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The Origin of the Milky Way by Jacobo Tintoretto, c1580

Tintoretto’s ‘The Origin of the Milky Way’ is an intriguing painting.   Painted at a time when astronomy was in its infancy and when science and alchemy overlapped, this work is inspired by a Roman myth and is full of hidden symbolism. What do the peacocks represent; who is the baby; what is the eagle holding in its claws; and how does milk turn into stars?

The Story

Set against a brilliant blue background, Jupiter, god of the skies is sweeping in from above, his red robe blowing in the wind and his eagle at his side, clutching thunderbolts.


Jupiter is supporting his infant son, Hercules, born out of an affair with a woman from earth. So Jupiter is really very keen that he’s able to give the gift of immortality to his new child, and he knows that the only way to do that is if the baby Hercules can drink the milk of a goddess.


Rather conveniently, as we see here, the closest goddess to Jupiter is his wife Juno, and Tintoretto shows us Juno as this nude lying on a bed of silks and pearls in the clouds. 


We’re told in the story that Juno was sleeping and Jupiter hoped to creep up on her and allow the baby Hercules to suckle her unnoticed. But not surprisingly what we see here in the painting is Juno startled by this unexpected child at her breast. She jolts awake, and as she draws back the milk sprays up into the night sky and forms the stars of the Milky Way.


Picture Highlights

What’s interesting about this painting is that it doesn’t just tell one creation myth, it makes reference to others. So in fact the real subject of the picture is not just the origin of the Milky Way – this title is only really known from the 19th century.


If we were able to see the picture when it was new, it was much larger, and at the bottom of the painting there was another reclining figure down on earth and the milk from Juno’s other breast is splashing straight down to earth. Where it lands, a new flower springs up - that’s the explanation for the first milk-white lily.


The four angels are holding different objects: arrow (of passion), chains (of marriage), net and bow (symbols of eroticism).  The eagle is carrying a thunderbolt (or is it a crab) and the peacock is a symbol of beauty and integrity which are associated with Juno. In Christianity, the Peacock symbolism represents the "all-seeing" church, along with the holiness and sanctity associated with it. Additionally, the Peacock represents resurrection, renewal and immortality within the spiritual teachings of Christianity.


There is also a view that the various elements represent a horoscope.  It is known that Emperor Rudolf who commissioned the work, like President Ronald Reagan four hundred years later was a fervent believer in astrology and would not do anything without consulting the stars. He even changed his date of birth for a more favourable star sign.



Bigger Picture

This painting was a favourite of one of the Hapsburg rulers. The Imperial court in Prague under Rupert cultivated the idea that paintings needed an aura of mystery which only insiders could work out. This developed into an elitist predilection for coded messages drawn from astrology and alchemy. There was a particular preference for mythologies which, like the Milky Way, intimated that the sky and human psyche were interrelated at some deep level.


If you go out at night in an unlit area, especially when the Moon is below the horizon, you cannot miss that band of hazy light that seems to be arcing across the sky. Neither did ancient civilizations miss this bright streak we now call the Milky Way, and they came up with a variety of imaginative, mythical explanations for it as we can see from this painting.


Emperor Rudolf’s image of himself as linked to the ancient hero Hercules was already part of the Hapsburg family tradition. The Milky War is one of four paintings on the adventures of Hercules bought by the Emperor.  He also dabbled in alchemy, and stayed up all night looking for the philosopher’s stone.


Rupert was also interested in astronomy. He offered in 1599 the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe the post of Imperial Mathematician and allowed him to build a new observatory in Prague.  Brahe had developed an accurate way of plotting the universe.  He was joined by another brilliant thinker - Kepler, and for the brief period they were together began to develop influential theories of the universe.  Brahe was also responsible to constructing the Emperor’s horoscopes.


This merger of astronomy based on careful observation with

astrology and alchemy dominated scientific thinking during this period, and Tintoretto’s painting combines all elements in ways the cognoscenti would have appreciated.


Who  paid for picture?

Emperor Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, hung the painting in the Imperial Palace in Prague where it remained until the town was invaded by the Swedes in 1648 and taken with the art collection as booty to Sweden.  Rudolf was a great and influential patron of art; and a devotee of occult arts and learning which helped seed the scientific revolution. He was a close friend of Tycho Brahe, one of the first astronomers who set up an observatory in Prague.



Fascinating facts About Tintoretto

Detail from Jacopo Tintoretto, Self-portrait

Tintoretto was born in 1518 and scarcely ever travelled beyond Venice.


He was multi-talented, loved all the arts, and as a youth played the lute and various instruments, some of them his own invention, and designed theatrical costumes and properties.


He was also versed in mechanics and mechanical devices.


While being a very agreeable companion, for the sake of his work he lived in a mostly retiring fashion, and even when not painting was wont to remain in his working room surrounded by plaster casts.


Tintoretto sometimes made models from dead and dissected people from anatomy school.

He tried to make his art a combination of Titian and Michelangelo's techniques


Tintoretto was tied to Venice, and the types of commissions the city could offer him: altarpieces and other sacred subjects for churches and confraternity halls, portraits, civic projects, and mythologies. His finest portraits are gripping presentations of Venetian patricians and statesmen


Religious works such as The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes can be described as balletic, with their theatrical figure arrangements, exaggerated poses, and dynamic sense of movement.


The English writer and art lover, John Ruskin, observed that like the picture we are looking at, his figures were always flying, falling, sinking, or biting.



Tintoretto Pictures

The Last Supper, 1592 and 1594


The church of San Giorgio Maggiore was built on the San Giorgio Island between 1566 and 1600 using the design of Palladio. After 1590 the workshop of Tintoretto was commissioned to paint big canvases for decorating it.


This painting can be described as the feast of the poor, in which the figure of Christ mingles with the crowds of apostles. However, a supernatural scene with winged figures comes into sight by the light around his head. This endows the painting with a visional character clearly differentiating it from paintings of the same subject made by earlier painters like Leonardo.

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