Botticelli to Van Gogh

Learning Resource

A painting showing a late renaissance scene of the Roman god Jupiter holding his infant son Hercules to his wife Juno's breast.

Jacopo Tintoretto
The Origin of the Milky Way

c. 1575

Jacopo Tintoretto. The Origin of the Milky Way. c. 1575. © The National Gallery, London


Look at how the figures create a sense of action. Here the Roman god Jupiter takes his mortal son Hercules to suckle at his wife Juno’s breast while she sleeps, so he becomes immortal. Waking up, Juno knocks the baby away, her breast milk squirting upwards to create a constellation of stars.

Think about how people throughout history have tried to understand the skies. Tintoretto’s The Origin of the Milky Way predates Galileo’s discovery that the galaxy is made up of stars by 100 years.

Do you know any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander creation stories? Share with your class or in small groups. Create a collaborative colour drawing that represents a creation story.

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From the Audio Tour:

Other artists in this room – Titian, Giovanni Battista Moroni, Giovanni Girolamo Salvado and Jacopo Tintoretto – were sixteenth-century Venetians. Although they didn’t all live and work in Venice itself, their cultural environment was dominated by that city-state. Venetian artists were among the greatest innovators of the early sixteenth century. They showed that oil painting could achieve an unprecedented richness and lent itself to a fantastic range of naturalistic effects. Tintoretto is famous for his inventiveness in both the handling of paint and composition. Most of his paintings are large-scale narratives in oil paint on canvas, animated by dramatic lighting and the gestures of his figures.

Tintoretto’s family name was Robusti, though his professional name was adapted from his father’s occupation of dyer (tintore in Italian). He lived and died in Venice, and, following the death of his hero and rival Titian in 1576, he became one of the most sought-after painters in the city. He was given several commissions by the Doge, Venice’s elected leader for his elaborate Gothic style palace.

Since around 1857, this painting has been known as The Origin of the Milky Way, but its earlier title, ‘The nursing of Hercules’, is perhaps more accurate. Here Tintoretto shows Jupiter attempting to attain immortality for his son Hercules, whose mother was the mortal Alcmene, by placing him on his sleeping wife Juno’s breast. Awakened in surprise Juno’s milk spurts upward and is shown forming the golden stars of the Milky Way. According to the myth, the milk which fell to the ground became lilies.

What we see here is only about two-thirds of Tintoretto’s original canvas, as the bottom was cut off some time before 1727. In the missing section, known from a seventeenth-century copy, the artist included Ops, the embodiment of Earth and mother of Juno and Jupiter. Juno’s attributes are peacocks, which have been included, as has Jupiter’s eagle, clutching a lightning bolt.

This painting was intended as an allegory as well as a mythological narrative. It was painted for the physician Tomasso Rangone, who was one of Tintoretto’s leading patrons and best known for his work on human longevity. He was particularly attached to the story of the infant Hercules, because if Hercules had drunk more of Juno’s milk, he would have lived forever.

When you have finished looking at all the paintings in this room please move through to Dutch painting of the Golden Age to continue your audio tour.

Josquin des Prez, Ave Maria … virgo serena, Cantillation, Brett Weymark

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