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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Canvas, paints, poetry and a myth. The interaction of these four elements coupled with the powerful artistry of Titian birthed the famous painting; The Rape of Europe.

Originally commissioned by Philip II, King of Spain, it is regarded as one of Titian’s greatest works. It took two years to complete and has since then been an object of desire for kings, dukes and noblemen. Currently, this awe inspiring piece of beauty hangs on the wall of Isabella S. Gardner Museum. After 334 years of changing ownership rights, Isabella Stewart Gardner purchased the Rape of Europe from the Earl of Darnley.

The myth of the Rape of Europe involves the god Zeus and the princess Europa of Phoenicia. Zeus spotted Europa while she was picking flowers near the Mediterranean and was infatuated by her. He transformed himself into a gentle bull and grazed nearby. Europa, attracted by the docile nature of the bull approached the creature and played with it to an extent of even climbing on its back. At this point, the bull gently strolled into the sea and then charged deeper. Zeus carried the terrified Europa to Crete where he revealed his true nature and raped her. Europa bore three children and later became the queen of Crete.

The Rape of Europe depicts a distraught semi-nude woman on the back of a white bull. One of her hand clings on the bull’s horn while the other hand waves a red cloth and casts a shadow on her terrified face. She is depicted to be scantily dressed and has her legs wide open. Above them, two winged creatures are flying. Behind follows another winged creature on a fish. On the shore, Europa’s companions are seen to be waving wildly. A hilly landscape can also be seen at a distance. The bull seems calm and composed although its wiggly tail betrays its excitement; perhaps from its conquest.

Motion, emotion and mood are just but some of the techniques employed by Titian in this piece. Motion can be discerned from the bull’s posture. It can also be inferred by looking at the position of one of its front legs and the way the water surrounding the leg behaves. The flying creatures also depict motion. There is superb use of color. First, Europa is seen to be waving a red piece of cloth. Does this signify danger? Was she afraid of what would happen next or what was already happening? By the look on her face, she is clearly terrified. The almost stormy skies also signify the conflict of emotions going on in Europa’s mind.

Titian undoubtedly drew inspiration from mythology and poetry. He relied heavily on Ovid's Metamorphoses and the poems contained therein for his works. Afterwards, this great piece of art inspired other artists to come up with their own depictions of the Rape of Europe. These artists include Noel Nicholas Coypel and Henri Matisse. However, none of these pieces marches the sheer beauty of Titian's.