Now almost forgotten among the Classical deities, Leto (Greek Λητώ, Roman Latona) previously appeared quite extensively in art, almost entirely in her role as the mother of Apollo and Artemis (Diana). One of the earliest of the deities, she is the daughter of two Titans, Coeus (Koios) and Phoebe (Phoibe). Little is recorded about her apart from her motherhood and a vengeance myth involving a mortal woman, Niobe.
In modern paintings (from the Renaissance onwards), Leto is seldom associated with any attributes, as the setting of paintings which include her are so distinctive that her identity is obvious – to those familiar with her myths. Reported attributes include a veil, date and palm trees, the wolf and gryphon, for what they’re worth.
There’s little consensus on the story of the birth of Apollo and Artemis apart from the fact that they’re twins, and Leto is delivered of them among mortals on earth rather than on Olympus. One explanation for this is that Zeus (Jupiter) is their father, and Hera (Juno) out of spite forbids their delivery in any place reached by the sun’s rays. Some accounts then claim that the twins are born several days apart, in different locations, including the island of Delos. According to some, Artemis is born first and then assists in the delivery of her twin brother, which may explain the association between Artemis – who remains childless herself – with childbirth.
Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, prefers a more cohesive story in which Leto flees to Lycia, at the western end of the south coast of modern Turkey. This was a centre for Leto’s worship, but at some stage the goddess must have become scorned by those living in the country there. When the twins had drunk Leto’s milk and she was dry and thirsty under the hot sun, she saw a small lake among marshes, where local peasants were cutting reeds. She went down and was about to drink from the lake when those locals stopped her. Leto told them that drinking the water was a common right, and that she only intended to drink and not to bathe in it.
The locals continued to prevent her, threatening her and hurling insults. They then stirred up the mud on the bottom of the lake, to muddy the water, incurring the goddess’s anger and causing her to curse them to remain in that pool forever as frogs. It is this transformation which forms the basis for the many paintings of this myth.
Tintoretto’s lovely panel of Latona Changing the Lycian Peasants into Frogs from 1545-48 is one of the earliest of these ‘modern’ paintings, and keeps closely to Ovid’s story. Latona rests a baby on each hip as she tries to enlist the co-operation of the Lycians, who are becoming more froglike but have not yet been transformed.
Annibale Carracci’s Latona and the Lycian Peasants probably from 1590-1620 is the first truly masterly painting of this myth. Latona is here placing her curse on the locals, and behind them one appears to have already been transformed into a frog. Although the babies’ heads are disproportionately small (as was the case for several centuries), they and their mother are very realistically portrayed, and contrast markedly with the uncouth and obdurate locals.
It is, though, Jan Brueghel the Elder’s panel showing Latona and the Lycian Peasants (1595-1610) which is one of the finest depictions. Set in a dense forest – probably quite inappropriate for Lycia – the locals are busy cutting reeds and foraging. Leto, at the bottom left, is seen remonstrating with a peasant, over to the right. As the detail below shows, the goddess is in need, as are her babies. The peasant closest to her, brandishing his fist, is already rapidly turning into a frog. There are many other frogs around, including a pair at the bottom left corner, near the feet of one of the babies.
David Teniers the Younger’s Latona and the Frogs from around 1640–50 is not perhaps in the same class as Brueghel’s, but still tells the story well, and shows Lycians being transformed for refusing to help the goddess.
Francesco Trevisani’s Latona and the Frogs from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century is, like Tenier’s, painted in oil on copper. Even as his peasants are turning into frogs, they are still refusing to let Latona drink from their lake.
François Lemoyne’s Latona and the Peasants of Lycia (1721) stops short of showing the metamorphosis or resulting frogs, but Latona and the peasants are clearly engaged in their dispute.
Johann Georg Platzer’s Latona Turning the Lycian Peasants into Frogs (c 1730) is another fine work on copper which shows all the key elements of the story, including the rather macabre appearance of the peasants as they are transformed.
The artist who painted this Italian Landscape with Latona and the Lycian Peasants sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century has not been identified. That is a pity, as it depicts the story well, with the head of two of the peasants already assuming the form of frogs.
The story survived in narrative painting well into the latter half of the nineteenth century, when Gabriel Guay, an eminent former pupil of Jean-Léon Gérôme, painted his Latona and the Peasants (1877). Leto and her babies now seem not just real but almost contemporary, minimising her divinity.
Although set at a different location, the island of Delos, one of Claude Lorrain’s finest narrative landscapes refers to a different version of the story as given in Virgil’s Aeneid. Delos is the site of a temple to Apollo, whose priest, also the ruler of the island, is Anius. He shows Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius the temple and city, and the two trees there which Leto had held onto when she gave birth to the twins.
Claude’s masterpiece, a singular painting in every respect, is Landscape with Aeneas at Delos (1672). This was the first of half a dozen works which Claude painted in the final decade of his life, based primarily on Virgil’s account in the Aeneid. Its meticulous details are supported by a coastal landscape of great beauty.
The twin trees at its centre, an olive and palm according to myth, now provide shade for a shepherd and his flock of sheep. Fine details tell further stories.
The relief at the top of the temple, immediately below a couple of casual onlookers, tells the story of Leto’s twins killing the giant Tityus (Tityos), who had tried to rape their mother. Tityus is seen at the right of the relief, fallen down and wounded by the arrows of Artemis (centre) and Apollo (left). Similarly to the Titan Prometheus, Tityus was sentenced to spend his time in the Underworld with two vultures feeding on his liver, which regenerated each night.
The other myth about Leto which is commonly shown in paintings is one in which she is normally represented by her children, and doesn’t appear herself.
Niobe, daughter of Tantalus, a son of Zeus (Jupiter), had married well, to Amphion the King of Thebes, that ill-fated city. When the women of Thebes are called to worship the goddess Leto, Niobe tells them that she is more worthy of their worship than that deity. Reeling off a succession of reasons such as wealth and family, she makes her children a part of her claim, as she has seven sons and seven daughters, against Leto’s two, who just happen to be deities; by comparison with Niobe, Leto was ‘almost childless’. Leto is outraged by this mortal’s arrogance, and tells her children Apollo and Diana to punish Niobe.
Apollo finds Niobe’s seven sons practising athletics, and one by one, starting with the oldest, kills them with his arrows. Ovid’s account in his Metamorphoses names each in turn, and describes their falling quite graphically, with bits of lung being pulled from chest wounds, for example.
News of this slaughter quickly reaches Niobe; Amphion, her husband, ends his grief by burying a dagger into his own chest. Niobe embraces the corpses of her dead sons, then taunts Leto again, still claiming her own triumph. With her seven daughters putting their brothers into coffins, Artemis (Diana) starts killing the women with her deadly arrows. Finally, the weeping Niobe is transformed into marble on a mountain peak, which drips water to form the River Achelous.
Among many fine paintings telling this horrific myth, I have chosen Jacques-Louis David’s Apollo and Diana Attacking the Children of Niobe which he entered for the Prix de Rome in 1772. David was so shocked that this wasn’t chosen as the winner that year that he went on hunger strike for a couple of days. He was persuaded to resume eating and painting, and was finally successful in winning the prize on his fourth attempt in 1774.
David’s canvas is a mass of dead bodies, sheltering daughters, horses, carnage, and death. Amid all this Niobe stands, her right hand held up to the gods, imploring them to spare her last remaining daughter. Apollo still seems busy with his bow, although Artemis seems to have finished her task. The vengeful Leto is nowhere to be seen.
Clearly Leto was not a goddess to offend.