In his Metamorphoses, Ovid conveyed the mythological essence of the origin of Roman culture. Ovid selected specific details of ancient legends, deepening them psychologically, aesthetically, or philosophically. The myth “Europa & Jupiter, the House of Cadmus” narrates the romantic story about the abduction of Europa by Jupiter. Being fascinated by the beauty of Europa, Jove decided to ingratiate himself with her and pretended he was a magnificent bull whose color was “white as virgin snow, untrod, unmelted by the watery Southern Wind” (Ovid). Europa was delighted with the bull’s beauty and peaceful appearance. Her initial fears subsided, and she approached the bull and decorated the horns of a bull with a wreath of flowers. She could not resist his charm and unwittingly “sat down upon the bull’s broad back” (Ovid). Immediately, the god in the guise of a bull jumped into the sea and began to move away from the shore.
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This mythological episode poetized by Ovid inspired many eminent artists, including Rubens, Zuccarelli, Reni, Tiepolo, Rembrandt, and others. Their artworks portrayed the main characters in different ways and captured various moments of the myth, depending on aesthetic attitudes prevailing in arts in a particular era and within the framework of a specific direction. The creativity and artistic traditions allowed painters to immerse viewers in the multifaceted mystery of legendary times and events.
In his The Abduction of Europa, Rembrandt tried to carefully depict even the smallest details in his picture. Each blade of grass on the shore and every twig and leaf on the trees are visible. Rembrandt paid special attention to the images of the heroes. Trembling with fear, Europa is sitting on the back of the bull. She is clutching her right hand at the polished horn of the bull and clasping her left hand over his muscular neck. Europa is begging her friends for help, but they are just throwing their hands up to heaven in fright. Beautiful features of Europa and her long, golden hair are carefully painted. A viewer is also able to distinguish all peculiarities of her friends’ dresses made of expensive fabrics and generously sprinkled with precious stones. In the background of the picture, a chariot is seen. The people sitting in it are full of amazement at the abduction. In the distance, urban buildings are disappearing in the haze; city dwellers are not suspecting that something extraordinary is happening nearby.
Being created in the traditions of the early Baroque, Rembrandt’s artwork realistically conveys the plot of Ovid’s myth “Europa & Jupiter, the House of Cadmus.” Specifically, the most dramatic moment when the bull is bearing off from the land, taking away frightened Europa, is depicted in Rembrandt’s canvas The Abduction of Europa. Rembrandt used a sharp contrast of light and dark colors to highlight the main characters on the canvas, including beautiful Europa whom the mighty bull is carrying off the sea surface and the two girls frozen in desperate poses while seeing that they cannot prevent the abduction of their friend. However, as distinct from Ovid’s myth, Jupiter is depicted without iconic attributes of the divine greatness and power. This character is merely perceived as a strong and beautiful bull. Therefore, it is possible to conclude that Rembrandt condemned Jupiter’s behavior and considered the abduction of Europa immoral.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses in general and this myth in particular are an inexhaustible source of inspirational meanings. In their interpretations of the myth “Europa & Jupiter, the House of Cadmus”, artists emphasized diverging elements and depicted different characters. By putting the story into the modern setting, I believe that the author wanted to make it feel more relatable. Mythological characters may feel distant and unreal due to the age of the story but when done in the contemporary style they once again become believable. This is the most dramatic moment of the story and the focus on Europa is clear. With the lack of anything divine about the Jupiter’s portrayal it can be said that the sympathy of the author is with the victim.
Ovid. “Europa & Jupiter.” The Metamorphoses. Translated by More, Brookes. Boston, Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922. Theoi.com, n.d.
Rembrandt, Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Abduction of Europa. 1632. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Web Gallery of Art, Web.