Art - Jupiter and Semele by Moreau

by Erin on September 21, 2012

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau, detail

Jupiter and Semele by Gustave Moreau, detail

Today, I thought I would explore another work of art here at Mythography. Called Jupiter and Semele, the painting was created in the Nineteenth century by French artist Gustave Moreau. Let’s take a look.

As the title of this painting indicates, two figures are represented : Jupiter and Semele. But who are these figures? Well Jupiter - or Zeus, as he was known to the ancient Greeks - is the ruler of the Olympian gods and goddesses. Semele is a mortal woman with whom Jupiter fell passionately in lust, er, love.

So we know that the subject of the painting is taken from Classical mythology.

There is one particularly dramatic event in the story of the relationship between Jupiter and Semele, and that is the moment when the god reveals himself, in all his divine glory, to his mortal mistress.

There is more to this story, however. It turns out that Semele was pregnant at the time with Jupiter’s child. The myth goes that Jupiter snatched the unborn from Semele just before she expired, and continued to nurture their offspring in his own thigh. In time, Jupiter himself gave birth to his son, who became the god Dionysos.

There isn’t much indication that Gustave Moreau meant to depict Semele as obviously pregnant in his painting. We instead see a slender, pale, petite woman swooning before the majesty of Jupiter.

In addition, it is worth noting that the canvas is swarming with a myriad of intricate details.

exotic flowers sprout from every conceivable surface

It seems that the only area of the image where the eye is allowed to rest is the somewhat tranquil blue space that surrounds the upper portion of Jupiter’s throne. Even here, however, the artist couldn’t seem to resist adding a couple of ornate flourishes in the form of what appear to be winged creatures.

And what are we, as viewers, to make of all this riotous profusion of detail? The artist himself rather helpfully included the following comment about his work :

“In the midst of colossal aerial buildings, with neither foundations nor roof-tops, covered with teeming, quivering vegetation, this sacred flora standing out against the dark blues of the starry vaults and the deserts of the sky, the God so often invoked appears in his still veiled splendour…At the foot of the throne, Death and Sorrow form the tragic basis of Human Life, and not far from them, under the aegis of the eagle of Jupiter, the great Pan, symbol of Earth, bows his sorrowful brow, mourning his slavery and exile, while at his feet is piled the sombre phalanx of the monsters of Erebus and Night…”

You could compare Jupiter and Semele to an earlier painting, Jupiter and Thetis, by the artist J.A.D. Ingres. There are some compositional similarities between the two works. In both images, Jupiter is seated on a massive throne, facing the viewer. Each painting features Jupiter as a monumental figure who is much larger than his female companion. This significant size difference, which is clearly discernible in the work of Ingres, becomes even more magnified in Moreau’s painting.

Jupiter and Semele is in the collection of the Musée Gustave Moreau, Paris.

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