David Jacques-Louis, The Combat of Mars and Minerva, 1771, The Louvre, Paris, oil on canvas.
The Combat of Mars and Minerva (1771) was painted by 23-year-old David Jacques-Louis for his first entry into the Prix de Roma scholarship contest and is now showcased in the Louvre in France (Wine 74). It tells the story of the Trojan War and the Greek gods and goddesses battling against each other with the fate of humanity hanging in balance (Armstrong 30). With the material learned in class, I will be analyzing and comparing Ares and how the painting creates a storyline through my personal perspective. Jacques-Louis portrays the gods through light and dark contrasting tones, ultimately showing Ares’ own weaknesses as he falls before Athena.
There are similarities in theme and concept between this painting and the Paul Rubens painting Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (1629). Both use Roman gods Mars and Minerva, and both picture a helmeted Minerva preventing a warrior Mars from causing death and destruction through war (Roy 89). Jacques-Louis does not use all the symbolism of Rubens’ work but focuses on the main theme of wisdom overcoming war (Roy 89). The Roman gods were similar to the Greek gods but not identical and so their myths varied.
Ares, the Greek god of war is depicted as relentless, superior in force and dedicated in battle (Morford et al. 131). He is attributed with a golden helmet, bronze armour, spear, shield, and chariot (Morford et al. 131). In Jacques-Louis’ painting, he is pictured with his sword and helmet on the ground and he has fallen before what could be his own chariot. Ares takes the Trojans’ side to protect his beloved, Aphrodite, despite his promises to Hera and Athena (Armstrong 30). Ares and Aphrodite have an overwhelming infatuation with each other that blindsides them (Morford et al. 129). Although he is viewed with incredible bloodlust and rage, ironically he is willing to risk and sacrifice himself for another in the name of love (La Fond 13:26-14:51). He quickly realizes his own naivete and reflects on his actions as he extends a hand out in apology, remorse, and surrender.
Behind him, it appears that there is war occurring in the background, as there are faint shadows of soldiers lined up and piled dead bodies. Ares, however, is not depicted in battle but shines brightly with Athena and Aphrodite to show their superiority over humanity. Athena is the brightest figure in the painting. Jacques-Louis placed Ares on a slight pedestal because of his godly status but he is painted darker than the two other gods and has a red Roman toga instead of the Roman citizen white toga worn by Athena (BRØNS 58). This could emphasize his dark, violent egotism and the destructive nature of war contrasted with Athena’s wisdom and civic consciousness (Morford et. al 131). He stoops to man’s level when he fights alongside them and fails (Walcot 35). He is inferior to Athena as he mixes love and war and lets emotions influence his decisions. Through Jacques-Louis’ intricate thinking and details, I believe that he is showing that although Ares is strong and mighty, he cowers below Athena due to his human-like urges and behavior. The year is 1771 and nowhere near the women’s movement yet Athena, a woman, can defeat a man (Walcot 35).
Ares effects and interferes with human life in tragic ways. His thirst for war is as strong as his love for the ones he values or is attracted to and possibly is the driving force of his need for war. Aphrodite hovers above in the sky waiting to rescue her beloved. She also shows the same open hand form as Ares, symbolizing their connection.
Jacques-Louis uses his painting to show that mythological gods have strengths and weaknesses. They are not all-powerful. With Ares’ guard down, it allows him to be attacked as Diomedes and Athena work together to strike him (Walcot 35). Ares is brought down and taught a lesson by Athena and his mother that his actions have consequences. Despite his reputation for bloodlust and war, it is not often mentioned that he is influenced by others and does not act just on his own whim (La Fond 13:26-14:51). His vulnerability and weakness when opposed by Minerva’s wisdom and sense of justice are clearly shown within this painting.
In this painting, three specific divinities are depicted. Aphrodite (Venus) is seen floating above the Trojan conflict that is taking place, while the titular Athena (Minerva) and Ares (Mars) do battle against one another. The content of this painting depicts Ares being defeated by Athena. There are several key features in this painting that have direct links to classical mythology, especially in regard to Ares, the well-known god of war. An analysis of this work reveals much about Ares, from how he was thought to be perceived by the other Olympian gods, to Ares’ depiction in much of classical mythology.
This artwork, painted by David Jacques-Louis in 1771, depicts a battle during the Trojan war. In this particular conflict, it is thought that the divinities took opposing sides, much as the Greeks and Trojans did. Divinities like Poseidon and Athena took the side of the Greeks, while others, including Zeus, Apollo, and Ares took the side of the Trojans. Ares, who is easily recognized by his golden helmet (seen lying beside him) and chariot (in the background) has been defeated by Athena. Though he was commonly known as the Greek god of war, both Zeus and Athena were known to have pivotal roles in the concepts of war. While Athena was known as the tactician and moralist in the purview of war, Ares is seen as little more than a killer that lusts for blood. One thing that I find fascinating about this painting is that Ares is depicted in a position of defeat, shame, and weakness. This could potentially be the artist’s preferential view of calculating tactics over rage and strength.
One thing that is made clear in this artwork is how the other Olympian gods view Ares. Though considered to be a great warrior and given to flamboyant bravado, Ares is generally looked down upon by most of the other gods, especially Zeus and Athena (Morford et al, 130-131). In the accompanying story, as well as in the painting, the only god that tends to come to Ares rescue and support is Aphrodite, who can be seen in the clouds above the conflict. Aphrodite is commonly depicted as Ares' lover, which may be why she is the only god to show him affection or kindness, as the other gods disapprove of his wanton desire for death and bloodshed.
Another figure that can be seen in this painting is Eros (Cupid to the Romans). In many paintings and sculptures depicting Ares, Eros can also be seen. One theory as to why this is a common feature is that Eros has a direct link to Aphrodite, and that seeing Eros near Ares is meant to be representative of his love for her. Another possible explanation is that the Putto (a small child with things) in the context of artwork is meant to be a representation of the divine, separating the gods from mortals. In doing this, viewers of these mythological paintings are more easily able to tell when the gods are being depicted, as they share so many features with mortals.
The detail and content of this painting do several things to make the situation known to people who may not even have a familiarity with classical mythology. The lighting shows that the characters depicted are greater than the darkened mortals that can also be seen. We can see that there was a clear winner and clear loser to this particular conflict (although the Trojan war would ultimately end differently). We also see differential relationships between the divinites that are the focus of this piece. Altogether, David Jacques-Louis did a lot to portray the complicated relationships between the gods.
In 1771, the most celebrated French artist Jacques-Louis David portrayed the Trojan War between the Greek gods and goddess in his painting called The Combat of Mars and Minerva. My analysis will mainly focus on connecting David’s painting techniques to the different relationships Ares had with the two other goddesses, Athena and Aphrodite, in classic mythology. It is through the contrasting placements, gestures, and shadows that depict Ares’s moral and military inferiority to the goddess of war Athena.
Such painting has accurately portrayed Ares as the God of war in the viewing of many classic mythologies. Often, Ares is described as brutal and superior in force ((Morford et al, 128). Because a dim red is only shown through Ares’s cape throughout the entire painting, this could be interpreted as Jacques-Louis’s way of demonstrating the bloody and brutal side of Ares in the aspect of warfare. The fallen shield and golden helmet in the painting show Ares’s superior in force before being defeated by Athena during the Trojan war. In the beginning, Ares had made an agreement with his mother Hera and half-sister Athena that he would take the Greeks side of the war. However, because his lover Aphrodite had her heart with the Trojans and Ares was blindly in love with her, he got persuaded by her to fight for the Trojans. Seeing the betrayal of her half-brother, Athena guided Diomedes to throw his spear directly at Ares’s stomach (“Ares.”). Such a throw caused Ares’s fall on the ground which is captured in the painting. Even though many of the Greeks personify Ares by the harsh characteristics of waste and folly of war, he is still shown with appreciation and respect for his various representations of warfare (Morford et al, 128).
In order to show Ares’s moral and military inferiority to the goddess of war Athena, Jacques-Louis locates Ares’s frame below Athena’s in the painting, positions a contrasting hand gesture between the two, and incorporates a dark shadow on Ares and a bright shadow on Athena. Despite both being powerful deities in Greek mythology, Ares’s weakness in warfare can be shown directly through the comparison to Athena’s. Even though Ares is superior in force through being cruel and brutal, such power of his becomes inferior compared to Athena’s wise, thoughtful, and just aspect of warfare (“Athena • Facts and Information on Greek Goddess Athena.”, 2017). In the artwork, Jacques-Louis places Ares lying on the ground and Athena standing on the ground, showing Ares being the inferior one during the Trojan war. Second, Ares has his left hand reaching out towards Athena with an open palm in an upper direction, indicating his defeat by Athena. Lastly, even though Ares’s clothing is more colorful than Athena’s, the darker shadow and the dimness of red and gold cover up his glory in the painting. It could be Jacques-Louis’s intention of showing Ares’s past glory in power through the bright colors of his clothing and Are’s lost glory in the presence of Athena through the darker shadows. After combining these three painting techniques and how they depict Ares, I feel like no matter how bright the original color may be (red or gold), the amount of shadow or the degree of light can have a much bigger impact on holding one’s attention.
Ares’s blindly affection for Aphrodite has caused himself to not only be defeated in the Trojan war but also sacrificed many of his own people. The fact that Ares chooses to change sides of the war because of his love for a woman shows why he often represents the distasteful perspective of brutal warfare and slaughter in classic mythology (Britannica, 2021). What I find the most interesting in this painting is how even though Ares is reaching out his hand towards Athena, his eyes seem to be looking directly at Aphrodite in the sky. Perhaps, Jacques-Louis wants to show the maintained connection between Ares and his lover despite the consequences of the Trojan war.
The unique techniques in such a piece allows audiences to be familiar with classic Greek mythology while still giving some space to interpret their emotions subjectively. It is through Jacques-Louis’s use of placement, gestures, and shadows that illustrates Ares’s complex relationships with two other goddesses during the Trojan war as well as his weak aspect in warfare.
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