The Origin of the Milky Way
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The infancy of Hercules as depicted in The Origin of the Milky Way by Rubens is not what Disney would have you believe.

Forget about cute cradles, prancing Pegasus babies, or cooing parents. Like Tintoretto in his earlier version of The Origin of the Milky Way, Rubens gives us the actual myth in all its galactic lactation glory. It turns out little Hercules was actually the illegitimate child of Jupiter (Zeus) and a mortal, Alcmene, whom he had tricked into sleeping with him by pretending to be her husband, Amphitryon. Because he was born of a human, Hercules lacked immortality, so Jupiter did what any sensible father would do: he sneaked that baby up to Mt. Olympus and placed him at his sleeping wife Juno’s breast. Juno just happened to be lactating, and the baby latched on greedily, only to chomp down too hard in his enthusiasm and rouse both the goddess and her ire.  

As she yanked her breast away from Hercules, her immortal-life giving milk streamed into the sky, where it created, you guessed it, the Milky Way. (No wonder breastfeeding women get told to cover up in public. If they wave their boobs around too much, they might just shoot out a solar system.) Rubens’ own considerable body of lactation imagery suggests that he himself would never have urged a woman to cover up. Indeed, in Rubens’ day, breast milk was considered an important remedy for almost any ailment, even those afflicting adults, so lactating was really a majestic business of creation and renewal, even if it was also tinged with the erotic. Maybe that’s why he felt comfortable using his wife and favorite muse, Hélène Fourment, as the model for Juno.       

This painting comes from a series commissioned in 1636 by Philip IV of Spain when he was renovating his hunting lodge, the Torre de la Parada. Although he also commissioned some works from his own court painter Velázquez, the largest commission went to Rubens, who was asked to paint sixty mythological scenes. Rubens knew mythology like nobody else, so this was his big chance to design a whole program, an entire world, of classical myth. Rubens carried out the bulk of his work in Antwerp, where he enlisted a team of fellow artists to carry out the paintings after his own sketches. Only 15 months after receiving the commission, Rubens and his team had already completed 56 paintings. Many of them, like Saturn Devouring his Son, are in the Prado today.

Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand, the King’s brother and governor of the Spanish Netherlands, would check in from time to time on Rubens’ progress, and he was quite disturbed by all the nude figures. Ever the diplomat, Rubens pretended to care, but said alas, it was too late to change them, and shipped them off to the King, who (believe it or not) didn’t seem to mind. Seldom promiscuous, the nudes in these late mythology paintings reflect Rubens’ evolving interests as an artist. Unlike in earlier works, the emphasis is less on their flesh than on the narrative and emotional content of the stories they are enacting. Yes, they are distractingly large and naked, but their nudity and sheer heftiness lend them a monumental, mythologized appearance and serve to convey their exuberance and good health. Indeed, Juno over here looks so healthy her pet peacocks probably couldn’t even pull her in that carriage.

The Torre de la Parada works, based primarily on Ovid’s "Metamorphoses" (though this story may be drawn from the “Geoponica,” a 10th century Byzantine botanical textbook) demonstrate Rubens’ prioritization of story and psychological nuance in his project to explore human emotion through classical myth. With their unified compositions and meaningful gestures, they represent the pinnacle of his artistic career, the last hurrah before he succumbed to gout-related heart failure in 1640. The fact that Rubens could get away with painting nude female figures, one of his great specialties, in his quest to convey the human condition was just the icing on the cake of this once-in-a-lifetime project.




  1. Belkin, Kristin Lohse. Rubens. London: Phaidon, 1998.
  2. Sperling, Jutta Gisela. Medieval and Renaissance Lactations: images, rhetorics, practices. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013.
  3. Wedgewood, C.V. The World of Rubens: 1577-1640. New York: Time Incorporated, 1967.
  4. “The Birth of the Milky Way.” Museo del Prado. Accessed March 5, 2018.
  5. “The Origin of the Milky Way.” The National Gallery. Accessed March 5, 2018.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about The Origin of the Milky Way (Rubens)

The Origin of the Milky Way, or The Birth of the Milky Way, is a painting by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, featuring the Greco-Roman myth of the origin of the Milky Way. The painting depicts Hera (Juno), spilling her breast milk, the infant Heracles (Hercules) and Zeus (Jupiter) in the background, identifiable by his eagle and lightning bolts. Hera's face is modelled on Rubens' wife, Hélène Fourment. The carriage is pulled by Hera's favourite animals, peacocks. Due to the dark background of the night sky the figures gain a greater sense of volume.

The image was a part of the commission from Philip IV of Spain to decorate Torre de la Parada. Rubens also painted other Greco-Roman mythological subjects, such as Hercules Fighting the Nemean Lion or Perseus Freeing Andromeda.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about The Origin of the Milky Way (Rubens).