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The Myth Behind Raphael’s Triumph of Galatea

The Triumph of Galatea is a fresco by renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, also known as Raphael. It depicts the character of Galatea, who appears in Greek mythology as a sea-nymph in love with a mortal. Raphael has immortalized the moment of Galatea’s apotheosis, when she becomes a being of the most divine level. The fresco is a testament to the humanization Raphael was able to bring to his work, and is the only work of Raphael’s based on a Greek myth. Singulart explains the myth behind the artwork and explores the composition of the fresco. 

The myth of Galatea 

Falconet's sculpture of Galatea (1763)
Falconet’s sculpture of Galatea (1763)

In Greek mythology, Galatea (meaning “she who is milk-white”) is a sea-nymph known as a Nereid. Although she had appeared in other classical Greek tales, the story of Galatea and Acis first appeared in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. She falls in love with Acis, a beautiful, mortal shephard who is the son of Faunus, god of the forest, and the river-nymph Symaethis. Although her heart belongs to Acis, Galatea is also pursued by the Sicilian cyclops Polyphemus. Polyphemus becomes enraged by Galatea and Acis’s affair, and strikes Acis with a boulder, killing him instantly. Blood then bursts from the stone, and a grieving Galatea turns Acis’s blood into the Sicilian river Acis, where he is immortalized as a spirit.

Composition of The Triumph of Galatea

Raphael was commissioned to paint the fresco by his friend, banker Agostino Chini, to display in the Villa Farnesina in Rome. It was inspired by the Greek myth of Acis and Galatea, and took direct inspiration from a poem by Angelo Poliziano, in particular the stanza stating:

“Two shapely dolphins pull a chariot: on it sits Galatea and wields the reins; as they swim, they breathe in unison; a mere wanton flock circles one spews forth salt waves, others swim in circles, one seems to cavort and play in love; with her faithful sisters, the fair nymph charmingly laughs at such a crude singer.” 

Although the fresco is inspired by the tale of Acis and Galatea, Raphael has not chosen a scene that depicts the ill-fated lovers together. Instead, he has portrayed Galatea as she achieves apotheosis, which meant that upon her death she would ascend to join the fully divine beings, as a reward for her patience and endurance of trials and tribulations experienced in her life. 

Raphael, The Triumph of Galatea (1514)
Raphael, The Triumph of Galatea (1514)

There are elements which suggest the scene has a chaotic, frenzied mood. Although Galatea has a beatific expression on her face, her robe and hair are whipped behind her in a manner that suggest a strong wind. The other characters portrayed in the fresco all suggest a sense of chaos; a Triton half-man, half-fish wrestles a sea-nymph at the left of the piece, while another blows a trumpet on the right. Three Cupids hover above Galatea, preparing to shoot their arrows. The musculature of the bodies surrounding Galatea show Raphael’s mastery of painting the human form, and the figures have been compared to those of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. 

Who else was inspired by the story of Galatea and Acis?

The Greek myth inspired many pieces of art towards the end of the renaissance, with artists entranced by the tragic love affair of Galatea and Acis. Notable examples include Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Acis et Galatée (1657), which depicts the respective landscapes of Acis and Galatea – his a lush green meadow, signifying his living as a shepherd, and hers a rolling sea, showing where she would have lived as a sea-nymph. The two landscapes converge in the center of the painting, where the figures of Acis and Galatea embrace under a canopy. 

 Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Acis et Galatée (1657)
Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Acis et Galatée (1657)

Other artworks depict Galatea and Polyphemus, such as Gustave Moreau’s Galatée (1880). The oil painting shows a sleeping, luminous Galatea reclining in a cave, taking refuge from the terrible Polyphemus. The cyclops lurks at the mouth of the cave, keeping a watchful eye on Galatea. Moreau was directly influenced by Raphael’s portrayal of Galatea, as well as Sebastiano del Piombo’s Polyphemus (1512), displaying photographs of both artworks in his home. 

The story of Galatea and Acis proved inspirational for other mediums of art, particularly opera. Jean-Baptiste Lully based his 1686 opera Acis et Galatée a on the love triangle between Galatea, Acis and Polyphemus . This was followed by Giovanni Bononcini’s one-act opera Polifemo in 1703. However, the most well-known opera depicting the tale is undoubtedly the version by George Frideric Handel, Acis and Galatea. Although earlier versions of the pastoral opera focused on Polyphemus as an equally important character, in the final version, the story is more solely focused on the two lovers. Critics argue that Handel’s version is the greatest pastoral opera ever composed. 

Want to see more artworks in a similar style? Discover Singulart’s Inspired by Raphael Collection.

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