Europa is in the grip of a terrifying experience: snatched away from her home and family, she is precariously balanced on the back of the bull, in real danger of sliding to another terrible fate in the dark sea below. Titian has visualized the fearfulness of the deep with the two scaly, spiny ocean predators that gleam in the turbulent waters, the fanged mouth of one agape as it follows the thrashing motion of the animal. But something else is happening; the band of shadow across her upturned face makes us particularly conscious of Europa’s rolling eyes, and the direction of their glance. Europa has caught sight of two cupids (spiritelli d’amore or little spirits of love), personifying another passion which is yet more powerful than that of fear. This notion is itself expressed by a third Cupid who rides (and, according to Renaissance visual conventions, has thus mastered) one of the monstrous fish. Titian confronts us with the perception that a person assailed by physical danger and panic can look like a person in the extreme throes of physical ecstasy: the limbs flail and the spine flexes, all modesty and self-composure are abandoned. Just as Europa scrambles desperately so as not to loose her position on the bull, so she turns her breast towards Cupid; her fear will yield to the arrows of the god of love.
Source: Stephen J. Campbell, "Europa," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 103-107