According to the Greek mythology, Europa was the daughter of Agenor, the King of Tyre and was known as the epitome of feminine beauty on Earth. One day, while she was picking flowers and frolicking with her friends on the seashore of Phoenicia, Zeus saw her and despite being married to the goddess Hera, he was totally captivated by her beauty and fell instantly in lust.
Acting on his impulsive desire, he took the form of a white bull and approached her with the intention to abduct her from the seashore.
Though Europa was fascinated to spot the sudden appearance of a snow-white bull with gem-like horns on the shore, initially she was slightly apprehensive. However, as the bull seemed to be docile and lay down at her feet, she dared to touch the animal affectionately, caressed his flanks and playfully placed a garland on his horns, before eventually decided to climb on his back.
Zeus was anxiously waiting for this moment. As soon as Europa climbed on his back, he rushed toward the sea with the beautiful girl on his back and carried her all the way from Phoenicia to the island of Crete. There, as Zeus transformed again from the bull to regain his original feature and proposed his love, Europa agreed to be his lover and they mated beneath a cypress tree. After fulfilling his desire, Zeus left for Olympus, leaving Europa on Crete, rather than returning her to Tyre.
Europa, who later gave birth to three sons of Zeus, prospered on Crete, as she married Asterion, the king of Crete and eventually became the first Queen of Crete. However, that is a different story.
Rape of Europa, with its dark erotic undertones, was one of the most popular classical subjects for 17th-century paintings. King Philip II of Spain commissioned this work from Titian, who relied heavily on Ovid's Metamorphoses to render this mythological painting. In his emotionally charged work, Titian successfully conveyed the complexities of and similarities between fear and desire. In the painting, three of the four limbs of Europa are depicted as flailing in a wild panic, while her left arm grips the bull's horn, lest she fall into the churning sea.
In stark contrast, the bull seems to be relatively composed, as he is propelling himself forward through the water, with his tactfully captured prize on his back.
A copy of Titian’s Rape of Europa (1562) was created by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens in 1628-1629, which is now in the Prado Museum, the main Spanish national art museum in Madrid.
King Wladislaw IV of Poland also commissioned Rape of Europa from the Italian artist Guido Reni, who completed the work between 1637 and 1639. In the work, Europa was shown at the moment when her anxiety and alarm at being abducted, was slowly changing to love. Its luminous tonality, studied elegance and strong pale colouring are typical of Reni's late style. Later, it was collected by Denis Mahon, a British collector and historian of Italian art, who loaned it to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London, where it is still on display.