5 Greek Myths You Should Know for Your Art

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Henri Matisse, Icarus

Greek myths have always captivated the imagination of artists. The trials of ancient Greek heroes and monsters have served as a source of inspiration for artists since the Renaissance. Although there is no single exposition of Greek mythology, sources such as Homer’s Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses provide an alternative history of mankind.

We want to describe five myths necessary for understanding Greek mythology, which was woven into the history of art.

Achilles

Achilles in Greek mythology is the hero of the Trojan War. He led the Greeks through the 10-year siege of Troy. One of his most notable feats is killing Hector. Achilles eventually falls victim to a prophecy predicting his death in Troy. In most versions of the story, the god Apollo directs the arrow of the Trojan Prince Paris into the heel of Achilles, his only vulnerable spot.

“It was the Greeks who invented the idea of beauty. Before their time a work of art was concerned with the problem of meaning and was a visible symbol of hieratic thought.”

Barnett Newman was particularly inspired by Greek mythology. Newman’s admiration of Greek civilization is particularly evident in Achilles (1952). It depicts a red vertical stripe surrounded by brown.

Barnett Newman, Achilles (1952)

Of course, there are more traditional takes on Achilles’ story by Gavin Hamilton or Andrea Mary Marshall.

Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan is perhaps one of the most perplexing tales in Greek mythology. In the myth, Zeus takes the form of a swan to rape Leda, the queen of Sparta, resulting in the birth of Helen.

It is also one of the most prominent Greek myths that echo across centuries of art history. The image of woman and bird, and the destruction it would bring, has captivated various artists over the years.

Leonardo da Vinci painted two versions of Leda and the Swan. But both have been lost. Around 1880, Paul Cézanne created his own Leda and the Swan, depicting a blonde woman staring at a swan biting her hand, a look of ambivalence upon her face.

Paul Cézanne, Leda and the Swan (Léda au cygne)

Icarus

In Greek mythology, Daedalus is known for the tragic death of his son Icarus, who inspired countless songs, poems, and works of art. Despite his father’s warnings, Icarus flew too close to the sun. He fell into the ocean and drowned. This is one of the Greek myths that is often told as an instructive story about the pitfalls of excessive pride and ambition.

The most famous depiction of Icarus by far is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (ca. 1555). It depicts a falling Icarus masked within a larger scene of domestic life on the seaside. The oil painting is attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. But some experts doubt its authenticity due to eccentricities in the work itself and the lack of a precise date or provenance for the painting.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (ca. 1555) Pieter Bruegel the Elder

 Henri Matisse created a more lighthearted depiction of Icarus in his cut-out from the illustrated book Jazz (1947).

Pandora’s Box

According to Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman on Earth. She was created in an act of vengeance.

Zeus, the king of the sky and the gods, was angry with the Titan Prometheus for creating man in the image of the gods and providing them with fire that he stole from heaven. Zeus ordered the god Hephaestus to create Pandora to exact revenge on Prometheus. Zeus gave her a box that he told her never to open. Pandora couldn’t resist the temptation and opened the box, releasing a score of plagues into the world, like disease, old age, and death.

French painter Odilon Redon was fascinated by women from classical Greek mythology. He painted Pandora several times. Pandora’s influence reaches into contemporary art as well. Filipino artist David Medalla, for example, created Cosmic Pandora Micro-Box (2010) by collecting objects he found during a residency in Brazil, like socks, a bar of soap, and oyster shells.

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