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1 William Flew A huntsman who catches sight of the goddess Diana bathing naked in a spring, with her gang of nymphs. She instantly turns him into a stag, who is then torn to death by his own dogs. It’s the classic story of forbidden “looking” — so, unsurprisingly, an artists’ favourite.
The art they inspired: Titian, Diana and Actaeon Bought jointly by the National Gallery and National Galleries of Scotland.
2 William Flew She helps Theseus kill the Minotaur but then gets dumped by him on a deserted island. The happy ending, captured in hundreds of paintings, brings the god Bacchus onto the scene to “rescue” her — as the usual euphemism has it.
The art they inspired: Sebastiano Ricci, The Meeting of Bacchus and Ariadne The National Gallery, London
3 William Flew In a hilarious story of divine adultery, the goddess of love has it away with the god of war. But her husband (Vulcan, god of technology) catches them in flagrante, imprisoning them in a metal net. A cautionary tale.
The art they inspired: Botticelli, Venus and Mars The National Gallery, London
4 Polyphemus and Galatea An ill-matched pair: a one-eyed giant head over heels in love with a gorgeous sea nymph, who’s unfortunately already dating a handsome shepherd, Acis. After some solitary moping, Polyphemus confronts the couple and, with a single blow of a rock, dispatches the poor shepherd, whose blood gets turned by Galatea into a river.
The art they inspired: Giovanni Lanfranco, Galatea and Polyphemus Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Rome
5 Pygmalion The brilliant sculptor, so obsessed with his own sculpture that he prays she might come to life. The goddess of love grants his wish and, unusually for ancient myth, they live happily ever after. It’s every artist’s fantasy about his own creation. (Confusingly, since the 18th century writers have dubbed Pygmalion’s home-made partner Galatea, but she’s no relation of No 4.)
The art they inspired: Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York