Its subject is nothing less than the beginnings of civilization. It’s by the greatest painter of the 16th century – some would say of all time. And it’s the greatest painting in Boston, if not in all of America.
Titian’s “Europa” — or “The Rape of Europa,” as it’s less hygienically but more commonly known — shows Jupiter, in the guise of a beautiful bull, plowing through the waves of the Mediterranean Sea toward Crete, with the virgin princess Europa on his back.
We’re witnessing an abduction. An abduction based on chicanery. One that will culminate in rape.
Everything about the story — and, not incidentally, about Titian’s promiscuous painting style — blurs lines: between gods and mortals, between the human and the bestial, between terror and ecstasy, between heaven and earth.
Well, but it’s just a painting, right? It’s not real life. It’s a disturbing fairy tale, that’s all.
Right. Except that (awkward, this) in the mythos of Western culture, this very fairy tale is charged with world-altering significance. Europa, having been impregnated by the god, will give birth to Minos, the first in a great line of ancient European kings and law-giving judges. Her brother Cadmus, charged by her father with the task of finding her, will wander unsuccessfully, before founding the city of Thebes, and (hardly a small detail, this) inventing the alphabet.
“Europa” is the centerpiece of the Gardner’s Titian Room, and really of the whole museum. (One can live, albeit tearfully, without Vermeer, and struggle on stoically without Rembrandt; but if this had been stolen . . .? Intolerable thought.)
Acquired by Gardner with the assistance of her friend, the great connoisseur Bernard Berenson, it was the last picture in a series of so-called poesie, or mythological paintings based on classical poetry, that Titian painted for the Spanish King Philip II. The others in the series are “Danae,” “Venus and Adonis,” “Perseus and Andromeda,” “Diana and Callisto,” and “Diana and Actaeon” — each one a flat-out masterpiece.
By around 1562, when he painted “Europa,” Titian’s legendary late style had loosened up considerably. His flickering brushstrokes conjured atmospheres trembling with erotic portent. Even as his skies, mountains, and sea creatures take on a more fantastic quality, Titian’s feeling for female flesh became more and more real. Palpably rotund and dimpled with fat, his Europa boasts ruddy toes and wrinkling foot arches.
It’s a painting that is charged with heightened ambivalence, with terror and ecstasy. The ecstasy is reinforced throughout the picture — by the flushing sky; the writhing crimson cloth to which Europa clings; the descending cupids with their curving bows (which combine to rhyme with the serpentine flick of the bull’s tail below); and by the fluttering disarray of Europa’s handmaidens on the diminishing shore.
But the terror, too, is everywhere insisted on: It’s there in the sharp peaks of the mountains, in the dark glassy depths of the ocean, in the ugly open-mawed creatures it spews forth. And it’s there, above all, in the ungainly posture of Europa herself. Legs awkwardly akimbo, breast abruptly (and un-salaciously) exposed, her eyes roll to the heavens, where she catches sight of the two airborne cupids, who will shortly pierce her with their arrows.
This is rape. It’s shattering. It’s Shakespearean. It’s beyond euphemism.
If, as the myth has it, civilization was inaugurated by an act of violent desire, one could, I suppose, meekly and somewhat pompously suggest that the impossible, Sisyphean task of civilization ever since has been to transcend these beginnings — to contain violence, even while allowing for desire.
That, of course, is one of the reasons we have painting. It’s also a reason to get down on one’s knees and give thanks to the gods for Titian.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.