Through artwork, the stories of Greek heroes and heroines have been immortalized. Here are 11 artworks that are unmissable when exploring the visual memory of myth.
Greek Heroes in Art: The Dying Achilles
The great hero Achilles is depicted here in this artwork. This demigod was the most skilled of the Greek heroes who fought against the Trojans in the epic Trojan War. Achilles is most remembered for being felled by an arrow to the heel. Hence, the “Achilles tendon” is a muscle in the ankle named after him.
“Achilles, without his heel, you wouldn’t even know his name today.” –
This sculpture by Christophe Veyrier captures the pivotal moment when Achilles is struck by the fatal arrow. The little putto attempting to remove the arrow often depicted divine destiny in Renaissance art. In the myth, Achilles was fated to die while fighting at Troy, and so the putto reflects Achilles’ fatal destiny as decreed by the gods. The medium of sculpture shows how this fate is immovably fixed in stone. Equally, the putto could represent Achilles’ own half-divine status, as his mother was Thetis.
“[Achilles:] If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies.”
(Iliad, Homer, 9.412-5.)
Achilles is a venerated hero for his representation of the human condition: no matter how much glory one accumulates, one must die eventually. The humanistic and realistic style of Veyrier’s Dying Achilles encapsulates the human pain in the contorted facial features and the backward arch of the body. The hand on the putto’s head is carved to show a seizure of agony. All these details together illustrate the pain of human experience and the inevitability of mortal death.
In Greek mythology, Antigone was a Greek heroine who was extremely devoted to her brother, Polynice. During the civil war of Thebes, Polynice was killed. After his death, King Creon decreed that he would not be buried. In ancient Greek culture, this meant that Polynice’s soul could not find peace in the afterlife. Antigone defied her uncle, Creon, by sneaking out of the city at night and performing the funeral rites for her brother. Sophocles, an ancient Athenian playwright, wrote the play Antigone which dramatizes Antigone’s valiant efforts to defy her King in order to follow her heart, and help her brother.
“At least he is my brother… I will not prove false to him.” –
Sophocles, Antigone ll.44-45
This painting by Rubens exhibits the moment when Antigone is discovered giving the burial to her brother. In punishment, Antigone is sentenced to death. Even with impending death, Antigone never regretted her actions and continued to profess her integrity until her last breath.
She tells Creon that he is wrong not to forgive Polynices enough to let him rest in peace:
“All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” –
Sophocles, Antigone ll.804-806
The Heroics of Ariadne and Theseus
This artwork shows the doubtful integrity of some Greek heroes… The figure on the right is Theseus and he is abandoning Ariadne (reclining figure) on an island despite the help she gave him on his quest. Ariadne was a Greek heroine and princess of Crete. When Theseus was sent into the Labyrinth to be killed by the Minotaur, Ariadne saved Theseus’ life by giving him a ball of string. Without this string, Theseus would never have found his way back out of the unnavigable passages.
The putti in this piece depict erotic love and so illustrate the passion that brought Theseus and Ariadne together. When Theseus had arrived on the island, he and Ariadne had desired each other at first sight; Theseus promised to marry Ariadne if he survived the labyrinth.
The figure in the middle is a Herm. In ancient Greek culture, herms were placed at crossings and borders because they were thought to ward off evil. The significance of this artwork is perhaps that Ariadne and Theseus are at this point set on different paths in their lives. Their continued union would perhaps be harmful for their destinies. While Ariadne later found love with the god Dionysius and so was deified, Theseus’ fate was to return to Athens to become King.
The artists’ brown ink pen with brown wash over graphite blends the colors together, illustrating a soft, slumbering scene while also portraying the shrouded deceit of betrayal. The ball of string lays cast aside at the foot of the couch, and a ship awaits Theseus.
The Greek Heroes Penthesilea and Achilles
Pottery painting was an ingenious way of immortalizing Greek heroes and heroines because amphoras were household, everyday items. As the images would be frequently looked upon, the stories would be remembered. The art on these amphoras depicts the Amazons, a race of warrior women. On the left image, Penthesilea is battling Achilles in the Trojan War. Penthesilea was the Queen of the Amazons, and daughter of Ares, the god of War. The Amazons had come to aid the Trojans after Hector’s defeat and to win glory for themselves.
“And [Penthesilea], as a rushing blast of flame she seemed that maddeneth through the copses summer-scorched, when the wind drives it on; and in this wise spake one to other in their mustering host : ‘Who shall this be? Who thus can rouse to war the Trojans, now that Hektor hath been slain?…’”
Quintus Smyrnaeus, Fall of Troy.
The Amazons were a formidable opponent for the Greek army, but eventually, Penthesilea was defeated by their greatest warrior — Achilles. The image on the left depicts this moment during their one-to-one battle. The amphora on the right depicts two Amazon warriors. The Amazons were an all-female tribe who lived in North-Eastern Greece. They were famous for their prowess in battle and were especially skilled at fighting on horseback.
“Amazones have joyed in ruthless fight, in charging steeds, from the beginning […] They fall not short of men in anything: their labor-hardened frames make great their hearts for all achievement: never faint their knees nor tremble.”
Theano in Fall of Troy by Quintus Smyrnaeus.
The Amazons have inspired many creative arts, such as the creation of the Wonder Woman comic. In this comic, the titular character, also named Diana Prince, is an Amazon warrior who fights for justice; her character maintains the immortality of the Amazon myth.
Herakles was a cultural favorite of the ancient Greeks. Different city-states would take his myth and adapt it in their own style, so that Herakles could be a hero for everyone. The first image depicts infant Herakles strangling two snakes. The myth here is that Hera — his stepmother — sent the two snakes to kill Herakles because she was jealous of Zeus’ infidelity which had led to Herakles’ birth. Thanks to his god-like strength, Herakles was able to defend himself. This was the first sign of his divine heritage and set him up as a hero with great potential.
The statue of Herakles on the right as a full-grown adult shows Herakles in his prime. The lion-skin draped over his head and shoulders represents one of Herakles’ most famous battles: defeating the Nemean Lion. This is a reference to the Twelve Labours, which were a series of tasks designed to be impossible, but Herakles managed to prevail in each one. The two statues seen side-by-side are a poignant visual depiction of childhood to adulthood. As a babe, Herakles was innocently defending himself, and by adulthood, he had become a conqueror. Greek heroes often had astonishing childhood stories that hinted at their future heroic destinies.
Below is also an image from Disney’s 1997 film Hercules, which further immortalizes the myth for modern audiences.
Delony depicts Psyche here as an empowered woman in her painting. In contrast to the demure depictions of women popular in the 19th century, Delony instead has painted Psyche with an illuminated power in this painting. The moment illustrated here is Psyche’s ascent from the Underworld, having traversed the dangerous place on her task to retrieve the box of endless sleep. The three-headed dog, Cerberus, who was the guardian of Hades, stands by her feet in the painting. This echoes her fortitude and courage.
Having risen from the dark depths of the Underworld, this is analogous to the soul’s freedom from death. In Psyche’s myth, she was freed from death when she was granted immortality as a reward for persevering through her difficult trials. Psyche is often given butterfly wings as a representation of the metamorphosis taking place in her myth: her transformation from mortal to immortal, her own personal progression from her trials, death, and resurrection. Her example shows how humans must experience tribulations in their life to experience and relish rewards.
For her trials in life, she became the goddess of the human soul. In Ancient Greek culture, the “soul” was believed to be a force that animates the organism. Thus, Psyche’s wings demonstrate a visual depiction of the animated life.
This print is an etching and engraving of the Odyssey Book 12. The Odyssey is a poem about the adventures of Odysseus — the cleverest of Greek heroes — on his return home from the Trojan War. In this scene, Odysseus and his companions are sailing past the Sirens, who are half-woman, half-bird creatures that sing enchanting melodies to lure sailors to their island. Once close enough, the Sirens would pounce and devour the entranced men.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus wanted to hear the song of the sirens, because those who survive it were supposed to be blessed with wisdom and secret knowledge. Pietro Aquila illustrates Odysseus’ clever plan: Odysseus himself was strapped to the mast of the ship, and his companions molded wax into their ears to block out the Sirens’ song.
“So [the Sirens] spoke, sending forth their beautiful voice, and my heart was fain to listen, and I bade my comrades loose me, nodding to them with my brows; but they fell to their oars and rowed on. And presently Perimedes and Eurylochus arose and bound me with yet more bonds and drew them tighter. But when they had rowed past the Sirens, and we could no more hear their voice or their song, then straightway my trusty comrades took away the wax with which I had anointed their ears and loosed me from my bonds.” —
Odyssey Book 12.
In Aquila’s etch, the figure next to Odysseus appears to be an armored woman. This is perhaps the goddess of wisdom, Athena, who guided Odysseus and favored him greatly. Although Athena is not present in this scene in the poem, Aquila’s addition of her demonstrates the connection between the goddess and her devotee.
Atalanta and Meleager
Depicted here is the Calydonian Hunt, in which Atalanta and Meleager took part. These two Greek heroes were famous for their hunting skills. In Greek mythology, Atalanta (the female figure in the white chiton) was raised by a bear in the wild, until she was found by a human hunting group. The Wild and the Hunt were second nature to Atalanta, and her skill was envied and admired. The goddess Artemis, whose divine domain was the hunt, was especially proud of Atalanta, and who often gave her protection.
Meleager (male figure on the left with a red cape on a horse) was the prince of the prominent Greek kingdom, Calydon. His kingdom was being terrorized by a giant boar that was ruining crops and bringing down buildings. The King of Calydon called for aid from the best hunters in Greece. Atalanta accepted the call and she and Meleager together managed to take down the boar.
This painting focuses slightly more on Atalanta, as she is more clearly illuminated compared to Meleager in the shadow. This is perhaps a reference to Atalanta’s importance in being the first to strike the boar and hence cause the success of the hunt. Meleager was the supporting hunter who made the final blow. Meleager’s red cape could also be a reference to the death of Meleager: after defending Atalanta’s right to win the hunt’s prize, in an ensuing violent quarrel, Meleager was murdered with a curse of fire. Note that this is a collaborative piece: many artists worked together to create this painting, much like many Greek heroes worked together to defeat the Calydonian Boar.
This statue of Jason displays the myth of the Golden Fleece. Jason was one of the popular Greek heroes; he traversed the Mediterranean in search of the golden ram, whose fleece had magical properties that would increase the bountifulness of the area where it was placed. In the myth, Jason finally found the Golden Fleece in the Kingdom of Colchis, but it was guarded by a fire-breathing dragon. Jason, aided by the sorceress Medea, was able to surpass the danger and retrieve the fleece. Jason and Medea then fled back to Greece with the magical item in their possession.
The stance of the Jason statue is triumphant. His hand is raised high, but unfortunately, the object he is holding is lost but is presumed to be the shaft of a spear. The Golden Fleece is firmly in hand, his glorious prize. The V&A, where this statue is kept, claims that this statue was created for the gardens of the Palazzo Strozzi. Since the Golden Fleece was said to increase the beauty of the land and its fruitfulness, the statue is appropriate for a garden atmosphere.
The Greek Hero Perseus and His Wife Andromeda
This oil painting portrays a famous scene from the myth of Perseus, one of the most well-known Greek heroes. As retribution for her mother’s vanity, Andromeda was left as a sacrifice to a sea monster in an effort to appease the offended ocean nymphs. Perseus, on his travels, came across Andromeda in her distress and desired her at first sight.
He rescued her from the sacrificial ceremony by slaying the sea monster, with the aid of Medusa’s head. Medusa’s head had the power to turn the onlooker into stone. Once rescued, Perseus took Andromeda to be his wife. Greek heroes were often rewarded for their victories with the offer of a bride. The presence of Cupid in the painting refers to the erotic love between Perseus and Andromeda, and Hymen, with the torch, refers to their later marriage.
Andromeda’s naked form conveys her vulnerability as a sacrificial victim. This is in contrast to Perseus’ full armored form, as the hero. This also reflects the gender expectations of the 17th century, the time when the painting was created, as the female figure is heavily sexualized in her oppressed state while male chivalric power is demonstrated. The painting was a way of immortalizing the “knight and damsel” trope that was very popular during the 17th century, through a reference to historical western myth.