Jupiter, the most powerful of the gods, is in love with the princess Europa. He has taken on the form of a beautiful white bull, and with seemingly tame behavior induced the girl to climb upon his back. As soon as she does, the bull makes for the sea and bears the terrified Europa from her native Sidon to the island of Crete, where he consummates his passion. Titian is unequivocal about the fact that this is a scene of rape: Europa is sprawled helplessly on her back, her clothes in disarray. At the same time, he conveys the mythic import of the story: that is, to be coerced by a god is no ordinary human experience of sexual violence. Rather, it is a terrifying but transformative experience of supernatural possession or ecstasy, which may have a positive outcome.
Much of what makes this painting so intriguing, and indeed disturbing for us today, is Titian’s insistence on the paradoxical aspects of Europa’s ordeal: the pathos of the victim also affords pleasure – hers, as well as the viewer’s. Titian thus could be said to idealize rape, yet the painting is about more than sexual coercion. His artistic goal is also a psychological one. The challenge is to show a moment when a state of terror becomes a state of rapture: both are experiences of being “acted upon” – of being in the grip of forces that seem to possess one from the outside. In fact, the English language preserves the kind of association that inspired Titian’s painting, in that the words rape and rapture share a common root in Latin.
Source: Stephen J. Campbell, "Europa," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 103-107