The Origin of the Milky Way

The probable source for the subject was a Byzantine botanical text-book, 'Geoponica', in which it is related how Jupiter, wishing to immortalise the infant Hercules (whose mother was the mortal Alcmene), held him to the breasts of the sleeping Juno. The milk which spurted upwards formed the Milky Way, while some fell downwards giving rise to lilies.

Lilies were once present at the base of the painting, until a part of the original canvas was cut off.

Gallery insight: Karly Allen
Karly Allen, National Gallery Education, explores creation myths in 'The Origin of the Milky Way' - 5 mins 10 secs

Miranda Hinkley: Karly Allen, of the Education team, told me more about Tintoretto’s 'Origin of the Milky Way'.

Karly Allen: In the painting, set against a brilliant blue background, Jupiter, god of the skies is sweeping in from above, his red robe billowing in the wind and his eagle at his side, clutching thunderbolts. Jupiter is supporting his infant son, Hercules, born out of an illicit liaison with a mere mortal woman from earth, and 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 voluptuous nude reclining on a bed of silks and pearls high up in the clouds and 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 of course, not surprisingly, what we see here in the painting is Juno startled by this unexpected child at her breast and she jolts awake and as she draws back the milk sprays up into the night sky and forms the stars of the Milky Way.

Miranda Hinkley: And if you look closely at the canvas you can see the faint white lines of the milk going up into the sky, but there’s some more milk from the other breast going downwards and it almost looks as if it’s going down towards some figures at the bottom.

Karly Allen: That’s right. Well, 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 – the title is only really known from the 19th century – but 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 coming straight down, crashing down to earth, and where it lands, a new flower springs up and that’s the explanation for the first milk-white lily.

Miranda Hinkley: A-ha! And if you actually look at the bottom right-hand part of the picture you can still see perhaps a little bit of that original background. There are some sort of plants at the bottom.

Karly Allen: You can just make out a few green leaves, which look a little bit incongruous given that we believe ourselves to be up in the sky, but if we could see the rest of the picture we’d understand that this is just a last remnant of those plants that Tintoretto originally painted in and much of that detail has now been overpainted by clouds.

Miranda Hinkley: So this painting is actually packed with origin myths?

Karly Allen: It’s incredibly dramatic and inventive which makes it such a great subject for Tintoretto – his mastery of movement and colour and drama. But it’s also a reminder of how the Milky Way itself has served as a powerful source of inspiration for creation myths worldwide. It’s really interesting to look at some of these legends from other cultures. Many of them use very poetic language and pick up on this idea of the Milky Way as being a pathway, a route across the sky. In many East Asian countries including China and Japan, the Milky Way is described as a river, the silver river of heaven, and in one related story, we’re told that it divided two lovers. We’re told that they were only able to meet up once a year when a flock of birds would come together to create a bridge over the celestial waters across the sky.

I think my favourite account comes from Menelaus, the Ancient Roman author, who compiled various explanations for the appearance of the Milky Way. He writes that the Milky Way is in fact a seam running across the sky. It’s the point at which the two halves of heaven are stitched together, and what we’re looking at is a bright light just visible through that seam. 

Miranda Hinkley: And, of course, this is a fantastic kind of record of ancient mythology…

Karly Allen: Well, in just one painting we’ve got a reference to not only the Western European tradition but I think it does remind us of this great heritage, this shared enthusiasm across cultures for myth-making and great storytelling. Tintoretto is such a good storyteller and so the painting really celebrates through colour and movement and beautiful human form that sort of innate curiosity and is really a lasting record of a lost belief system.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Karly Allen

From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Eight, February 2009

Key facts

Artist dates
about 1518 - 1594
Full title
The Origin of the Milky Way
Date made
about 1575
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
149.4 x 168 cm
Acquisition credit
Bought, 1890
Inventory number
Location in Gallery