Jacopo Tintoretto - The birth of the milky way

by Alexandra Tuschka


In a heavenly bed Juno had just slept when she feels a pinching in her breast. When she awakens, she realizes that none other than her own husband has held a strange child to her breasts to suckle. The boy is thirsty and drinks greedily. She violently backs away. From this movement, her milk spurts in both directions. Upward - here the Milky Way is formed. Downwards - here white lilies are created.


The boy in question is the illegitimate child of Jupiter with the mortal Alcmene - his name is Hercules and familiar to most of us. Jupiter wanted to grant immortality to the child; this was only possible through the milk of his jealous wife Juno. He knew: voluntarily she would never accept the child. So he decided to use this ruse.


The two protagonists are well recognizable for us as viewers by their attributes. We recognize Juno as a sky goddess on a quite worldly bed, which is however carried by clouds. Her attribute animals, the peacocks can be seen on the right. Jupiter, on the other hand, comes into the picture with his eagle, which carries an object with lightning bolts. Four small putti enliven the scene, they seem to come from all directions of the sky and carry highly symbolic objects: the bow and arrow of love, by which one can be hit, the torch of passion, the net of deception and the chains of marriage. In these symbols both sides of love are thematized: the good and the bad. Of course, the four figures are also to be associated with the elements, from left clockwise earth (chains), water (net), air (arrow) and fire (torch). The entire scene is animated, emphasizing the suddenness of the moment. Juno is naked, and through the shock she twists her body, revealing it to the viewer, as it were. Through the clever choice of this posture, which on the one hand still seems to be lying down, but on the other hand is on the defensive, the artist succeeded in logically illustrating the two directions of the milk. Only in this way can we understand that one breast is pointing "down", so to speak, while another is pointing "up". Tintoretto works with strong colors and all kinds of twists, also in the bodies of the other persons and the little angels. Jupiter is seen from behind, as is the infant.

The mythological scene shows, as the title also reveals, a version of the assumption widespread in antiquity about the origin of the Milky Way. At that time - and also in Tintoretto's time - it was not yet known that the Milky Way consists of innumerable stars, it appeared to the viewer as a coherent, washed-out, even "milky" surface. The Greek name "galaxías" is also based on this story and literally means "the milky star nebula".


It can be assumed that the lilies were also once included in the original work at the lower edge and were later trimmed. If one consults a contemporary copy by Jacob Hoefnagel, these are easily recognizable. Another person, presumably the lover Alkmene, but perhaps also a personification of the earth, can now also be seen at the bottom. Here now also the star-shaped structure of the composites becomes clear, in which the four angels seem to be approaching from all sides.


An x-ray showed that the work had been largely painted over, and it is thought that this was due to a change in the commissioner. The first was probably the Italian physician Tomasso Rangone, who achieved great fame with sometimes ominous products and methods. He was an important patron and client of Tintoretto.


Decisive for this assumption is, besides the demonstrable proximity of both men, that Rangone chose this story as his coat of arms. A coin minted by Rangone shows the same motif. Tomasso came from a poor background and was probably adopted. This may have been the reason for his affinity for the rare motif, since the story of the suckling of Hercules is also a first ancient adoption myth - even if it happened against his will.

Rangone died in 1577, so it is assumed that a new patron now had to be found who demanded adjustments to the motif. The finished version was sold to the Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. The Habsburgs had long enshrined Hercules in their family tradition as a model of a protective and just ruler. Although Rudolf II had problems following this model in his life, he was nonetheless a fine mind and a patron and collector of the fine arts. Thus, he began to pursue his passion for collecting in the late 1570s. In this work, there are some elements that might have particularly appealed to the emperor, besides the nude of the beautiful Juno, of course. Here, the unusual object in the eagle's claws would open up another interpretation. Is there perhaps a cancer to be seen here, the zodiac sign of the ruler, who was born on July 18, 1552? And do two of the putti with their objects mean other signs of the zodiac, the net Aquarius; the bow and arrow Sagittarius? In fact, these are in the same way in the sky. The emperor's great closeness to astrology is well known and can be seen not least in the fact that Rudolf had his date of birth and thus also his zodiac sign arbitrarily changed, from the prophetic Cancer to the auspicious Capricorn.


A reference to alchemy can also be read in the picture, which was demonstrably another passion of Rudolf II. After all, the work thematizes the transformation of one matter into another, and the so-called "virgin's milk" also played a role in alchemy. The connection between the microcosm of man and the macrocosm that surrounds him is clearly expressed here. Also, immortality, which was ultimately the motivation for the ruse in this story, is a stated goal of certain alchemical methods and probably an eternal one of mankind.


Jacopo Tintoretto - The Origin of the Milky Way

Oil on canvas, 1577 - 1582, 149,4 x 168 cm, National Gallery, London


Jacob Hoefnagel (?) - The Origin of the Milky Way, copy after Tintoretto

Drawing, State Museums of Prussian Cultural Heritage, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin


Matteo Pagano (?) - Coin by Tomasso Rangone - Profile and Suckling of Heracles

Cast medal, 1562


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