Adam Kotsko has been at Shimer College as a professor since 2011. He has published a variety of works, including, this year, a book on creepiness from Zero Books. (Click here for information.) For more on Adam's teaching and much more, click here. Today, he is looking at the following book:
Malcolm Bull, The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art (New York: Penguin, 2005). ISBN: 978-0-14-026608-5
And here is what Adam has to say:
One of the courses I teach at Shimer is Humanities 1: Art and Music, which explores the fine arts using Ovid’s Metamorphoses as a framework and guide. The myths Ovid relates have proven hugely influential on Western art and music, and at no period was that more true than in the Renaissance, which witnessed a blossoming of Greek and Roman mythological themes as the classics of the ancient world were being rediscovered.
Hence I turned to Malcolm Bull’s The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art seeking background for my course. While I did get that—in ample measure—from this amazingly thorough work of scholarship, I also gained the opportunity to wrestle with an argument that made me challenge many of my presuppositions about the centrality of mythological imagery in Renaissance art.
As Bull shows, mythological themes were in fact quite marginal for much of the period. There are many reasons for this. The first is simply that it took a long time for detailed knowledge of pagan mythology to penetrate beyond an elite circle of classical scholars. Few working artists would have been comfortable reading in Latin, and most available “translations” of classical authors like Ovid were more like paraphrases and commentaries than true translations. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of Bull’s arguments is that many of Ovid’s stories enter into art directly as images—namely, as illustrations in the various versions of Ovid’s texts that were floating around. (This reliance on illustrations meant that in some cases, myths were attributed to Ovid that don’t actually appear in his text, simply because the illustrator of a particular edition felt like including other myths.)
In addition to the problem of access, there was a problem of audience. Relatively few patrons were interested in mythological themes, at least at first. There was something vaguely scandalous about producing images of pagan gods in a Christian culture, particularly when the stories tended to center on the gods’ immoral behavior. On a more nitty-gritty level, though, there were not many settings where mythological imagery seemed like a good “fit.” It obviously wouldn’t work in churches, which were still the primary setting for much visual art, but even in a patron’s home, there were only a few types of rooms or pieces of furniture where mythological themes felt appropriate.
The bulk of Bull’s argument is taken up with showing how certain mythological figures found their way into the mainstream despite these obstacles, and the stories are often surprising and fascinating. What struck me most, however, was the conclusion, where Bull points out how strange it is that the early modern European world would embrace and enshrine a cultural tradition that no one seriously believed in anymore. The revival of Greek mythological traditions was not, after all, a revival of the Greek religious practices that gave the stories such urgency for the Greeks themselves. Whatever early modern mythology was, then, it wasn’t “Greek mythology” as the Greeks would have experienced it. Instead, Bull argues, it was something distinctively modern—an illusion that is openly embraced as such.
For a totally unrelated review of Bull's book, click here.