If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Tintoretto, the Origin of the Milky Way

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Origin of the Milky Way, c. 1575, oil on canvas, 149.4 x 168 cm (The National Gallery, London). Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(piano music playing) Beth: Many cultures have sought to explain the white glowing band that can sometimes be seen in the night sky. Steven: That's the Milky Way, of course, and the Greeks and Romans were no exception. We're in the National Gallery, in London, looking at the great Venetian painter Tintoretto's, The Origin of the Milky Way, which illustrates that very myth. Beth: According to this version of the story of The Origin of the Milky Way, we see the god Jupiter, the god of the sky, and the king of the gods. Steven: Now that's the figure that's swooping down from the upper right, who's swaddled in red. Beth: He has a baby in his arms that he's bringing to the breast of his wife, Juno. Steven: The problem is the baby is not Juno's, not his wife's. Jupiter, also known as Zeus in the Greek variant, was known to mess around. He had a liaison with a mortal woman, and the result was the offspring, Heracles, or Hercules. Beth: Zeus is bringing Hercules here to nurse on Juno's breast. Jupiter knew that if he did that, Hercules would acquire immortality. Steven: So, his wife is asleep. If he can get his baby, by another woman, to suckle at her breast, the baby acquires immortality, a good thing, but pretty sneaky. Beth: When this happens, Juno, naturally, wakes up, and pushes the baby from her breast, and milk spurts from her breasts, both up and down. The milk that spurts up is, in the myth, the origin of the Milky Way and, in fact, the word for galaxy derives from the Greek word for milk, and the milk that spurts down creates the lovely white lilies that we all know and love. Steven: If we look at the painting by Tintoretto, we can actually see the milk spurting up in these sharp diagonal lines, each ending with brilliant sparkle of a star. We can see, from her other breast, the milk spurting down but, here, we don't see the lilies, and the reason is is we believe that this canvas was actually cut down. Lilies were originally there, but are no longer present. Beth: In typical fashion for a Venetian painting in the 16th century, we have a sense of movement, of diagonal lines, of foreshortening, of real drama. Steven: Tintoretto does employ an almost Marist quality to the positioning of the figures, and there are these arabesques, these kind of swoops in space. In fact, the entire episode is taking place in the sky and, although the bed seems fairly solid, you'll notice that it's actually being held up, in the upper left, by a cloud. Beth: You can see the clouds on the bottom, too, holding up the bed. The body of Juno is especially complex and mannerist in its pose. Look at how she leans down, but moves her upper body and her face up, as though she's moving in opposite directions at the same time. Steven: These movements, these arabesques, are highlighted by the 4 angels, or the 4 putti, that are seen here as well. They're holding various attributes. You can see one of them holding a torch and an arrow. Another, chains, a net, and a bow. Those are attributes of the way in which love captures one. Beth: We also see other attributes of both Juno and Jupiter. We see an eagle, who's associated with Jupiter, carrying a thunderbolt, another attribute of Jupiter, and we see a peacock, an attribute of Juno. Steven: What is most startling to me, in this painting, is its vivid colors. The painting just glows. Beth: That's what Venetian painting was known for, a vivid, intense coloration. Steven: Also, the way in which the more subtle tones for instance, of Juno's body, really creates a beautiful sense of the turn of the flesh. Look at her thighs, there's that foreshortening as that knee comes towards us, but there's such a subtle modulation of light and shadow in that chiaroscuro. It really feels as if that flesh has elasticity. Beth: My favorite passage is the angel just below Juno's head. Look at the blues and pinks and greens in its wings, and the way that its torso is in shadow but its legs move up into the light. What's fun about this, is this idea of the myth of the origin of the Milky Way and the very different way we think of the Milky Way in the early 21st century. Steven: I think we're still struggling to understand the immensity of the Universe and really to understand its origins. Beth: We don't explain it, generally, Steven: (laughing) No, that's true. Soon after this painting was painted, less than a 100 years later, Galileo looked up, with a telescope, at the Milky Way, and recognized that it wasn't just a white glowing band, that it was made up of individual stars. Steven: Now we try to grasp the immensity of what the Milky Way is actually comprised of, of the number of stars. Beth: Right. The Milky Way apparently contains something like between 200 and 400 billion stars, and is more than a 100 million light years across. This is inconceivable. I think I like the myth with the breast milk a little better. Steven: I'm not sure which seems more miraculous, the story of Juno and Jupiter, or the science behind our contemporary understanding. (piano music playing)