The Romans included most of the Greek myths in their mythology, which often involved deities quarrelling over the world of the mortals. One of those disputes is the naming of the city of Athens. René-Antoine Houasse depicts this mythological event in his 1689 painting ‘Dispute between Minerva and Neptune over the Naming of the City of Athens’. In this powerful work, Minerva and Neptune, known in Greek mythology as Athena and Poseidon, present gifts to the (not yet) Athenians to gain their favor. On the left, Neptune, brother of Jupiter and God of the sea, struck the earth with his iconic trident to bring forth a stream of salt water. Next to the god, the viewer can see a horse, symbol of the mighty Neptune. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, offered an olive tree, that the citizens preferred. The city was named Athens, and Neptune, enraged by his defeat, punished the Athenians by flooding the Attic plains. Above the two competitors, a crowd of Gods is witnessing the dispute, notably including Jupiter and Juno.
Houasse’s masterpiece, kept at the Museum of French History (Château de Versailles), depicts the two gods in an iconic way. Neptune stands tall, drawn as the primordial ‘old man of the sea’: proud, bearded, and muscular – his crown symbolizes his dominion over the water. He is vengeful, destructive and unforgiving, just like the sea that played a central role in Roman and Greek history.
Minerva in Roman mythology lost Athena’s status as the goddess of war strategy. However, artists kept depicting her wearing armor, linked to her unusual birth. Jupiter had an affair with the oceanic nymph Metris; however, the ruler of the sky swallowed his lover whole as a prophecy predicted that their child might be more powerful than him. Yet, nothing could stop Minerva, and she was born of the head of Jupiter, wearing armor crafted by Metris.
Minerva and Jupiter would quarrel many other times in mythology, perhaps most notably regarding Ulysses’ fate. In the Odyssey, Neptune is an obstacle in Ulysses’ return to Ithaca, while Minerva guides the Greek hero through his journey.
Death was a feared topic in both Rome and Greece, but their mythologies covered it extensively. Pluto, the firstborn of Saturn and brother of Jupiter, was the God of death. He ruled the underworld alongside his stolen bride, Proserpina, daughter of Ceres, goddess of agriculture. The couple, the Latin versions of Hades and Persephone, had a complicated relationship that resulted in the cycle of the seasons. While not included among the 12 main Roman gods, many argued that Pluto and Proserpina were the mightiest deities of all, as all mortals will walk in the kingdom of death sooner or later.
Feared by mortals, unlike many gods of the afterlife, the couple was not purely maleficent. On the contrary, Peter Paul Rubens depicts the two gods as compassionate and kind. His 1636/38 oil on canvas ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, kept in the Museo del Prado (Madrid), tells the story of Orpheus who travelled to the underworld to reclaim his beloved Eurydice, bitten and killed by a venomous snake. Orpheus, the best mortal musician of all time, performs for the King and Queen of the underworld. Moved by his lyre, they accept his request, recognizing Orpheus’ love for Eurydice as pure and true. There was one condition, however: until they left the land of the death, Orpheus shall contain his desire and not look back at his beloved wife.
The painting captures the departure of Orpheus in a balanced and emotionally charged masterpiece, true to Ruben’s baroque style. On the right sit Pluto and Proserpina. The king of the underworld holds a bident and resembles his brothers: bearded, proud and muscular. He looks at his wife, fully dressed in dark clothes. The queen, perhaps still moved by the music, looks down and gestures Orpheus to leave. Below the couple, the three-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of the underworld and Pluto’s symbol, witness the scene. On the left, we see the lovers who are about to leave. The pale dead skin of Eurydice is in stark contrast with the living body of Orpheus. She looks at the Gods in gratitude. Unfortunately, the painting foreshadows the sad ending of this tale, as Orpheus’ love provokes him to peek at his dead wife, sadly separating them once and for all.