The Most Famous Roman Mythology Paintings
Roman mythology encompasses a set of traditional stories centered on ancient origins and religious inclinations of the Roman Empire. These myths represented a core of their literature and visual arts and had an important social purpose since they reflected politics and proposed moral values. An important theme that was constantly explored was heroism, while the myths regarding religious practices were far more focused on the rituals, institutions than on cosmogony and theology.
Truth be told, the Roman mythology was largely influenced by the Greek one, and the Romans even used the term interpretatio graeca to underline the connection with the Greek divinities. The other relevant source of inspiration was the Etruscan religion. The best known Roman myth that summarizes the founding of the city of Rome and the Roman Kingdom involves Romulus and Remus feeding of the she-wolf.
After the Middle Ages, the Renaissance brought an entirely new paradigm based on the legacy of Antiquity, especially Latin literature. That is why artists would rather use Roman interpretations of the Greek myths as a primary source of exploration (for instance, Ovid’s versions of the Greek myths found in Metamorphoses were probably the most popular source throughout the entire era). Regardless of the mentioned interpretations, the Roman myths were significantly used and presented by various artists spanning from the late Renaissance through Romanticism, to Neoclassicism.
To get you familiarized with the some of the most dominating themes, we decided to feature six outstanding Roman mythology paintings below.
Featured image: Andrea Mantegna – Parnassus, 1497. Tempera on canvas, 160 x 192 cm (62.9 x 75.5 in). Louvre Museum. Image via creative commons.
Francisco Goya - Saturn Devouring His Son
The ghoulish composition titled Saturn Devouring His Son was made by the renowned Spanish painter Francisco Goya, often called the Last Old Master. This work was made in the late phase of the painter’s career when he was overwhelmed by the horrors of the Napoleonic wars and social turmoil that swept his country.
It depicts the Greek myth of the Titan Cronus (in the title Romanized to Saturn), who fears not to be overthrown by one of his children so he eats them after their birth. The painting belongs to the Black Paintings series that Goya painted and installed onto the walls of his house. After the painter’s death, the panels were detached, transferred to canvas and moved to the Museo del Prado in Madrid where they are being held ever since.
Featured image: Francisco Goya – Saturn Devouring His Son, c. 1819–1823. Oil mural transferred to canvas, 143 cm × 81 cm (56 in × 32 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image creative commons.
Peter Paul Rubens - The Feast of Venus
The miraculous Feast of Venus is a Roman Mythology painting by the most celebrated Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, known for his impressive large scale historical paintings commissioned by the courts around XVII century Europe.
The painting is a cheerful depiction of the Roman festival Veneralia that honors Venus Verticordia. Rubens was inspired by Titian and made a copy of his work The Worship of Venus that was based on the Imagines of the Greek sophist Philostratus of Lemnos. This book consisted of various descriptions of ancient paintings that decorated a third-century villa near Naples. Alongside Titian’s interpretation of Philostratus’s writtings, Rubens was also inspired by the fourth book of Ovid’s Fasti.
The Feast of Venus is held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
Featured image: Peter Paul Rubens – The Feast of Venus, 1636 – 1637. Oil on canvas, 2,170 x 3,500 mm (85.43 in x 11.48 ft). Kunsthistorisches Museum. Image creative commons.
Sandro Botticelli - Venus and Mars
Although the exact date is not known, the scholars suggest that in between 1483 and 1485, the Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli painted Venus and Mars. The renowned master produced his best-known work The Birth of Venus just a couple of years before this equally outstanding work.
It is a panel painting that depicts the Roman gods Venus, goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war, found in the situation of forest leisure surrounded by playful satyrs. The artwork stands as an allegory of beauty and valor, and it is believed that it celebrated a wedding. This presumption is suggested by the wide format and the close view of the figures. It is widely interpreted as a divine representation of sensuous love that can be found in the National Gallery in London since 1874.
Featured image: Sandro Botticelli – Venus and Mars, circa 1483. Tempera on panel, 69 x 173.5 cm (27.1 x 68.3 in). National Gallery. Image creative commons.
Caravaggio - Amor Vincit Omnia
Here we have Amor Vincit Omnia (Love Conquers All or Victorious Cupid) by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, best known for his technical virtuosity and queer interpretation of classical themes.
This particular work features a standing nude of winged Amor, the Roman Cupid. This entity is surrounded by the emblems of all human endeavors such as musical instruments, armor, square and compasses, pen and manuscript under his foot. The theme is an actual illustration of the line “Omnia vincit amor et nos cedamus amori” (“Love conquers all; let us all yield to love!”) from Virgil’s Eclogues X.69. It is suggested that the painting refers to the domains of Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani, whose family ruled the island of Chios; this nobleman was enchanted with music and painting, a constructor at the time, and an astronomy scholar.
Featured image: Caravaggio – Amor Vincit Omnia (Cupid as Victor), circa 1601. Oil on canvas, 156.5 x 113.3 cm (61.6 x 44.6 in). Gemäldegalerie. Image creative commons.
Andrea Mantegna - Parnassus
This particular painting titled Parnassus by the celebrated Italian master Andrea Mantegna was made in 1497 for Isabella d’Este’s studiolo (cabinet) in the Ducal Palace of Mantua. It was given to Cardinal Richelieu by Duke Charles I of Mantua in 1627 together with the other paintings in the cabinet. That is how it entered the royal collections with Louis XIV of France, and later became part of the Louvre Museum.
The theme was suggested by the court poet Paride da Ceresara, and the interpretation of the work is found in a late 15th-century poem by Battista Fiera, who described it as a representation of Mount Parnassus, including the allegory of Isabella as Venus and Francesco II Gonzaga as Mars.
Featured image: Andrea Mantegna – Parnassus, 1497. Tempera on canvas, 160 x 192 cm (62.9 x 75.5 in). Louvre Museum. Image creative commons.
Jacques-Louis David - Mars Being Disarmed by Venus
Last but not least, Mars Being Disarmed by Venus was made by a highly established painter Jacques-Louis David, who had a reputation of a master of historical painting, as well as of a trendsetter. He was a supporter of the French Revolution; however, after the political shifts in France during the late XVIII century, David quickly became affiliated with Napoleon, The First Consul of France. That is when the painter promoted Empire style, which was in vogue for quite some time.
Mars Being Disarmed by Venus was produced between 1822 and 1824 while David lived in self-exile in Brussels, before dying in an accident a year later. This large scale painting depicts Venus, the goddess of love, taking off weaponry from Mars, the god of war. She is helped by the three Graces and Cupid, while the god relaxes overpowered by the beautiful goddess. David was inspired by the performers seen in the Théâtre de la Monnaie.
The painting was sent to an exhibition in Paris from his exile, where it was saluted for its power. Since 2007, it has been on public display in the main hall of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
Featured image: Jacques-Louis David – Mars Being Disarmed by Venus, 1824. Oil on canvas, 308 x 265 cm (10.1 ft 104.3 in). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Image creative commons.