The Story in Paintings: How sculpture changed Ganymede’s story

Leochares (fl 340-320 BCE), Roman copy of bronze original, Ganymede carried off by the eagle (c 325 BCE), marble, height 103 cm, Musei Vaticani, The Vatican City. Image by Jastrow, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

The Story

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.

The Artworks

With no conventional paintings surviving from classical Greek times, the visual record now lies in painted pottery.

Unknown artist, Ganymede on Olympus (c 510 BCE), Attic black-figure amphora, side A, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Berlin Painter (fl 495 BCE), Ganymede holding a hoop (c 500-490 BCE), Attic red-figure bell-krater, 33 x 33 cm, side A, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Eucharides Painter (fl 485 BCE), Ganymede pouring Zeus a libation (c 490-480 BCE), Attic red figure calyx krater, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Image by David Liam Moran, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Penthesilea Painter (fl 470 BCE), Zeus, Ganymede and Penthesilea (c 470 BCE), Kylix, 15.5 x 36.5 cm, , Museo archeologico nazionale, Ferrara, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

This Kylix shows a slightly more elaborate scene involving Zeus, Ganymede and Penthesilea, and dates from about 470 BCE.

Achilles Painter (fl 440 BCE), Zeus and Ganymede (445-440 BCE), Attic red-figure pelikem 23.5 x 13.8 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum (Gift of Seymour Weintraub), Los Angeles, CA. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.

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.

Leochares (fl 340-320 BCE), Roman copy of bronze original, Ganymede carried off by the eagle (c 325 BCE), marble, height 103 cm, Musei Vaticani, The Vatican City. Image by Jastrow, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Unknown artist, Pair of gold earrings with Ganymede and the eagle (330-300 BCE), gold, height 6 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1937), New York, NY. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

Unknown artist, Zeus abducting Ganymede (c 150 CE), mosaic in the House of Dionysos, Paphos, Cyprus. Image by Wolfgang Sauber, via Wikimedia Commons.

This much later mosaic from Paphos on Cyprus, about 150 CE, is unambiguous about the story of Zeus abducting Ganymede.

Unknown artist, Ganymede Abducted by Zeus (c 150 CE), mosaic in the Archeological Museum of Sousse, Tunisia. Image by Ad Meskens, via Wikimedia Commons.

A different artist in mosaic, a different style, and here at about the same time in Tunisia, gives a very similar account.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), copy after, Ganymede (date not known), black chalk on off-white antique laid paper, 36.1 x 27 cm, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum (Gifts for Special Uses Fund), Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.

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.

Antonio da Correggio (1490–1534), The Abduction of Ganymede (1520-40), oil on canvas, 163.5 x 72 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

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 Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), Abduction of Ganymede (1635), oil on canvas, 177 x 129 cm, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Rape of Ganymede (1636-37), oil on canvas, 181 × 87.3 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Eustache Le Sueur (1617–1655), The Abduction of Ganymede by Jupiter (1644), oil on canvas, 127 × 108 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Le Sueur’s The Abduction of Ganymede by Jupiter (1644) is much more respectable, although still not free from pederastic taint.

Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693), Portrait of George Bredehoff de Vicq as Ganymede (date not known), oil on canvas, 99 x 84.5 cm, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum (Kate, Maurice R., and Melvin R. Seiden Purchase Fund in honor of Lisbet and Joseph Leo Koerner), Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.

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.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Abduction of Ganymede (1886), watercolour and gouache on paper, 58.5 × 45.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Frank Kirchbach (1859-1912) (after), advertisement for Budweiser beer after ‘The Rape of Ganymede’ (1904), advertisement in Theatre magazine, February 1906.

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.