Jupiter and Semele | The Painting of Gustave Moreau

Jupiter et Semele (1894-95; English, Jupiter and Semele) is a painting by the French Symbolist artist Gustave Moreau (1826-1898). It depicts a moment from the classical myth] of the mortal woman Semele, mother of the god Dionysus, and her lover, Jupiter, the king of the gods. She was treacherously advised by the goddess Juno, Jupiter’s wife, to ask him to appear to her in all his divine splendor. He obliged, but, in so doing, brought about her violent death by his divine thunder and lightning. The painting is a representation of “divinized physical love” and the overpowering experience that consumes Semele as the god appears in his supreme beauty has been called “quite simply the most sumptuous expression imaginable of an orgasm”.

This work assaults the eye with myriad forms constructed from a kaleidoscope of colour. The heavily impastoed surface builds, in places, to further enhance the jewelled surface – every inch is encrusted with detail. As one peers more closely, various vegetative and animate forms detach themselves from the cacophony.

Dominating all is the form of the ultimate deity, the lord of the heavens and supreme judge, Jupiter, seated in majesty on a monumental throne which forms the backdrop to perhaps half of the picture. His frightening glare directly engages the viewer like an all-powerful eastern potentate ready to dispense death and destruction at the merest whim; the ornamentation of his body adds credence to this hint of the east, as does that sensational throne, a wondrous feat of architectonic imagination.

One of the victims of Jupiter’s unbounded power swoons on his lap – diminutive flotsam cast asunder by his might. She is Semele – seduced by Jupiter (who remained invisible during the proceedings) she conceived a child. Enraged by this, the goddess Juno, inveigles Semele into asking Jupiter to show himself to her, knowing of the dire consequences of such a request. According to myth, when Jupiter dutifully accedes to Semele’s plea she is incinerated by Jupiter’s ever-present bolts of lightning. Jupiter then saves the unborn child by ripping the foetus from Semele’s body and sewing it into his thigh. Bacchus is later delivered into the world in these most unusual circumstances. Moreau has omitted to represent the lightening bolt but the wound from which the foetal Bacchus has emerged can be seen in the side of the stricken Semele.

The small winged figure beneath Semele may be the emerging Bacchus. At the foot of the throne, Jupiter’s eagle, symbol of his power, can be seen, wings readied for flight. Flanking the eagle are two female figures, Death, clad in blue, holding a bloodied sword, and Pain, crowned with thorns. Pan, the Arcadian shepherd god, sprawls on a ledge in front of the eagle – half man and half goat, he is wreathed in flowers and vegetal tendrils like a medieval Green Man. Beneath the ledge a shadowy underworld can be glimpsed full of barely defined forms, flanked by two sphinxes, perhaps representing past and future. To the left, clearly outlined against the gloom, a glowing many-layered halo behind her head and a crescent moon hovering above an elaborate crown, the goddess Hecate confronts us with a stare which is every bit as intimidating as Jupiter’s. She is associated with magic, witchcraft, the moon and sinister nocturnal creatures but is also the guardian of crossroads and offers protection to warriors, hunters and herdsmen.

All this, and of course much more, had to be explained in depth to the (perhaps bemused) purchaser of the painting, Leopold Goldschmidt. One of the last major works completed by Moreau before his death, Jupiter and Semele is a synthesis, perhaps a summation, of Moreau’s aesthetic and scholarly interests drawing on (and fusing) a plethora of sources and recondite references, from the Greek myths, and those of India and Egypt, to the occult and neo-Platonism. The Renaissance and Baroque art of the Low Countries and the work of Edward Burne-Jones were also influential. The picture that emerges is an illustration of the quest to find answers to fundamental questions of human existence and the nature and power of the divine.

Although Moreau refused to exhibit with the younger Symbolist painters who were so inspired by him, his influence on later generations was profound not only through Symbolism (a reaction to the materialism of the time; a movement which celebrated the realm of the spirit, the world of dreams, visions, the occult and the irrational) but also through his pupils, Henri Matisse, Albert Marquet and Georges Rouault.

Of this work, Moreau himself wrote, “Semele, penetrated by the divine effluence, regenerated and purified by this consecration, dies struck by lightning and with her dies the genius of terrestrial love, the genius with the goat hooves”.

Moreau described his canvas thus:

“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 splendor.”

Moreau’s work depicts an intricate, intense, and startling mystical world, haunting and heavily laden with symbolic imagery. Its iconography is drawn from the ancient myth, from Symbolist writings and from his own personal interpretations, which are deliberately meant to be mysterious and ambiguous. Jupiter is represented conventionally, seated “in Majesty” with the hapless and bloodied Semele astride his right thigh. His gaze is severe, wide-eyed and fixed straight ahead in fierce prepossession. His throne and surrounding court, however, present an unorthodox and extravagant profusion of architectural and vegetal elements which — while depicted in fine, realistic, even jewel-like black, detail — give the overall impression of a dream-like fantasy world. Everywhere a profusion of vivid colors vies with dark shadows for prominence. Countless teaming gods, goddesses and allegorical figures seem to exist at different scales, independent of, and oblivious to, one another. The eye must accommodate bizarre shifts in proportion as it ranges across the canvas. Among the figures are three immediately at the feet of Jupiter: a figure of “Sadness” (cradling a bloodied sword), a Great Pan, and a female “Death” holding aloft a white lily. (Moreau: “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 somber phalanx of the monsters of Erebus and Night….”) Jupiter’s right foot rests on snake biting its own tail. A frightful Hecate, with her polos and crescent moon, appears in the lower left corner. Among the other figures are a three-headed demon and several winged, angelic figures.

Artist Gustave Moreau
Year 1894–95
Type Oil on canvas
Dimensions 213 cm × 118 cm (83.8 in × 46.5 in)
Location Musée National Gustave-Moreau (Moreau Museum), Paris

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