UA1-WA:P2-p1 Research Point: A mythological story – Arachne and Minerva

velazquez_arachneFor this Research Point I have chosen the story of Arachne and Minerva (also called Athena or Pallas Athene). On the right is Velázquez’s The Fable of Arachne (Las Hilanderas) (copied with kind permission of Museo del Prado). I mentioned this painting in my post of 22 Mar 2013. That was in the context of reading about the disguised meaning in paintings in What is art history? by Mark Roskill.

The story of Arachne is told in Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There are some wonderful translations on the internet (see note at the end), but a not-quite bare-bones version follows.

The myth of Arachne

Arachne came from a poor family. She developed great skill in spinning, embroidery and most of all weaving. Not only were the finished cloths beautiful, but the way she worked, every graceful movement of her hands, added to the art. It was clear when watching her that she had learnt from Minerva the goddess of women’s arts, especially spinning and weaving.

Arachne was proud of her skills. She denied that Minerva had taught her and grew angry at such suggestions. Minerva herself was angry at this insolence, and visited Arachne in the guise of an old woman, advising her to beg the goddess for forgiveness for her presumption. Arachne abused the “old woman”, challenging the goddess to a contest.

Minerva then appeared as herself. The other women and nymphs there worshipped Minerva. Arachne blushed, then paled, but was unrepentant. She “rushes on to her fate, eager for a worthless prize” (Kline, 2000).

There is a lovely passage describing the dressing of the looms, the fine threads, rich colours and gold, and the actual weaving. Minerva’s tapestry shows the enthroned gods in all their power and majesty. An olive tree has grown where Minerva struck the earth, and the gods are marvelling. In the corners are scenes of mortals who have been metamorphosed, punished by the gods in the past for daring to challenge them.

Arachne’s weaving showed scene after scene of gods transforming into other shapes to pursue and rape women, including “Europa deceived by the form of the bull: you would have thought it a real bull and real waves” (Kline, 2000). The workmanship was flawless, and this together with the subject further inflamed Minerva’s rage. Minerva tore Arachne’s work to shreds, then hit the girl on the head with her shuttle.

Arachne could not bear such treatment and insult. Either overcome by the wrath of Minerva, or still proud and courageous (slightly different translations), she made a noose and hung herself.

Minerva was moved by pity and remorse to save Arachne’s life but, still angry, cursed Arachne and her descendants. Minerva sprinkled on poison and Arachne was transformed into a spider.

Sources of the myth

From my research to date Ovid’s account seems to be the most complete telling of Arachne’s story. There is an earlier mention in Virgil’s Georgics. There is a brief mention of Arachne in Dante’s Inferno. I also found a couple of links to Shakespeare – Troilus and Cressida, The Winters Tale and maybe Bottom’s experience in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Arachne is one of those included in Giovanni Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus (Of Famous Women), which includes considerable additional information. Other links are given on the very helpful website of the Chair of Iconography and iconology in the Department of Art History of the Faculty of Humanities of the ‘ University of Rome “La Sapienza”: and in particular, however the auto-translator in my browser left something to be desired.

The myth harnessed to promote Christian values

The sin of pride, one of the seven Deadly Sins, is the most obvious message in the story. Arachne’s hubris leads her not only to challenge Minerva, but to rush on to the contest and her fate. Arachne was also led astray by her anger. To the end she was intransigent, “courageously” choosing death rather than accept her treatment and humiliation.

There is also a warning of the consequences of challenging god(s), or those on this earth put in authority – either religious or civic. In addition one should listen to and heed the advice of elders / superiors. Images of Arachne could be used to remind viewers to accept their social position – especially in times of change or when new aristocracy challenged the old order.

A parallel could be drawn between Minerva appearing to Arachne to teach her of her errors and offer a path of repentance and deliverance, and the Christian God sending His Son in the form of man to teach and to save mankind.

There is a contrast between the proud and angry Arachne and the more common view of virtuous, productive women working in their domestic sphere. This can be extended to the contrast of Arachne’s pride and disobedience to the behaviour of the Virgin Mary who although at first deeply disturbed, submitted and was obedient to God’s will. Part an image in a fifteenth century miniature shows Minerva, complete with wings like the Archangel Gabriel, appearing to Arachne who is working at her loom. The similarity to scenes of the Annunciation is unmistakable. (See for the Arachne miniature and my post of 22-June-2013 annotating an image of the Annunciation).

Arachne’s story links to the idea that from one who has been given much, much is expected. One should give thanks to God for all his gifts, and use those gifts not just for oneself but for the benefit of all.

The futility of personal pride and any ephemeral personal glory is highlighted by Arachne’s fate as a spider, forever weaving webs that will break and be brushed away.

Given my modern perspective I find it difficult to assess the acts of the gods as depicted in Arachne’s weaving and how they would have been interpreted by Ovid’s original readers, or in Medieval or Renaissance times. Was Arachne expressing a widely accepted sense of horror and outrage at the abuse of power in violence that can never be accepted or justified? During my research I found the following:
“…to be coerced by a god is no ordinary human experience of sexual violence. Rather, it is a terrifying but transformative experience of supernatural possession or ecstasy, which may have a positive outcome.” (1)
The quote above was in the context of discussion of Titian’s Europa – linked to some of the works shown below. In my research I did not find anything to suggest that earlier viewers would have seen Arachne’s behaviour as justified protest of abuses of power. Possibly there could be an argument that prudence was required in expressing negative views of one’s superiors.

Descriptions of two Artworks

Engraving Published by: Johannes Boel After: Marten van Cleve I Print made by: Philips Galle, Arachne (1574)
(Image © The Trustees of the British Museum. Used under the Museum’s Standard Terms of Use. Source:,0520.436&page=1)

This is one of a series of eight plates. Arachne is shown as the personification of textile production. I think this could show Arachne four times – in the centre spinning, at the back left embroidering (in the larger image on the museum website you can see the thread being held up, and good light outside would assist the work), she is weaving on the right and is in the top right corner as a spider.

The image is serene, purposeful and busy, as befits a view of industry. There is no sign of Minerva or any of the dramatic events of Arachne’s story. The two background figures are intent on their work. The main figure wears an elaborate headdress and there may be a cloth laid across her to act as an apron to protect the full skirts of her dress. She looks absorbed as she draws the fibres from the distaff and turns the wheel, but there is no overt sign of pride or anger. Perhaps there is a touch of petulance about the mouth, but overall this is not an emotional presentation.

Arachne is surrounded by the tools of textile work and the various stages of materials from fibre to skeins of yarn and the final bolts of cloth. The loom setup is not familiar to me. There is considerable detail – beater, cloth beam, treadles – but no apparent harnesses to make the shed.

Outside can be seen another house in what could be a tidy, prosperous Flemish township.

The composition is quite balanced and static. The main focus is central and forms a triangle in the frame.

Peter Paul Rubens, Pallas and Arachne (1636–37)
(Image used with kind permission of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Source:,_Sculpture_+_Works_on_Paper/Rubens,_Peter_Paul_58_18_Pallas_and_Arachne.aspx)

This image is full of action and emotion, showing one of the most dramatic moments of Arachne’s story. Minerva flies at Arachne, her arm lifted to strike at the girl with the weaving shuttle, which is held like a spear. Arachne has fallen to the ground, her feet scrabbling on the floor, one hand holding Minerva’s arm. Their gazes are locked, Minerva looking down with cold fury and implacable mouth as she metes out her punishment, Arachne wide-eyed, hair in disarray, looking perhaps shocked and at last fearful at the consequences of what she has done. There is a shadow behind and to the right of Arachne, cast by Minerva’s wrath.

To the right is Arachne’s completed tapestry, showing a scene similar to Titan’s Europa. The bodies of Arachne and Europa reflect each other in shape and together form a strong diagonal line across the painting. Minerva’s body above has a parallel diagonal, but also vertical thrusts from her right leg and that descending hand and shuttle.

Behind at the left a woman works at the loom. Her bare feet seem to dance on the treadles. Her long-fingered hands are working feverishly. Her gaze is intent, flushed with effort. She doesn’t seem to notice the drama taking place in front of her. I think this figure may represent Arachne as she weaves in the contest, her clothes rearranged to give freedom to her quick movements but her hair still in place, her confidence intact. Her body leaning forward echoes the diagonals already seen.

At the centre rear is another figure. She seems to watch with concern, but is not a part of the drama. I wonder if her presence is more a compositional device to fill and balance the rest of the image.

The loom is a counter balance, with horses and one shaft visible. The breast and cloth beams seem to be combined. No other equipment or materials are shown – all focus is on the drama unfolding.

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, The Spinners, or The Fable of Arachne (Las Hilanderas) (Ca. 1657)
(Image used with kind permission of Museo del Prado. Source:

This painting is the one I first chose for this research project – and now I am not going to include it. It is a very complex image with a fascinating history and I really don’t feel I can do it justice in a post which is already too long. I’ve included some interesting links below, and hope there will be another opportunity to write about it (including the surprising omission of any loom).

Similarities and differences

The two descriptions above show the almost entirely different interpretations of the artists involved. Both images have a central triangle in the composition, but in the etching this is quite static while in the Rubens there is strong diagonal movement.

The media used differ, and each supports the different styles of the artworks. The etching is very precise with clear details and careful tones. The oil painting is almost sketchy, with just enough detail to support the movement, drama and emotion of the captured moment.

Reasons for artists choices.

The etching is one of a series of personifications of Human Labors. Others in the series include Bellona personifying the arms industry and Panacea personifying the medical profession. The detailed story of each is not relevant. The myth is subordinated to the theme of the print series.

The painting is also one of a series, although I have not been able to locate other members. Rubens was commissioned by the brother of Philip IV of Spain to create a series of works of mythological subjects to decorate a hunting lodge, the Torre de la Parada. Rubens executed sketches for each of the works and the actual paintings were executed by collaborators. The final Arachne and Minerva was painted by Juan Bautista del Mazo and has been lost (2).

Apart from the name of the subject and the inclusion of a loom in the background there is little in common between the two artworks described above.

One more work

Although this post has gone on too long, I would like to finish by pointing to one more artwork – Yasumasa Morimura’s A requiem: spinning a thread between the light and the earth/1946, India (2010). This photograph can be seen at The myth of Arachne is layered – it is a myth telling in part other myths. Both Rubens and Velázquez include references to previous paintings – more layers. Morimura’s photograph also references earlier artworks, including Velázquez’s The Fable of Arachne. The text information on the gallery website suggests that Morimura, like Arachne, is challenging the gods.

(1) Campbell, S.J. (2003) “Europa,” in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press pages 103-107). [online] Available from [Accessed 6 July 2013]

(2) Mataloni, C. [n.d.] Pallade e Aracne.Cattedra di Iconografia e Iconologia del Dipartimento di Storia dell’Arte della Facolté di Scienze Umanistiche dell’Università di Roma [online] Available from [Accessed 6 July 2013]

Kline, AS (translator) (2000) Ovid’s Metamorphoses University of Virginia [online] Available from [Accessed 4 July 2013]

Roksill, M. (1976) What is Art History? London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

The text

The Ovid Collection at the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center ( [Accessed 5-July-2013]) has links to a number of translations. George Sandys’ 1632 verse is a little tricky to read but feels on some level a good match (being roughly contemporary) with the artworks I viewed. See

Anthony S. Kline’s 2000 modern prose version ( is more approachable, with my favourite bonus of freely allowing any non-commercial use.

Yet another translation is by Brookes More at Each version brings another perspective, a bit more richness.

More paintings

The website of the Chair of Iconography and iconology in the Department of Art History of the Faculty of Humanities of the ‘ University of Rome mentioned above has a page full of paintings on the theme of Arachne – see

Links related to Velázquez’s The Fable of Arachne

Georgievska-Shine, A. (2010) “Velázquez and the unfinished story of Arachne,” in The Subject as Aporia in Early Modern Art, edited by Alexander Nagel and Lorenzo Pericolo (Ashgate). [online] Available at [Accessed 6 July 2013]. Comment – I found this fascinating, but beyond me. One day I hope to read and understand it – I think there is a lot about the nature of art and art history.

Absolutely last, and quite off-topic: Ziogas, I. (2011) Ovid in Rushdie, Rushdie in Ovid: A Nexus of Artistic Webs. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics at Boston University 19 (1) [online] Available from [Accessed 6 July 2013]

UA1-WA:P2-p1 Research Point: A mythological story – Arachne and Minerva
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project one: Mythology in the High Renaissance
Topic: Research Point – A mythological story

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