A review of The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered the Pagan Gods, by Malcolm Bull

In a 1524 print by the artist Marcantonio Raimondi, two nude females stand before a naked young man, his back turned toward the viewer. On his left, several nudes move in the background, while three figures, also in the buff, recline in the right foreground. They seem not to notice a third female nude at the center of the picture who stands with her bare back to the viewer, pulling a cloth over her head.

What are these nudists up to? Because the young man is wearing a Phrygian cap, we recognize him as the Trojan prince Paris. He is deciding which of three goddesses is the most beautiful: Juno (identified by the peacock), Venus (identified by the chubby little Cupid holding her leg), and Minerva, goddess of wisdom (marked by the helmet and shield resting on the ground). The artist indicates that something momentous is happening by showing the sun-god driving his horses through the sky over Minerva's head. To her right, Jupiter sits enthroned in the sky, holding his thunderbolt.

Paris could have chosen Minerva and her gift of wisdom. He might have chosen Juno, who offered political power. But instead he chose Venus, who offered him the most beautiful woman in the world—Helen, the daughter of Jupiter, who was then married to another man. It was a morally disastrous choice that led to Paris' death and the destruction of his city. The story is ancient. In the Iliad, the goddesses Athena (known to the Romans as Minerva) and Hera (Juno) never cease to hate the Trojans after Paris chooses Venus because of "his sorrowful lust."

But one can see at a glance that Marcantonio's drawing does not derive directly from an ancient Greek source. The Greeks would have been horrified at the sight of a naked Athena. (The hunter Tiresias went blind after he inadvertently saw her undress.) In depictions of the Judgment of Paris on Athenian vase paintings, the three goddesses are fully clothed, each standing in a distinctive costume before Paris, who is dressed in a tunic. There was no need to use nudity to remind anyone that "sorrowful lust" would lead him to make a wrong decision. Their religion had taught the Greeks that mortals usually make the wrong choice.

It was in Roman art and literature that the theme of sexuality first became explicit. In the ancient novel known as The Golden Ass, the hero-narrator Lucius watches an elaborate stage production of the Judgment. Each of the familiar figures comes onstage, Paris in his Phrygian costume, Mercury, Juno, Minerva. Then Venus enters, naked except for a thin cloth showing everything to full advantage. That description would have appealed to Roman audiences.The figures of the goddesses can clearly be seen through the fluid drapery in the depiction of the Judgment on the Roman sarcophagus that served as a model for Marcantonio's print.

But in his Renaissance version of the scene, the theme of sexuality is even more explicit. Now all the goddesses are nude, and their nakedness is the drawing's focus. They no longer stand at a distance, disengaged from the mortal Paris. Only an artist who no longer believed in their divinity would have imagined that goddesses could display themselves openly before Paris, gazing into his eyes, as if each were trying to seduce him.

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The ancient Greeks looked to their myths for an explanation of why the world was as it was; why justice came slowly if ever; why humans died; why people so often got things wrong. Educated Romans, even when they did not believe literally in the existence of the ancient gods, recognized that the old mythology still had a continuing cultural significance. But for Marcantonio and other artists of the Renaissance, classical mythology had become a way to subvert their own religion and culture. Instead of the chaste Mary in her blue mantle, one could portray luscious ladies, naked and eager for sexual pleasure. Instead of bearded patriarchs and the broken body of Jesus, one could exhibit brawny young males, ready for adventure. While in Christian Europe the Bible's narratives were regarded as historically true, the classical myths were considered imaginary. Artists were free to change or add details, for their own purposes, to these pagan pictorial narratives.

It is this undercutting of tradition that is signified by "the mirror of the gods," the title of Malcolm Bull's book on Renaissance interpretations of classical mythology. The artists of that period used the gods as a looking glass to view aspects of themselves that could not be portrayed in traditional Christian iconography or Biblical stories. The myths also offered dramatic new possibilities for flattering rulers and patrons. At Versailles, the statue group "Apollo Tended by the Nymphs of Thetis" represented the Sun King himself, resting after a day of good works. His throne stood in the Salon d'Apollon, with a ceiling showing the sun-god traveling across the sky.

In his learned and detailed study, Bull, the head of Art History at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art at the University of Oxford, surveys a wide variety of artistic media. Rather than resort to generalization or theory, he uses one work of art to explain what is going on in another. It is a method that requires close attention, and repays it. 

Since Greek was only in the process of being rediscovered, the artists of the Renaissance learned about the myths from Latin texts. These included not only Virgil's Aeneid and that most influential of all Latin poems, Ovid's Metamorphoses, but also Servius's commentary on the Aeneid, and the works of writers on mythology whose names are now almost forgotten, even by classical scholars. But since Renaissance artists could not easily distinguish between Greek and Roman sources, their notion of the ancient world was inevitably anachronistic.

Although travelers and native Italian artists like Marcantonio had some acquaintance with Roman sculpture, they had little access to the vast mythological lexicon of Athenian vase painting and often chose to portray myths that ancient artists preferred to ignore. So far as we can tell, ancient Athenians loved vases with pictures of the goddess Dawn (fully dressed) carrying off young boys. But Renaissance artists (in this respect following Ovid) preferred showing gods in the process of seducing mortal women.

Ancient Athenians would also have been surprised to see that Renaissance artists paid little attention to the patron goddess of Athens. In Greek mythology, the most important gods are Athena (Minerva) and Apollo—not to mention Zeus (Jupiter) and his discontented and contentious sister and wife, Hera (Juno). But the pantheon of the Renaissance is dominated by different pairs of gods: Jupiter and Hercules, Venus and Bacchus, and the twins Apollo and Diana. 

It's easy to understand why Venus (sex) and Bacchus (drunkenness) are frequent subjects, often seen together. Jupiter's sexual exploits were a constant subject of interest, even in antiquity, and Renaissance artists did not fail to include occasional depictions of his abduction of the young boy Ganymede, who in Athenian art had easily been the most popular of all Zeus' amours. Hercules, the greatest hero of all, is another obvious choice, as a model for soldiers and politicians. Diana seems to have gained new prominence for a similar reason, as a model for accomplished Renaissance women.

By bringing the gods down from Olympus to a human level, the artists succeeded in making them literally, as well as figuratively, a means of interior design and decoration. To that extent, at least, artists preserved some sense of the gods' ancient identity and traditional iconography. Without the Renaissance revival of classical art, classical divinities might be as unfamiliar to us now as the gods of ancient Mesopotamia.

But at the same time, by using the gods as a mirror for human life, by divorcing them from the rituals and beliefs of antiquity, Renaissance artists stripped Jupiter, Apollo, and their fellow immortals of all but their names. The great Renaissance paintings help us to remember the ancient myths, but to misunderstand them as well. To his great credit, Bull never lets the reader forget that we are dealing with a specially constructed antiquity, full of scenes that ancient people would have found hard to recognize.