This painting by the Renaissance Italian artist Giulio Romano (1499-1546) is full of symbolism but is also surprisingly graphic for its day. It represents the legend that Alexander the Great was fathered not by Philip of Macedon but by the God Zeus (Jupiter) in the form of a snake.
Olympias, who was originally named Polyxena, was the daughter of King Neoptolemus I from the Epirus region of Greece (now largely Albania). On the death of her father, her uncle had her married off in a diplomatic arrangement to Philip of Macedon (although the two were already in love). A year after they were married Philip's horse won a race at the Olympic Games and he renamed his wife Olympias (played, of course, by Angelina Jolie in Alexander (2004)). That summer, Alexander was born following a dream by Olympias that her womb had been penetrated by a thunderbolt (portents were important in Ancient Greece).
Olympias was a follower of the snake-worshipping cult of Dionysus and her biographer, Plutarch, said that she slept with snakes. This all gives rise to the (very late) Greek legend depicted here. Philip caught his wife in bed with a snake and sent to the Oracle at Delphi for an interpretation of the incident. The Oracle reported to Philip who told him that it was Jupiter in the form of a snake and he would lose an eye for having spied them together.
Romano's painting shows Olympias, her legs apart, her hands braced on the 'frame' of the picture while Jupiter in a half man, half snake form approaches her. He is patently erect, his penis sliding up her inner thigh, which was very unusual for a public picture at the time but perhaps justified by the mythical story. Still, we cannot think of any other similarly frank paintings from the period.
In the background you can see Philip of Macedon, caught peeking at his wife and losing his eye to an eagle, the symbol of Jupiter, (he lost his eye at the siege of Methone, a year after Alexander was born.)
The painting is part of a vast fresco Romano did for the Palazzo Te in Mantua (which he also designed). Jupiter and Olympia is at bottom left. Romano, a pupil of Raphael, was the official artist and architect for Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. Romano was the original artist for the sixteen graphically erotic pictures known as I Modi which we looked at in another post. Sadly, Romano's originals are long gone but we will look at some more of the engravings done from his works and depicting various historical and mythical couples having sex, another time.