Phaethon (Greek Φαέθων) is the son of the sun god Helios or Phoebus, and Clymene, an Oceanid, making him a minor deity. In older times, he was represented by what later became the planet Jupiter, but is now known through one spectacular myth which is retold so well by Ovid in his Metamorphoses.
Phaethon’s childhood friend Epaphus mocks him, which he reports to his mother Clymene, who despatches Phaëthon to visit his father in the Land of Dawn. Phaëthon there asks his presumed father Phoebus to give him a token to prove his paternity. Phoebus promises Phaëthon anything which he desires, so the youth asks to take charge of his father’s chariot of the sun for a day.
The mythical model of the sun portrays it as being drawn across the heavens by Phoebus’ chariot, with four horses (named by Ovid as Eous, Aethon, Pyrois, and Phlegon) in harness. In trying to dissuade Phaëthon from his wish, his father explains the great challenges which lie in controlling the chariot as it crosses the constellations, and how difficult it is to restrain its team of horses.
Despite Phoebus repeatedly telling his son how dangerous and disastrous his wish would prove, Phaëthon is insistent, and his father is bound by his oath. Phaëthon then leaps into the chariot, and departs on its course. He immediately loses control, and the sun runs off track. The chariot comes too close to the earth, and starts melting the polar regions, and scorching its surface. The Ethiopian people have their skin darkened as a result, and all the rivers of the earth are turned to vapour in the heat.
The goddess of the Earth appeals to the gods, and Zeus responds by throwing one of his thunderbolts at Phaëthon, who is instantly destroyed and falls to earth in flames. The chariot lies broken, its horses scattered. The scorched remains of Phaëthon are buried by Naiads in a distant tomb, and his mother Clymene is left to mourn his death. Phaëthon’s lamenting sisters are then transformed into poplar trees, and their tears into amber (electrum). Phaëthon’s beloved friend Cycnus is also transformed into a swan.
Nicolas Poussin’s Helios and Phaeton with Saturn and the Four Seasons (c 1635) is an early exploration of the scene in the Palace of the Sun. At first, this may seem puzzling, as Poussin doesn’t actually show a palace as such, although Phaëthon is on his knees in front of Phoebus, pleading with him to be allowed to take charge of the chariot of the sun, shown behind and to the left.
The artist does, though, use this as an opportunity to depict the four seasons in detailed personifications. Spring is Flora-like in front of Phaëthon, wearing a crown of flowers. Summer sits to the left, next to some ripe corn. Autumn is the older man slumbering in the right foreground, with fruits. Winter is opposite him, frosty and shivering in front of a small brazier.
Poussin also unintentionally highlights an issue which pervades these relatively modern depictions of the myth: the god Phoebus, or Helios, has become transformed into Phoebus Apollo, a fusion which seems to have occurred after about 200 CE.
Phaëthon’s death and fall from the chariot have been depicted in a series of works from classical times. This superb marble panel from a sarcophagus made in about 250 CE is highly atmospheric, for example.
Jacopo Tintoretto’s Fall of Phaeton (1541-42) tells the conclusion to this story, as Phaeton loses control of the chariot of the Sun, and comes crashing towards the earth.
Peter Paul Rubens’ Fall of Phaeton, which he started in about 1604, seems to have been reworked over the following three or four years. Rubens has elaborated the scene to augment the chaos: accompanying Phaëthon in the chariot are the Hours (Horae, some shown with butterfly wings), who are thrown into turmoil, and time falls out of joint as Phaëthon tumbles out of the chariot.
In Gustave Moreau’s brilliant watercolour The Fall of Phaeton (1878) everything is searing orange. The sun chariot is just about to crash to the ground, Phaëthon stands in distress within the chariot, and the horses are in total disarray. Phoebus Apollo, shown in one of his representations as a lion, pursues the chariot in alarm, and a huge serpentine basilisk or dragon rises up from the earth. At the left the moon is shown just peeping over the horizon, and the thunderbolt from Zeus is flying down to kill Phaëthon.
Santi di Tito’s fresco of The Sisters of Phaethon Transformed into Poplars, from about 1570, shows the four young women with leaves sprouting from their hands and heads, as they lament the death of their brother. A swan makes a cameo appearance in the foreground, referring to the transformation of Cycnus.
According to Paul Barolsky this painting was mounted on the wall of a small windowless study used by Francesco de’ Medici in his Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Francesco would retreat to this little room to study his collection of precious stones, which would have included specimens of the resin amber, believed by the Greeks to have been petrified sunlight. The myth of the creation of amber from the tears of Phaëthon’s sisters would there have been highly appropriate.
Gustave Moreau followed his watercolour of the fall of Phaethon with a painting showing Phoebus Apollo driving the chariot of the sun.
Phoebus and Boreas (1879) is a sketch showing Phoebus Apollo in his sun chariot at the left, and Boreas, the cold north wind, to the right of centre. This results in the cold, windy and changeable weather typical of the winter, as shown in the clouds.
The Chariot of Apollo, or Phoebus Apollo (c 1880) is the finished version, showing just Apollo driving his sun chariot.