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  • Writer's pictureParis Tour Guide

Ancient Greek and Roman mythology in Parisian gardens and monuments

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

There are many reasons why Paris is considered to be one of the greatest cultural destinations worldwide. From the city’s museums and gardens to its architecture and public monuments, France’s capital hosts some of the world’s most famous work of art.

A great deal of them constitutes direct references to Ancient Greek and Roman mythology reveal the way how French perceive the reality today, and in the past.

How French personify ideas concepts and phenomena, which they were unable to fully understand logically?

In the following lines, we are going to examine some of the most important examples of such pieces and, most significantly, why they deserve to be part of your sightseeing list next time you find yourself in Paris.

1-Three Graces - Carrousel in the Tuileries - Louvre

Starting with the Three Graces (Les Trois Graces) in the Jardin du Carrousel in the Tuileries, this artwork by Aristide Maillol reproduces one of the favourite mythological themes of the ancient world.

Even though myths sometimes differ, according to the prevailing version, the Three Graces (Charites) were daughters of Zeus and Euryome, daughter of Oceanus. Aglaia (Brightness), Euphrosyne (Joyfulness), and Thalia (Bloom) were closely related to the concepts of charm, beauty and fertility and, therefore, were usually associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty and, secondarily, her son Eros, god of love and sex.

Book about Les Trois Nymphes - by the Louvre
Sources : El Viso - Les Trois Nymphes - Louvre

This piece from the first half of the 20th century depicts the Three Graces naked, a typical artistic choice for most post-classical paintings and sculptures, in comparison to the Archaic and Classical approach, according to which these goddesses were depicted fully clothed.

2-Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss - Louvre Museum

Antonio Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (1777) is, also, naturally, considered one of the Louvre finest seven works of art that can be found in Paris, in this case, the Louvre Museum. According to Apuleius’s emblematic work Metamorphoses, the god Eros (Cupid in Latin) saves Psyche from a deathlike state of sleep.

The young girl was sent by Aphrodite (Venus in Latin), Eros’s mother, to the Underworld. Her mission was to bring back a flask, which the goddess warned her not to open.

Against Aphrodite’s order, Psyche opened the flask and breathed the fumes that led her to sleep eternally. After being saved by Cupid’s kiss, she is granted to marry him and, thus, becomes immortal. Ever since her name is synonymous with the concept of soul. Today, this extraordinarily detailed work, probably the most famous one by Canova, has rightfully become one of the greatest attractions in Paris.

3-Winged Victory of Samothrace - Louvre Museum

The Winged Victory of Samothrace (circa 290 BC), or alternatively Nike of Samothrace, is a Hellenistic artwork, housed in the Louvre since 1866.

Winged Victory of samothrace - Nike of the Louvre
Winged Victory of Samothrace - Nike of the Louvre

Its name makes references to, on the one hand, the depicted goddess and, on the other hand, the island where it was discovered in 1863 during a series of excavations led by the Consulate of France. The statue stands at 2.75 meters and at 5.57 meters including the foundation of the whole monument.

Nike, the goddess of the personified victory in arts, athletics, music and wars, is usually depicted winged and, more specifically, on the verge of flying.

According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Nike managed to ensure an alliance between her, her siblings and Zeus by siding with him against God of Time Kronos during the Titanomachy.

As a result, Nike is usually portrayed in association with Zeus or his daughter, Athena. In more detail, the statue, made entirely of the renowned Parian marble, presents a winged female figure dressed in a long fine tunic, who lands on the bow of a vessel, a part of the monument that was recovered years after Nike’s arrival in the Louvre.

It is interesting to add that the foundation of the monument is crafted of grey marble in antithesis to the radiant white one used in Nike.

Venus de Milo
Venus de Milo

In an equally prominent place in the Louvre Museum, one can find Venus de Milo (150-125 BC), one of the most easily-recognizable statues worldwide.

This Hellenistic piece’s story bears a lot of similarities to the discovery of Nike, as both artworks were discovered on two islands of the Aegean Sea and later on moved and exhibited in France.

However, in the case of Venus de Milo, the discovery of the statue was rather incidental, as this work was found in 1820 by a Greek farmer within the ancient ruins of the city of Milos. The statue, also made of Parian marble, is believed to depict Aphrodite, the Ancient Greek goddess of love and beauty.

The current name of the piece is related to the fact that Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart was Venus. Others theorize that the statue actually portrays Amphitrite, a sea-goddess venerated on the island of the discovery. The statue stands at 2.04 meters and is missing both arms alongside the original plinth, which was lost after the statue’s discovery in the first half of the 19th century.

Today, the statue has undergone numerous conservations and continues to be exhibited in Louvre being one of the most famous in the world.

4-Médée Furieuse - Louvre Museum

Médée Furieuse (1838) is, also, currently exhibited permanently at the Louvre Museum, after a long-term loan to the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

Eugène Delacroix’s work , after Liberty guiding the People, deals with one of the most dramatic stories of Ancient Greek antiquity, that is the myth of Medea.

According to this, Medea, betrayed and furious by Jason’s infidelity, takes the life of his new wife and, afterwards, kills hers and Jason’s infant children. In Delacroix’s painting the figures of the woman and her children make up for a dramatic triangle shape that echoes Caravaggio’s art on the one hand and the Virgin holding the dead Christ of the Pieta on the other.

Painting of Delacroix in the Louvre - Medée furieuse
Painting of Delacroix in the Louvre - Medée furieuse

The painting is filled with symbolic elements, such as the red colour of the clothes and the shadow that covers half of Medea’s face, as if she’s wearing a mask.

Naturally, the painting is based on a series of antitheses, the vulnerability of nakedness against the sharp striking dagger, light against shadow and the pastel clothing of the infants against the dark red-brown coloured robe of their mother.

It is no surprise that this piece is one of the most appreciated artworks by Delacroix that has found its place in one of the world’s biggest museums alongside other masterpieces.

5-Pierre Roche - Luxembourg garden - L'Effort

Last but not least, Pierre Roche's L'Effort (1898) located in the Luxembourg Gardens, is another interesting example of art reproducing mythological themes, in this case, Hercules’s Fifth Labour, the cleaning of the Augean stables.

Following Eurystheus’s orders, Hercules managed to clean out the stables in a single day by turning the course of nearby rivers into the yard, thus, flushing everything away. Roche’s work, almost hidden within the greenery of the Gardens, depicts the exact moment that the hero is diverting the course of a river. Following the accomplishment of the mission, Eurystheus refused to recognise Hercule’s labour due to the latter asking for an additional reward from Augeas himself, who, also, in the end, even refused to ever have promised any reward to Hercules.

Concepts and Ideas are better materialized through Art

All of the above are just a few of the numerous examples of artworks related to Ancient Greek and Roman mythology in Paris.

Apart from their cultural value, these pieces can become the starting point for a fruitful reflection for the visitor.

What are the limits between reality and myth or, in other words, to what extent myths are representative of the actual social system that gave birth to them?
Why are beauty, jealousy and curiosity usually depicted in the shape of a female figure, while labour, struggle and analytical thinking are mostly related to men?

These are just some of the questions that such artworks can initiate.

What is always important to have in mind is the timeliness of the myth, as its archetypical character enables us to relate to events and figures from thousands of years ago. Therefore, one could claim that myths end up orchestrating a journey of (self) reflection on issues like Women in Art history, society, gender equality through history, sexuality evolution, virtue in Art, morality, beauty and other concepts or ideas that will never seize to spark human curiosity.

Having this in mind, if you’re planning to visit Paris for Five days, don’t miss the opportunity to dive into the world of Ancient Greek and Roman mythology through the historic monuments and works of art that are hosted in various locations and institutions around Paris.

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