Pygmalion and Galatea: When Sculpted Love Comes Alive

The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea revolves around a sculptor's love for his own creation, a beautiful ivory statue.

Jan 17, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology



The enchanting tale of Pygmalion and Galatea has captured hearts for centuries. Imagine a sculptor, Pygmalion, so talented that he crafts an ivory statue so beautiful he falls deeply in love with it. This isn’t just any love story; it’s about the magic that happens when passion meets art. Dive into this ancient myth and discover the timeless romance between a creator and his creation.


Pygmalion and Galatea or Pygmalion and the Image?

Pygmalion and the Image – The Godhead Fires, Edward Burne-Jones, 1878, Birmingham Museums.


Although the story is widely known today as the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, this was not the case in antiquity. The ancient authors, notably Ovid, ignored the name Galatea. The myth was simply known as the story of “Pygmalion and the Image”. According to some alternative versions of the story, the statue was an image of Aphrodite (Venus), while Pygmalion the king of Cyprus.


The first mention of the name Galatea appears in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dramatic work Pygmalion (1770). It is unknown whether Rousseau came up with the name Galatea for the statue or whether he was simply the first to record it as such. Nevertheless, from then on, the name became mainstream. But why the name Galatea in particular? According to a view, an explanation could be that the name sounded familiarly ancient to the ears of the 18th-century European audience. Besides, the ancient Greek myth of Galatea and Polyphemus was well known at the time.


Pygmalion Sees the Propoitides

Pygmalion and the Image – The Heart Desires, Edward Burne-Jones, 1878, Birmingham Museums.


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The most complete version of the story is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (X.243-297). The story is a continuation of another myth; that of the Propoitides.


The Propoitides were a group of women living in Cyprus who had denied Venus — the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite — as their goddess. Enraged, Aphrodite punished the women. In Ovid’s words:


“the obscene Propoetides dared to deny divinity of Venus, for which fault, (and it is common fame) they were the first to criminate their bodies, through the wrath of Venus; and so blushing shame was lost, White blood, in their bad faces grew so fast, so hard, it was no wonder they were turned with small change into hard and lifeless stones.”


The story of the Propoitides is interesting for whoever is interested in the history of prostitution as it presents all the stereotypes surrounding the profession with a good dose of misogyny, perfectly reflecting the ideas of the male-dominated Greek and Roman worlds.


Other than that, the story of the Propoitides in Ovid functions as a prelude to Pygmalion’s myth. Pygmalion was a sculptor also living in Cyprus. After seeing the Propoitides’ immoral way of life, he was shocked. Disgusted, he decided to seek a life of isolation away from women.


Pygmalion Creates the Statue

Pygmalion and the Image – The Hand Refrains, Edward Burne-Jones, 1878, Birmingham Museums.


Since Pygmalion was a sculptor, he decided to create the perfect statue. He may have decided to stay away from women, but nothing could stop him from creating the ideal woman using his chisel.


Pygmalion’s ideal woman was made of snow-white ivory. The proportions were perfect. No woman in real life could get close to the beauty of Pygmalion’s creation. The statue was so well-made and realistic that someone could easily mistake it for a real woman. This was all due to Pygmalion’s sculpting skill. In Ovid’s words:


 “It appeared in truth a perfect virgin with the grace of life, but in the expression of such modesty all motion was restrained—and so his art concealed his art.”


Pygmalion Falls in Love With His Creation

Pygmalion and Galatea, Auguste Rodin, carved ca. 1908–9, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Pygmalion became obsessed with his creation. The image was not just beautiful; it was perfect. Unlike the Propoitides, she was unable to partake in immoral activities. The beauty of the statue was so great that many ancient authors wrote that this was a perfect portrait of Venus, the Goddess of beauty and love.


Pygmalion was in love. Of course, the sculpture was an inanimate being, but this did not stop Pygmalion from feeling great affection toward it and treating it like his wife. In the course of things, the sculptor began trying to deceive himself into believing that Galatea is a real woman:


“He lifts up both his hands to feel the work, and wonders if it can be ivory, because it seems to him more truly flesh. — his mind refusing to conceive of it as ivory, he kisses it and feels his kisses are returned. And speaking love, caresses it with loving hands that seem to make an impress, on the parts they touch, so real that he fears he then may bruise her by his eager pressing.”


He began buying valuable gifts to “please” the statue, just like he would with a real woman. He also dressed it in clothes and jewelry, even though as Ovid states, it looked more beautiful naked. Finally, Pygmalion placed his creation onto a bed with pillows and expensive sheets.


Pygmalion Prays to Venus

Pygmalion Praying Venus to Animate His Statue, Jean-Baptiste Baron Regnault, 1786, Versailles, via the French Ministry of Culture.


On the day of Venus’ festival, Pygmalion made an offering to the goddess, and as he stood on the altar, he whispered:


“If it is true, O Gods, that you can give all things, I pray
to have as my wife […] One like my ivory [Statue].”


Venus heard Pygmalion’s wish and made the flame flare three times as a sign that she understood.


The Statue Is Alive!

Pygmalion and the Image – The Soul Attains, Edward Burne-Jones, 1878, Birmingham Museums.


When Pygmalion came back home, he approached his ivory wife and kissed her on the lips. At that moment, something strange happened. This time he didn’t have to pretend that her lips were warm; the lips were warm. Fascinated, Pygmalion kissed the lips again and touched the statue’s breast with his hand. Where he touched it, the ivory became softer and warmer. With every new touch and every new kiss, it was becoming less and less statue until finally:


“It must be flesh!
The veins pulsate beneath the careful test of his directed finger. Then, indeed, the Astonished hero poured out lavish thanks to Venus; pressing with his raptured lips his statue’s lips. Now real, true to life— the maiden felt the kisses given to her, and blushing, lifted up her timid eyes, so that she saw the light and sky above, as well as her rapt lover while he leaned gazing beside her”


The statue was now alive, it had become Galatea, and Galatea could feel Pygmalion’s kisses.


Pygmalion and Galatea got married by Venus herself. From their marriage, Paphos was born, after whom the city of Paphos in Cyprus got its name.


Different Readings of Pygmalion And Galatea

Trompe L’ Oeil

Still Life with Grapes and a Bird, Antonio Leonelli (da Crevalcore), ca. 1500–1510, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea perfectly encapsulates one of ancient art’s primary objectives; the mimesis of nature. In Greek and Roman art, an artist ought to copy nature as closely as possible. This pursuit of reality became an obsession for ancient artists who attempted to create illusions that deceived the eye, a type of art known today as Trompe L’ Oeil. A famous example was the Greek painter Zeuxis who painted grapes so life-like that birds tried to eat them.


In that regard, Pygmalion’s myth fulfills ancient art’s promise to copy reality. Pygmalion was so talented that did not simply deceive others with his art. He managed to deceive even himself. As Ovid writes, “his art concealed his art”. In the end, Pygmalion even transcended the dream of perfectly mimicking the natural world by creating art that became reality itself.

It is also important to note that just like the Greek artists aspired, Pygmalion did not simply reproduce reality. He also improved it by creating a perfect form that did not exist in nature.



Love Animating Galatea, the Statue of Pygmalion, Henry Howard, ca. 1802, Victoria and Albert Museum.


The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea also perfectly fits into the animistic nature of the Greco-Roman religion.


People in antiquity saw life everywhere around them. From the trees to the rivers, and from the stars to their statues, everything was alive. In particular, cult statues were not thought of as representations of the gods, but rather as the gods themselves. After understanding this idea, it is not really difficult to see where Pygmalion’s myth came from.


This animistic tradition is also connected with a wider classical tradition of sentient statues and automata. Daedalus, the legendary inventor, gave voice to his statues using quicksilver, Pandora was made of clay, and Hephaestus created automata (self-operating machines/robots) like Talos.


Does Galatea Have Free Will?

It is clear that Galatea could feel just as Pygmalion could. What is not clear, though, is whether she had free will. In Ovid, Pygmalion and Galatea get married, but there is no actual evidence that Galatea is free to act as she pleases. She appears to be more like an extension of Pygmalion’s will. In fact, she does not even say a single word. It is evident that, though human, she is not standing on equal grounds with her creator, but that may have more to do with the next section.


A Feminist Reading of Pygmalion and Galatea’s Myth

Pygmalion and Galatea, Jean-Léon Gérôme, ca. 1890, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Even though this is clearly a tale about love and the love for creating, this is not the myth of the love between Pygmalion and Galatea. It is specifically a myth about Pygmalion’s love.


From the get-go, it is crystal clear that Ovid is exploring a male fantasy. This fantasy stands within the boundaries of femininity as defined by the patriarchal standards of the time. The inspiration for the statue’s creation comes from Pygmalion’s disgust for the Propoitides, who represent what he perceives as immorality and unloyalty. It is implied that Pygmalion sees in the Propoitides something that is natural in all women and for that reason he chooses to isolate himself. It can be argued that what Pygmalion sees is that the Propoitides are also humans able to have multiple companions, which dispels the idea that every woman belongs to a man.


The complete opposite of the Propoitides is Galatea. She embodies the patriarchal ideal of the perfect woman. Galatea is beautiful beyond imagination and shows no signs of sexuality. While the Propoitides never blushed or felt shame, Galatea’s first act as a human is to blush and shy away. The Propoitides refused Aphrodite showing fierce independence that defied even the gods, Galatea is created by Aphrodite herself and is obedient. She is also passive and artificial, whereas the Propoitides are active and natural.


Agalmatophilia in Pygmalion and Galatea

Pygmalion and Galatea, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1890, private collection, via Christie’s.


With the term agalmatophilia, 20th-century scientists described the attraction for a statue but also a doll or a mannequin. Pygmalionism is a form of agalmatophilia that entails love for someone’s own creation.


Clement of Alexandria was a Christian author of the 2nd century CE who used the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea to advocate against the old religion. Clement argued in his Exhortation to the Greeks (4, page 130) that the cult of images like statues of gods led to immoral and unnatural behavior.


“We must, then, approach the statues [of the gods] closely as we possibly can in order to prove from their very appearance that they are inseparably associated with error. For their forms are unmistakably stamped with the characteristic marks of the daimones (spirits).”


Clement drew from a tradition claiming that the statue was in fact an image of Aphrodite. Clement also added other examples of men trying to have intercourse with statues and cult images.


This critique of classical art’s attempt to imitate and improve nature became a significant part of Christian ideology. The Christians responded to the ancient pursuit of realism with a new pursuit of idealism, which sought to capture the idea/essence of things and not their appearance. This tradition influenced Christian art for centuries, especially in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which came to be known as the Byzantine Empire.

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.