Greek mythology has inspired all forms of art throughout history, from painting to sculpture, and even literature. Here, we will share some well-known renditions of mythological stories by artists who combined the beauty of sculpture with the spiritualism of myths. These works are embodied in marble or bronze, the two most popular sculpture mediums.

1: The Danaid by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917):

Rodin: a French artist.

Rodin, The Danaid, Marble, 36x71x53cm, 1890, France

“The Danaid” was initially modeled in 1885 as part of The Gates of Hell. However, in 1889 the sculpture was enlarged and cut in marble. It was inspired by the Greek myth of the Danaids, the 50 daughters of Danaus whose twin brother, Aegyptos, had 50 sons. The two brothers disagreed on which of the two would be the successor to their father’s kingdom, and so Danaus was forced to leave Egypt and exiled to Argos. All 50 sons of Aegyptos followed him to Argos and forced him to approve of their marriages to his daughters. Then, Danaus ordered the daughters to kill their husbands on their wedding night. All but one followed their father’s order. Afterwards, the Danaids were punished by endlessly filling a bottomless vessel with water. Rodin’s sculpture depicts the misery and pain of one of the daughters, who hides her face in despair and frustration, realizing the futility of the act. Her body lies on a rough surface, which is stiff and tense because of her sobs, whereas her hair floats in water.

2: Perseus with the Head of Medusa (1545-1554) by Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1570):

Cellini: an Italian artist.

Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Bronze, 320 height, 1882 (cast)
Cellini, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, Bronze, 320 height, 1882 (cast)

The bronze sculpture depicts Perseus holding the head of the Gorgon Medusa.  He and his mother got locked in a chest and thrown into the sea by his grandfather, Acrisius, who foresaw a prophecy of his death at the hands of Perseus. However, Perseus and his mother were saved from their entrapment and lived on the island of Seriphus where he grew up to be a strong man. The king of Seriphus enslaved his mother and was worried that Perseus would try and save her from him and seek revenge. Thus, the King sent Perseus away on a mission to slay the monstrous but mortal Medusa -who had snakes on her head instead of hair and the was able to petrify anyone who looked her in the eye- in exchange of his mother’s freedom. With the help of the God Hermes and the Goddess Athena, Perseus was guided to an invisibility helmet and winged sandals to kill and behead Medusa. On his way back home, he used Medusa’s head to save Andromeda from a sea monster. In the sculpture, Perseus is seen standing proudly and triumphantly wearing the winged sandals over Medusa’s body with a sword in his right hand and her head in his raised left hand.  

3: The Rape of Proserpina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1621-1622):  

Bernini: an Italian artist.

Bernini, The Rape of Proserpina, Marble, 225 cm (height), 1621-22, Rome
Bernini, The Rape of Proserpina (detail), Marble, 225 cm (height), 1621-22, Rome

Proserpina, or Persephone, was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. She is the goddess of Spring. The myth goes as follows: with the consent of her father, Proserpina was abducted by Hades, God of the Underworld, who was captivated by her beauty. Hades emerged from the ground in his chariot as she was picking flowers and took her back to the Underworld. This sculpture is in the Baroque style, which highlights movement and emotion; it depicts the moment of abduction, Proserpina’s fear and attempt to resistance and escape. It shows the intensity of Hades’ desire to take Proserpina with him by the grasp of his hands. With the “hound of Hades,” the three-headed dog that guards the Underworld, behind both of them.  

4: Apollo and Daphne, by Bernini (1622 and 1625):

Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, Marble, 243 cm (height), 1622-25, Rome
Bernini, Apollo and Daphne (detail), Marble, 243 cm (height), 1622-25, Rome

The myth begins with Apollo, the God of Light, the Sun, Knowledge, and the Arts, ridiculing Eros, the God of Love. Enraged,  Eros fired two arrows: the first, a golden arrow, would cause Apollo to fall in love with the nymph Daphne; the second, a lead arrow, would compel the nymph to hate Apollo. The enchanted God of Light kept following Daphne, expressing his love to her and giving promises of eternal affection. However, Daphne rejected him continuously and turned to her father, Peneus, asking for freedom from Apollo. Accordingly, Daphne was turned into a laurel tree by her father but Apollo never left her and used his powers of immortality to make Daphne remain evergreen for eternity. Daphne’s gradual transformation can clearly be seen in Bernini’s depiction as her hands and legs turn into leaves and tree branches. Her mouth is slightly open as if she’s calling for help, with Apollo’s hand on her torso, watching with longing eyes as the metamorphosis occurs. 

5: Heracles and the Centaur Nessus, Giambologna (1599):

Giambologna: an Italian artist.

Heracles and the Centaur Nessus, Giambologna, Marble, 1599, Florence
Heracles and the Centaur Nessus (detail), Giambologna, Marble, 1599, Florence
Heracles and the Centaur Nessus (detail), Giambologna, Marble, 1599, Florence

Nessus the Centaur, who is half-man, half horse, tried to seize Heracles’ wife and force himself upon her. Fortunately, the incident was seen by Heracles, who killed Nessus with a shot of a poisoned arrow. Heracles is considered a symbol of strength and heroism, which is clearly shown in the sculpture with his well-built figure and the look of confidence on his face. He is standing with a leg on either side of the centaur holding his head down by grabbing his hair with one hand and holding a weapon to kill him with the other. The sculpture is so detailed that the veins on both figures are visible almost to the point of seeing the blood flowing through- a major nod at Michelangelo.