Classical Mythology in the Landmarks Collection

Jamie D. Aprile, PhD
23 September 2015

Mythology, much like art, fascinates and excites the human imagination. Whether considered doctrine or allegory, stories that reach the level of myth tend to address universal concerns that transcend historical, cultural, and personal boundaries: for example, life and death, love and hate, magic and the mundane. Artists often mine mythological tales for symbols and narratives that express their feelings and ideas in a way that will resonate with a variety of viewers and elicit meaningful responses to their work. Classical Greek and Roman mythology has been particularly prevalent in Western art for more than two thousand years because of the wide-ranging and flexible nature of the stories. In a series of posts, guest blogger Jamie Aprile will explore the mythological subjects found in various Landmarks pieces and suggest interpretations with an eye toward ancient symbolism in a modern context.

Jamie D. Aprile is an archaeologist and writer living in Austin, Texas.  She holds a Ph.D. in archaeology from UCLA, and she has taught classics, history, art history, and archaeology at the university level since 2010.  Her research focuses on prehistoric Greece, classical mythology, and the reception of ancient monuments in modern time.  She has been a volunteer docent for the Landmarks program since 2013.

Ancient Greek and Roman myths were not considered religious doctrine, but were seen as traditional tales that allowed people to question the nature of their individual and cultural ideals. Multiple versions of stories exist in ancient visual and textual sources. Studying the historical context of those renditions allows us to understand how people used symbolism and allegory to explore contemporary problems. For instance, Aeschylus’ famous version (458 BCE) of the death of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces in the Trojan War, presents his wife, Clytemnestra, killing him out of vengeance for the insults she suffered in their marriage. In other sources, including this contemporary vase painting (fig. 1), Agamemnon’s cousin, the usurper king Aegisthus, is the killer. The first version makes a complex point about the role of leadership, women, and family in society, while the second provides a more traditional rendition of the tale in which male power takes center stage.

The prevalence of Classical mythology in art and literature declined during the Middle Ages in Europe, but with the beginning of the Renaissance, artists rediscovered the rich body of symbolism found in ancient source material. For instance, Lucas Cranach the Elder, a German Renaissance court artist, created several paintings depicting the Judgment of Paris (fig. 2). In the story, a young shepherd—who is unknowingly a prince of Troy—is commanded by Zeus to decide the outcome of a mythological beauty contest. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all claim a golden apple, a symbol of desire, which was thrown among them by Eris, the goddess of discord. Little does Paris know that the outcome of his choice will have wide-ranging repercussions, eventually leading to the Trojan War. Cranach was a friend to Martin Luther and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation. His painting thus held great symbolic relevance to his courtly audience when their choices in a time of religious upheaval could lead to war in Europe.

A horse, a man in armor, a man in a beard, and three nude women
Figure 2, The Judgment of Paris. Lucas Cranach the Elder. ca. 1528. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ARTstor [online]. New York: New York. Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.artstor.org).

Much later, American artist Romare Bearden took up Lucas Cranach’s Judgment of Paris as the inspiration for an important series of works connected to the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement. Segregation had filtered into the art world through the common belief that folk art was appropriate for blacks, while the supposedly “high art” of Europe was meant only for whites. Bearden demonstrated that all forms of art were equally applicable to all people by taking Cranach’s Renaissance figural composition of the Judgment of Paris and altering the image in a variety of meaningful ways. In some variations, the image was broken into abstract shapes; in others the figures were transposed from white into black (fig. 3); in still others Bearden used the collagraph technique, which drew attention to the role of artistic medium (fig. 4). His work results in a commentary on both the painting as an object and the symbolism behind the choices embedded in the story. Bearden plays with the same ideas as Cranach—choices have serious consequences—to create a rich, multilayered body of art that utilizes both the mythological symbolism of the Judgment of Paris and the historical artistic legacy of the Renaissance.

There is never one explanation for a work of art. The Landmarks collection holds a number of modern and contemporary works that contribute to this ongoing dialectic between mythology and art. Stay tuned for more posts that spark a conversation about the many ways art, mythology, and history function together to create a more beautiful and inspiring landscape on campus.

A figure in armor, a man in green boots, and three nude women.
Figure 3, Prologue to Troy No. 1. Romare Bearden. 1972. ARTstor [online]. New York: New York. Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.artstor.org).

Five figures near a tree with a white horse.
Figure 4, Prelude to Troy. Romare Bearden. ca. 1969. Collograph. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. ARTstor [online]. New York: New York. Available from World Wide Web: (http://www.artstor.org).