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The Mythology of Daphne & Apollo in Art

Randy H. Sooknanan

Art & History Writer

Daphne and Apollo is a myth from ancient Greek times which was then carried into ancient Roman times. There are a few variations of the myth and the themes it presents. Most prominently it represents Chasity versus Lust.

Galleria

The Mythology of Daphne & Apollo

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Apollo and Daphne Painting
Apollo and Daphne Painting

by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

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Daphne & Apollo In Mythos
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The mythos of Daphne & Apollo and all the characters in it have been well represented in art ever since the tale, no matter which version, was first told. The climax of the story is well documented in art, specifically in paintings, but the most famous representation is that of a sculpture produced by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, an Italian sculptor, and architect. The artwork is housed in the Galleria Borghese in Rome.

There are many versions of the myth, but the general narrative common in Greco-Roman mythology is that because of a curse made by the god Cupid on the god Apollo, Daphne became the unwilling object of obsession and infatuation from Apollo, who then chased her against her wishes relentlessly. 

It is told that Daphne was the first love of Apollo but unfortunately she never responded to his romantic love after being cursed by Eros, who is more famously known as Cupid in Roman. Cupid fired the two arrows into Apollo and Daphne to counteract any romance just before they would have kissed, sealing the deal for Apollo. Daphne became determined to remain unmarried and untouched by a man for the rest of her life.

It was unusual and impossible for a nymph or a mortal woman in Greek mythology to resist the love of a god, but Daphne did just that, and in doing so 'she lost her life trying to escape this love' (1) Apollo kept chasing her and it led Daphne to plead for help from her river godfather, who transformed her into a laurel tree. It’s believed that Daphne had 'to sacrifice her body and turn into a tree as this was the only way she could avoid Apollo’s sexual advances'. (2) And so it was done thus foiling Apollo's repeated attempts. 

The myth of Apollo and Daphne has been examined as a battle between chastity (Daphne) and sexual desire (Apollo). As Apollo lustfully pursues Daphne, she is saved through her metamorphosis and confinement into the laurel tree which can be seen as an act of eternal chastity. Daphne is forced to sacrifice her body and become the laurel tree as her only form of escape from the pressures of Apollo's constant sexual desires. (3)
 
Afterward, Apollo goes on to craft himself a wreath out of her laurel branches, then turning her symbol of chastity into a cultural icon for him and other poets and musicians.
 
At the Pythian Games which were held every four years in Delphi in honor of Apollo, a wreath of laurel gathered from the Vale of Tempe in Thessaly was given as a prize. Hence it later became customary to award prizes in the form of laurel wreaths to victorious generals, athletes, poets, and musicians, worn as a chaplet on the head.
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Daphne & Apollo In Art History
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The Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculpted the Baroque life-sized marble statue entitled Apollo and Daphne between 1622 and 1625. The work is located at Galleria Borghese in Rome.
 
The thing about it, like much of his many major works commissioned by the Popal Vatican, is it is incredibly intricate in the details. The cuts of the stone and the expression of the subjects overall are a parallel testimony to the beautiful mythos regarding the old Greek story itself. We can see how 'Apollo clutches Daphne's hip, pursuing her as she flees to escape him. Apollo wears a laurel crown, and Daphne is portrayed halfway through her metamorphosis into the laurel tree with her arms already transforming into its branches as she flees and calls to her father to save her from Apollo.' (4)

The 18th-century artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1743-1744 painted an oil similarly depicting Daphne halfway through metamorphosis with Apollo in pursuit. It now hangs in the Louvre in Paris. (5)

The Bernini Sculpture Today

Almost 400 years later, Apollo and Daphne remains mesmerizing for both its formal mastery and its disturbing, profoundly relevant subject matter.

It has also been argued that The Kiss by Gustav Klimt is a painting symbolic of the kissing of Daphne by Apollo at the moment she is transformed into a laurel tree​. (6)


1. Myth of Apollo and Daphne - Greek Myths | Greeka.com. https://www.greeka.com/greece-myths/apollo-daphne/
2. Apollo and Daphne • The Greek Myth Story of Daphne and Apollo. https://greekgodsandgoddesses.net/myths/apollo-and-daphne/
3. Paulson, Ronald; Eisenman, Peter (2007). Sin and Evil: Moral Values in Literature. Yale University Press. ISBN 0300120141.
4. Impeluso, Lucia; Stefano Zuffi (2003). Gods and Heroes in Art. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.
5. Apollo and Daphne - Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_and_Daphne
6. Vives Chillida, Julio (2008). El beso (los enamorados) de Gustav Klimt. Un ensayo de iconografía. Lulu. ISBN 978-1-4092-0530-2.