Even major deities are sometimes better known for bit-parts rather than lead roles. Today’s god, Hermes (Greek Ἑρμῆς), known to the Romans as Mercury, probably appears on more paintings of classical mythology than any other, but usually as a presence rather than central to its story. He is the son of Zeus and Maia, one of the Pleiades, and is the god who spends as much time among mortals as he does on Olympus: he’s the divine messenger and emissary. Attributes associated with that role include winged sandals (talaria), a distinctive rod or staff known as a caduceus, and a brimmed hat or helmet known as a petasos, which often bears wings too.
His caduceus normally has a pair of entwined serpents along its length, and may also bear small wings, and is distinct from the rod or staff borne by Asclepius (Aesculapius and other variants) which should have but a single serpent coiled around it. Hermes’ caduceus indicates his swiftness as a messenger; the rod of Asclepius is associated with healing and medicine.
There’s also a touch of mischief about the young Hermes, which has resulted in him being referred to as the divine trickster. He’s thus seen as the protector of all messengers, travellers, thieves, merchants and orators.
One of the most famous depictions of Hermes, typically playing a supporting role, is in Botticelli’s magnificent Primavera from around 1482.
Hermes’ mother Maia gave her name to the month of May, so is associated with Spring. Botticelli has chosen to give the serpents on his caduceus wings to make them resemble dragons instead. The god is also more typically seen with his caduceus in his left hand, rather than his right as shown here.
Perhaps the most popular myth involving Hermes is the Judgement of Paris, which has been painted a great many times. I here select two of the best examples in which his supporting role isn’t played down.
Although not known for his paintings of secular stories, William Blake’s Judgement of Paris (c 1806-17) was one of a pair made for Thomas Butts, the other being Philoctetes and Neoptolemus on Lemnos, a rather more obscure story which led to the death of Paris.
This is a very curious story for Blake to have painted, particularly for a patron who by this time had over a hundred of Blake’s watercolours showing biblical scenes. The underlying narrative is very well known and popular: three famously beautiful goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, claimed a golden apple from the Garden of the Hesperides as a prize for the fairest. Zeus decided that Paris would be the judge. Hermes then guided the three to bathe in the spring of Ida before they presented themselves clothed in front of Paris.
When Paris was unable to arrive at a decision with them clothed, they stripped and submitted themselves to his inspection, while each offering him bribes. Aphrodite offered Paris the world’s most beautiful woman, Helen of Sparta, the wife of Menelaus, and Paris therefore awarded her the golden apple, leading to the Trojan War, and the death of Paris.
As with almost every artist before and since, Blake shows the three contestants naked in front of Paris, just at the moment that the golden apple is being awarded to Aphrodite. Hera and Athena, standing either side of her, are visibly upset. Above them is the naked figure of Hermes, with his caduceus and its pair of intertwined serpents, and a winged helmet. The demonic figure at the top left is presumably a harbinger of the death and destruction that would result.
Renoir’s account of The Judgment of Paris, from about 1908-10 is a carefully composed image of the same moment of peripeteia. Watching on is Hermes, complete with his winged helmet and sandals, and caduceus.
One of the few myths in which Hermes plays a major part is that of Zeus’ rape of Io. The god then transforms her into a white cow for safe keeping. This leads to the embedded story of Hermes murdering Argus, whose hundred eyes are then used to transform the peacock. Within that story, Mercury tells Argus the story of Pan’s attempt to rape Syrinx. Finally, Io is transformed back to a woman.
Hermes is involved when Zeus takes pity on Io as a cow, and wants to change her back into human form. As the jealous Hera has sent Argus to keep watch on Io, the only option open to Zeus is to send Hermes to lull Argus to sleep. He tries playing his reed (‘Pan’) pipes, but then resorts to telling Argus the story of Pan and Syrinx. Part way through this story, Hermes has already put Argus to sleep, so beheads him and throws his head from a cliff.
The most popular scene in these intertwined stories is that of Hermes lulling Argus to sleep. However, hardly any painters depict Argus having the hundred eyes specified in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Abraham Bloemaert is an exception, in his carefully composed Mercury, Argus and Io (c 1592). Hermes is playing his flute at the left, as Argus falls asleep in front of him, his additional eyes visible over the surface of his head. In the distance at the right is Io as a white cow.
The far figure on a green hill may be an instance of multiplex narrative, as it could represent Hermes holding the head of Argus aloft after he had murdered him; unfortunately this is difficult to be certain about.
Diego Velázquez’s last surviving narrative mythological painting shows Mercury and Argus. This was probably completed in 1659, the year before the artist died, and was one of four mythological works which he made in these final years. Tragically, the other three were destroyed in the fire at the Alcazar Palace in Madrid at Christmas in 1734.
Although the best-known painting of this complex story, it’s by no means its most direct or faithful account. In accordance with his earlier paintings of myths, its figures are shown in contemporary rather than classical dress. Hermes is just about to raise his sword and decapitate the sleeping Argus. Behind them is Io in the form of a tan cow.
Hermes is a frequent figure in paintings of gatherings of deities, such as Andrea Mantegna’s Mars and Venus, known better as Parnassus (1496-97), painted for Isabella d’Este. At the right of this complex gathering is Hermes with his caduceus and Pegasus the winged horse. At the far left is Apollo making music for the Muses on his lyre.
One of my favourite myths is that of Philemon and Baucis, who gave hospitality to Zeus and Hermes when they visited mortals. David Rijckaert’s Philemon and Baucis Giving Hospitality to Jupiter and Mercury, gives what has become the most popular account: Hermes (left) and Zeus (left of centre) are seated at the table, with Philemon (behind table) and Baucis (centre) waiting on their every need.
Hermes is reputed to have had many partners, as you might expect of a trickster. Although his relationship with Aphrodite was unsuccessful at first, following the intervention of Zeus, she bore him a son who is the lead in one of the strangest myths of all. The son, Hermaphroditus, is named after both parents, and was raised by Naiads on Mount Ida. When he was fifteen he left that area and roamed distant rivers, until he reached a pool.
Living there was a nymph, Salmacis, who was filled with desire for him, and immediately proposed marriage. He blushed, and rejected her attempt to kiss him, so she hid in the undergrowth. When he started to bathe in the pool and undressed, her passion was inflamed. She stripped off, and plunged into the water to kiss, caress, and fondle his body. Entwining his body with hers, she struggled to embrace him against his will. She cried out to the gods, asking them to join the couple together forever, resulting in them being transformed into a single body, which was both man and woman.
Jan Gossaert’s The Metamorphosis of Hermaphrodite and Salmacis (c 1517) shows the couple well into their final battle, Salmacis with a steely, almost angry, look of determination. He uses multiplex narrative to show the union of their bodies taking place on the bank at the far left: at that stage they appear like Siamese twins, with two legs and two heads.
In case you thought his caduceus was complicated enough.