced unwittingly he grazed her breast
830 with a projecting arrow. Instantly
the wounded goddess pushed her son away;
but the scratch had pierced her deeper than she thought
and even Venus was at first deceived.
Delighted with the beauty of the youth,
835 she does not think of her Cytherian shores
and does not care for Paphos, which is girt
by the deep sea, nor Cnidos, haunts of fish,
nor Amathus far-famed for precious ores.
Venus, neglecting heaven, prefers Adonis
840 to heaven, and so she holds close to his ways
as his companion, and forgets to rest
at noon-day in the shade, neglecting the care
of her sweet beauty. She goes through the woods,
and over mountain ridges and wild fields,
845 rocky and thorn-set, bare to her white knees
after Diana’s manner. And she cheers
the hounds, intent to hunt for harmless prey,
such as the leaping hare, or the wild stag,
high-crowned with branching antlers, or the doe.–
850 she keeps away from fierce wild boars, away
from ravenous wolves; and she avoids the bears
of frightful claws, and lions glutted with
the blood of slaughtered cattle.
She warns you,
855 Adonis, to beware and fear them. If her fears
for you were only heeded! “Oh be brave,”
she says, “against those timid animals
which fly from you; but courage is not safe
against the bold. Dear boy, do not be rash,
860 do not attack the wild beasts which are armed
by nature, lest your glory may cost me
great sorrow. Neither youth nor beauty nor
the deeds which have moved Venus have effect
on lions, bristling boars, and on the eyes
865 and tempers of wild beasts. Boars have the force
of lightning in their curved tusks, and the rage
of tawny lions is unlimited.
I fear and hate them all.”
When he inquires
870 the reason, she says: “I will tell it; you
will be surprised to learn the bad result
caused by an ancient crime. — But I am weary
with unaccustomed toil; and see! a poplar
convenient offers a delightful shade
875 and this lawn gives a good couch. Let us rest
ourselves here on the grass.” So saying, she
reclined upon the turf and, pillowing
her head against his breast and mingling kisses
with her words, she told him the following tale:

Story of Atalanta

My dear Adonis keep away from all
such savage animals; avoid all those
which do not turn their fearful backs in flight
but offer their bold breasts to your attack,
1115 lest courage should be fatal to us both.
Indeed she warned him. — Harnessing her swans,
she traveled swiftly through the yielding air;
but his rash courage would not heed the advice.
By chance his dogs, which followed a sure track,
1120 aroused a wild boar from his hiding place;
and, as he rushed out from his forest lair,
Adonis pierced him with a glancing stroke.
Infuriate, the fierce boar’s curved snout
first struck the spear-shaft from his bleeding side;
1125 and, while the trembling youth was seeking where
to find a safe retreat, the savage beast
raced after him, until at last, he sank
his deadly tusk deep in Adonis’ groin;
and stretched him dying on the yellow sand.
1130 And now sweet Aphrodite, borne through air
in her light chariot, had not yet arrived
at Cyprus, on the wings of her white swans.
Afar she recognized his dying groans,
and turned her white birds towards the sound. And when
1135 down looking from the lofty sky, she saw
him nearly dead, his body bathed in blood,
she leaped down–tore her garment–tore her hair —
and beat her bosom with distracted hands.
And blaming Fate said, “But not everything
1140 is at the mercy of your cruel power.
My sorrow for Adonis will remain,
enduring as a lasting monument.
Each passing year the memory of his death
shall cause an imitation of my grief.
1145 “Your blood, Adonis, will become a flower
perennial. Was it not allowed to you
Persephone, to transform Menthe’s limbs
into sweet fragrant mint? And can this change
of my loved hero be denied to me?”
1150 Her grief declared, she sprinkled his blood with
sweet-smelling nectar, and his blood as soon
as touched by it began to effervesce,
just as transparent bubbles always rise
in rainy weather. Nor was there a pause
1155 more than an hour, when from Adonis, blood,
exactly of its color, a loved flower
sprang up, such as pomegranates give to us,
small trees which later hide their seeds beneath
a tough rind. But the joy it gives to man
1160 is short-lived, for the winds which give the flower
its name, Anemone, shake it right down,
because its slender hold, always so weak,
lets it fall to the ground from its frail stem.

Gill, N.S. “Adonis and Aphrodite.” ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020,

Titian was one of the painters who most influenced the rethinking of the Greco-Roman tradition in the Renaissance, for which reason he is the principal subject of this exhibition. The two series of mythological compositions that he painted for the Duke of Ferrara between 1516 and 1524 and for Philip II between 1552 and 1563 (the latter termed poesie by the artist) are among the most celebrated and influential of their time. The six compositions painted for Philip II have not been seen together in Spain since the late 16th century. Titian’s work influenced Veronese, Rubens, Poussin, Velázquez, Van Dyck and other artists, for whom returning to themes interpreted by their predecessor was a way of marking their own contribution to a pictorial genealogy to which they considered they belonged. The imagination of all these painters has given rise to a mythological universe of enormous variety and beauty.

The poesie are the six mythological works that Titian painted for Philip II of Spain between 1553 and 1562: Danaë (London, Wellington Collection), Venus and Adonis (Museo del Prado), Perseus and Andromeda (London, Wallace Collection), Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto (Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland/London, National Gallery), and The Rape of Europa (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum). By using the term poesie Titian was both associating himself with poets and proclaiming his liberty to interpret written sources, principally Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but also to substitute them with his own imagination when dramatic logic required.

The poesie were conceived to delight the senses – their erotic intent is evident – but also as displays of Titian’s skills and as vehicles for giving visual form to complex aesthetic ideas, such as painting’s ability to transmit emotions, its superiority over sculpture and the rival merits of colorito and disegno. The poesie are among the most influential paintings in the history of art, as evident in the works by Italian, Flemish and Spanish artists on display here.

In the 17th century a number of artists reinterpreted the classical, adapting and renovating them, as had happened since ancient times. While Rubens remained close to the classical spirit and its interpretation by Titian, Velázquez and Ribera translated these myths into a realist language, Poussin charged them with emotion and Van Dyck represented them with his characteristic elegance and sense of spectacle. All these painters shared the aim of presenting viewers with dynamic images relating to love and desire, emotions that could produce a turbulent combination of joy and suffering.

Explore the exhibition

Long form articles:

The Metamorphoses (Signet Classics)

Ovid; Gregory, Horace [Translator]; Myers, Sara [Introduction]; Gregory, Horace [Afterword];

Published by Signet (2009)

ISBN 10: 0451531450 ISBN 13: 9780451531452

The Iliad


Published by Penguin Classics (1998)

ISBN 10: 0140275363 ISBN 13: 9780140275360

The Odyssey of Homer


 ISBN 10: 0060931957 / ISBN 13: 9780060931957

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