Absorbed from the Greek Pantheon and possibly dating back to the pre-Hellenistic period, the Roman Pagan Gods have inspired western artists throughout the ages. Countless pieces have been produced depicting those deities of ancient times, and here are three examples of such paintings.
Heinrich Friedrich Füger painted ‘Jupiter Enthroned’ around the turn of the 19th century, perfectly capturing the king of gods and patron god of Rome. The German classicist artist uses careful proportion, simplicity and restrained emotions to depict a proud and mighty God worthy of his golden throne. Jupiter was the Roman version of Zeus: God of the sky and thunders. Son of Saturn and brother of Neptune and Pluto, Jupiter remained the chief deity of the Romans until the rise of Christianity. Füger also includes Jupiter’s symbols: the thunderbolts (in his right hand) and the eagle (under his left foot). The latter was also the most common symbol of the Roman army, showing Jupiter’s importance. ‘Jupiter Enthroned’ is kept in the Museum of Fine Arts of Budapest, Hungary.
On the other hand, Dutch painter Pieter Lastman uses strong emotions to show a different side of Jupiter and his relationship with his wife Juno. ‘Juno discovering Jupiter with Io’, painted in 1618, depicts Jupiter’s infidelity and Juno’s wrath. Found in the National Gallery in London, this work of art captures the exact moment Jupiter transforms Io (one of his many mortal lovers) into a cow to hide their adultery; as two figures reveal the animal, Jupiter’s face is fearful. Followed by two peacocks (Juno’s sacred animals), his wife contains her rage, as she has no proof of Jupiter’s infidelity. The equivalent of the goddess Hera, Juno was the queen of the gods and patron of Rome alongside Jupiter. She was the goddess of marriage and childbirth, protected the community and roman funds, represented fertility and military strength, and much more.
Also found in the National Gallery, ‘Venus and Mars’ by Botticelli (1458) represents not only a love affair but also the mythological parents of Rome’s founders. Born after Saturn’s castration, Venus was the goddess of love, beauty, and victory. The equivalent of the Greek Aphrodite, Venus’s son Aeneas survived the Trojan war to land where Rome will be founded. Married to Vulcan – god of fire, volcanoes, and metalwork – Venus had an affair with Mars. The Roman version of Hares, son of Juno and with no father, Mars was the god of war, known for his rage and impulsive nature. Mars was also the father of the famous twins Romulus (the founder of Rome itself) and Remus. Botticelli does not depict the two gods in a flattering way. Venus is fully clothed, not very seductive, and almost looks bored–surprising, considering how ravishing the goddess is in Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’. Mars lacks his armor – all rage is hidden by his peaceful sleep. A group of infant satyrs play around with his weaponry as if Mars was no threat. While this painting has many interpretations, it represents the duality of the Roman gods: both immortal with powers beyond human comprehension and imperfectly flawed as all mortals are.
Made fascinating by their mixture of divine nature and human flaws, Roman gods survived the Middle Ages to be popularly depicted once again as the Renaissance came to be. ‘Jupiter Enthroned’, ‘Juno discovering Jupiter with Io’, and ‘Venus and Mars’ are only three of countless masterpieces capturing the complex nature of the Roman gods and the evolution of their figures in art history.