Conventional wisdom is that narrative in the traditional visual arts, including painting and sculpture, is limited, perhaps even marginal when compared to that in verbal (spoken or written) arts. I was excited that my recent series on the myths involving Salome, Herodias, Herod, and John the Baptist seems to demonstrate an example where paintings have changed a verbal story.
I now offer an even more remarkable case in which it appears that a sculpture has changed a story. Not only that, but it will show how an American brand of beer came to use a highly inappropriate image in its advertising.
Long before the great city of Troy was destroyed by war, it was famed for producing people of great beauty. Three young people were of such great beauty that the gods fell for them: Tithonos slept with Eos, the goddess of dawn; Anchises was seduced by Aphrodite the goddess of love, who then bore Aeneas as their son; and Ganymede was abducted by Zeus, who made him his cup-bearer on Mount Olympus.
The story of Ganymede’s abduction appears quite old, and predates Homer’s Iliad, which gives a brief and simple account of the abduction. In time it appears to have become elaborated to this:
Ganymede was one of the early citizens of Troy. One day during his youth, he was tending the family flock of sheep near Mount Ida, well inland from the city of Troy, when Zeus abducted him using an eagle; the bird is variously described as Zeus himself or his agent. Ganymede was taken to Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, where he was given eternal youth and immortality, and served as the cupbearer to the gods. Zeus compensated Ganymede’s father by having Hermes deliver him fine horses.
By the time that Lucian of Samosata (c 125-180 CE) came to write about this story, the eagle was firmly ensconced, and was Zeus himself.
With no conventional paintings surviving from classical Greek times, the visual record now lies in painted pottery.
This Attic black-figure amphora from about 510 BCE shows a typical scene from the earliest depictions, showing Ganymede – here conveniently labelled – serving Zeus on Mount Olympus. The cockerel is a well-known symbol for the pederastic relationship between them.
A little later, the painters’ attention turned to the scene of abduction. This Attic red-figure bell-krater from around 500-490 BCE shows a popular version at this time, in which Ganymede is seen playing with a hoop, to indicate his youth.
Some still painted scenes of the couple on Mount Olympus, as on this Attic red figure calyx krater from about 490-480 BCE. Note the large eagle-like bird on Zeus’s staff, which is here an attribute.
This Kylix shows a slightly more elaborate scene involving Zeus, Ganymede and Penthesilea, and dates from about 470 BCE.
My final painted pot is an Attic red-figure pelikem from 445-440 BCE, which shows the complete scene of the abduction of Ganymede, as it was told at this time, again with Ganymede playing with his hoop, and Zeus in hot pursuit.
According to Pliny, writing in his Natural History in 77-79 CE, depictions of the story of Ganymede, and his abduction in particular, changed in about 325 BCE, when Leochares cast a wonderful bronze sculpture showing Ganymede being carried off by an eagle. Sadly the original is long lost, but this marble copy remains in the Vatican today.
This exquisite pair of gold earrings show a very similar composition. Dated to about 330-300 BCE, they may well have been inspired by Leochares’ famous statue.
This much later mosaic from Paphos on Cyprus, about 150 CE, is unambiguous about the story of Zeus abducting Ganymede.
A different artist in mosaic, a different style, and here at about the same time in Tunisia, gives a very similar account.
Skipping through to the Renaissance, well over a millenium later, this copy of a drawing by Michelangelo (1475-1564) sets the precedent for many later paintings: an eagle as large as, or even larger than, Ganymede bears him up to Zeus. Ganymede’s posture is shameless in revealing the purpose of the abduction.
Correggio’s The Abduction of Ganymede (1520-40) introduces two new features: Ganymede’s dog, which is left barking at the departing eagle, and the woodland from which he is abducted. The youth looks rather younger here, and less flagrantly sexualised.
Rembrandt’s Abduction of Ganymede (1635) makes him little older than a large toddler, which no longer fits comfortably with the story about him tending the family flocks. Ganymede’s face, though, is wonderful.
I found Rubens’ The Rape of Ganymede (1636-37) rather a surprise, as I had not thought that he would use the story as a dirty joke, with the placement of both ends of Ganymede’s quiver. Clearly this was not intended for viewing by polite mixed company.
Le Sueur’s The Abduction of Ganymede by Jupiter (1644) is much more respectable, although still not free from pederastic taint.
I fear that Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693), in this Portrait of George Bredehoff de Vicq as Ganymede, must have been extremely naive to have chosen the Ganymede story for the portrait of an infant.
There were further paintings of the abduction of Ganymede, although its popularity as a subject and a story for narrative painting waned.
Then in 1886, Gustave Moreau painted this watercolour which retold the new version, complete with barking dog and the surrounding wood. With his detailed knowledge of classical times, it is hard to believe that Moreau did not fully understand the connotations.
There was a brief resurgence of interest in painting this scene. Frank Kirchbach made a drawing which was turned into an engraving, which was to inspire still more bizarre connections.
In 1904, Kirchbach’s print was borrowed for an advertisement for Budweiser beer. The advertiser’s ‘modern vision of Ganymede’ is taken almost directly from Leochares sculpture of 325 BCE, over two millenia earlier. It’s hard to believe that no one recognised its associations with pederasty, which was then becoming known as paedophilia and recognised for the crime that it is.
Woodford, Susan (2003) Images of Myths in Classical Antiquity, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 0 521 78809 0.