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Current time:0:00Total duration:5:19

Tintoretto, the Origin of the Milky Way

Video transcript

many cultures have sought to explain the white glowing band that can sometimes be seen in the night sky 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 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 now that's the figure that's swooping down from the upper right who's swaddled in red and he has a baby in his arms that he's bringing to the breast of his wife Juno the problem is the baby is not Juno's not his wives 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 this is bringing Hercules here to nurse on Juno's breast Jupiter knew that if he did that Hercules would acquire immortality 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 it's pretty sneaky 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 if we look at the painting by Tintoretto we can actually see the milk spurting up in these sharp diagonal lines each ending was really in sparkle of a star and we can see from her other breasts 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 no longer present an in typical fashion for Venetian painting in the 16th century we have a sense of movement of diagonal lines of foreshortening of real drama Tintoretto does employ an almost Mannerist quality to the positioning of the figures 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's actually being held up in the upper left by a cloud you can see the clouds on the bottom too holding up the bed the body of Juno is especially complex in 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 these movements these Kara masks are highlighted by the four angels or the four 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 and 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 what is most startling to me in this painting is its vivid colors the painting just glows and that what Venetian painting was known for vivid intense coloration but 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 kind of subtle modulation of light and shadow in that cute Escudo it really feels as if that flesh has elasticity 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 and 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 well I think we're still struggling to stand the immensity of the universe and really to understand its origins but we don't explain it generally by breast milk anymore no that's true soon after this painting was painted less than a hundred years later Galileo looked up with the telescope at the Milky Way and recognized that it wasn't just a white glowing band that it was made up of individual stars and now we try to grasp the immensity of what the Milky Way is actually comprised of of the number of stars the Milky Way apparently contains something like between 200 and 400 billion stars and is more than a hundred million light years across this is inconceivable I think I like the myth with the breast milk a little better I'm not sure which seems more miraculous the story of Juno and Jupiter or the science behind our contemporary understanding