This visual compendium of Cupid’s vengeful triumph over Apollo features artworks that are great and famous, kitschy and obscure, and everything in between.
I recount the standard version of the Apollo and Daphne story below, with the details codified by the Roman poet Ovid around 8 A.D. Purely for entertainment purposes, I have imagined the teller of this tale to be a modern day putti-companion of Cupid, with a rather juvenile frame of mind:
Apollo, the god of archery, was totally full of himself after he slayed the mighty Python. He even dared to mock Cupid for taking up the bow. Cupid avenges him by shooting a golden arrow that causes Apollo to fall in love with Daphne. Cupid’s silver arrow simultaneously makes her detest Apollo, who is the most beautiful of the Greco-Roman gods, as well as the god of lyric poetry. As soon as Apollo sees Daphne, he chases after her like he was hunting an animal. But he can’t outrun a girl, even though he is a big, buff god who does mean things, like skin a satyr alive who challenged him to a musical contest. Yeah, Apollo’s also the god of music, and he carries around an old-fashioned guitar called a lyre. With his bow, lyre, twin man-buns, and Superman-like cape (but no real clothes to speak of), Apollo is easy to spot. He is also the god of light, and his head sometimes glows like it is radioactive.
Apollo is also the god of lyric poetry, but, humorously, Apollo’s totally desperate, on-the-run, sweet-talk/ancient poetry falls on deaf ears. Though he was also the god of prophecy, Apollo — like most totally bogus fortune-tellers — could not foresee his own future. Apollo finally reaches Daphne, but she has arrived at her homeland, and she cries out to her father Peneus, who is a water god. His idea of saving Daphne is to turn her into a tree. Apollo never stops loving Daphne, even though she is a bushy little laurel. He even wears her leaves around his head in a weird little crown. Apollo puts laurel leaves on his old-fashioned guitar, too, and he sometimes strums sad tunes to the tree, creating an early form of country music. If he had been mortal, Apollo would have died of heartbreak. Instead, he became a tree fetishist. That’s what happens when you mess with Cupid!
Despite being a sad, major loser in this story, Apollo is a god who sets fashion, so, ironically, the leaves become a symbol of triumph. That is why laurel crowns are worn by poets, artists, emperors, generals, and other celebrities, once they win something. It’s like an Academy Award, but you wear it on your head forever. The word “laurels” even managed to shed its shrubby origins and became a noun that means honors, celebrity, and glory.
In Luigi Ademollo’s engraving, Apollo is crowning himself with a laurel wreath. One can make out the body of Daphne, who is horrifyingly imprisoned within the tree trunk (which is much thicker than a laurel bush). The medallion on Apollo’s lyre depicts him as the haloed charioteer of the sun.
Cupid’s Revenge, Part 1, which can be accessed here, delves into the mythological background of the story and into the Roman poet Ovid’s influential telling of it in his Metamorphosis. Part 1 focuses on Bernini’s amazing statue, which was one of the defining monuments of the Baroque. It also examines works by Piero del Pollaiuolo, Schiavone, Peter Paul Rubens, Francesco Albani, Cecco Bravo, René-Antoine Houasse, François Boucher, Nicolas Poussin, Charles Meynier, and Louis Gabriel Blanchet
Cupid’s Revenge, Part 2, which can be accessed here, is a sweeping survey from ancient Greece to airbrushed fantasy. It treats Gandharan stone plates from present-day Pakistan, ancient frescoes and mosaics from various sites, an ancient glass ewer, an ancient coin from Damascus, and a Byzantine ivory relief and a shawl from Egypt. Part 2 discusses pre-Ovidian sources (Ovid is the earliest surviving version of Apollo and Daphne that features Cupid). This article also looks at illuminated manuscripts, and paintings by Bernardino Luini, Dosso Dossi, Théodore Chassériau, John William Waterhouse, Alexandre Benois, Meret Oppenheim, Milet Andrejevic, and Boris Vallejo. Other works include an ivory statuette by Jakob Auer, a Dutch tile, a coin by Salvador Dalí, and queer version of the myth by Ivan Bubentcov.
Since Part 2 gives so much emphasis to the ancient world, I am jumping straight to the Renaissance in this installment (unless archeologists dig up a bunch of cool new stuff in the next few days). I also discuss works in media that I have not previously addressed, including porcelain, jewelry, photography, and cake.
Renaissance and Mannerism
Christine de Pizan (born Cristina da Pizzano in Venice), was a prolific poet and writer who worked at French courts. Recognized as one of the most notable medieval women authors, she espoused gender equality in works such as La cité des dames (The City of Ladies, 1405). L’Epistre d’Othea, Pisan’s most popular work, is made up of one hundred verse texts, many of which treat mythological themes from a courtly perspective. Stephen Scrope’s translation, The epistle of Othea to Hector or The boke of knyghthode, made from a manuscript in England, can be accessed here.
I copy the beginning of Scope’s translation here:
The fabil seith Damee [Daphne] was a gentylwoman that Phebus [Apollo] loued hertily, and he purswede hire sore, but she wolde not agre to hym. It felle on a day that he sawe the fayre creature go in a way and he folowed and, whanne she sawe hym come, she fledde and the god aftir. And when he was so nere that she sawe well she myght not scape hym, she made hir prayers to the godes Diane that she shulde save hire virginite, and the body of the maydyn chaunged into a grene lorier [laurel]; and when Phebus was come nere therto, he tooke of the brawnches of the tre and made hym a chaplete in syngne of victorie.
Significantly, in Pizan’s telling of the story, it is a prayer to the virgin goddess Diana (who medieval and renaissance writers analogized to the Virgin Mary) that saves Daphne from Apollo and preserves her virginity. Pizan Christianizes the myth (a conversion already made explicit in the Egyptian shawl treated in Part 2), making the preservation of Daphne’s virginity the prime virtue of her story.
In one of her moralizing glosses, Pizan says the male pursuit of the laurel crown symbolizes the perseverance that will lead to heavenly paradise (rather than an amorous paradise):
That Damee [Daphne] wolde be purswede for to have a croune of lorier, we may vndirstonde that, yf the goode speryth will haue a glorius victorie, he must haue perseuerance, the which sall lede hym to the victorie of paradyse, of the which the ioies be infynite.
Pizan displaces the objective of Apollo’s pursuit: the goal is not to ravish Daphne, but rather to win the laurel crown in order to achieve salvation.
Pisan’s codex in the Hague, from which the illustration above is taken, features 98 miniatures with border decoration. It might have been made for Jacques d’Armagnac, the Duke of Nemours, who died in 1477.
The figure in the red robe and hat must represent Apollo, who is astonished that Daphne is turning into a tree. The alternative reading — that the naked Daphne is walking down a road with a tree for a head on a never-ending pilgrimage to inspire people — is untenable. Such illuminations were made to astonish and delight the wealthy men who commissioned these luxurious volumes.
The above illumination is in a codex in Switzerland that was commissioned by the bibliophile Antoine of Bourgogne in 1460. It features about a hundred illuminations.
In this very proper and demure illumination, Apollo is transformed into a gentleman of high rank, who holds up an inspirational laurel wreath. The well-dressed woman, we can assume, is Daphne, who is decidedly not a tree. The laurel, instead, grows behind her, making her an emblem of the laurel. This is an image of propriety and courtly reticence, without nudity or unseemly, Eros-driven chases.
I discuss two other illuminations of the Apollo and Daphne myth found in Pizan codices in London and Lille in Part 2.
In this tiny bronze medallion by an unknown artist (probably north Italian) known as the Master of the Orpheus Legend, Apollo gives furious chase to Daphne, who, judging by her bent right leg, is running just as fast as he. Apollo grabs Daphne’s tunic, but he is too late, since her upraised hands are already sprouting small branches and leaves. Apollo’s upraised left arm seems to be a gesture of astonishment. The figures are centered and prioritized. The background elements and architecture are blurry and subsidiary.
Painted when the artist was only eighteen, Pontormo’s two-part rendition of the story is set in a dark and empty place, rather than the usual Arcadian locale. Apollo and Daphne and Cupid and Apollo are done in grisaille, a gray monochrome that imitates a stone relief.
In the first scene, we can tell from their gestures that Cupid and Apollo are disputing. Historically, the Greeks first imagined Cupid in human form as an adolescent boy, who they called Eros, and that is how Pontormo pictures him in this painting. (The fat flying baby that is so familiar today was introduced in the Hellenistic age, as is noted in Part 2). Pontormo’s Apollo must have insulted Cupid, and the latter is remonstrating.
If Cupid and Apollo depicts the beginning of their conflict, Apollo and Daphne shows the end, at the very moment of Daphne’s transformation. As Apollo reaches out to touch Daphne, she sprouts a trunk from her head, and large branches spring from her hands, endowing them with a lobster-like quality. Apollo wears an antique military uniform. Though his midsection appears to be bare, we are presumably viewing the armor plate that covers his torso. Daphne, meanwhile, seems to be dressed in rags. Even at this young age, Pontormo’s eccentricities as an artist are beginning to emerge.
Apollo and Daphne and Cupid and Apollo were intended to be ephemeral works, painted for a very special event: they decorated Carnival carts that celebrated the return of the Medici family to Florence after an exile that lasted eighteen years. The procession took place at night, illuminated by torchlight. The simplicity of forms that Pontormo employed enhanced the legibility of this pair of paintings. The theme Pontormo chose was particularly appropriate, since the Medici were associated with the laurel. A laurel branch figures prominently in Pontormo’s Portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici, the Elder, c. 1519 (Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence). For more information, see: Dennis V. Geronimus, Art Purposes: Object Lessons for the Liberal Arts (2019).
A third Pontormo grisaille, Labors of Adam and Eve, with Cain and Abel (c. 1515, private collection) was recently discovered. The three gray paintings were featured in the exhibition Grey Matters at the Nicholas Hall Gallery in New York in 2021, with a text by Geronimus.
Pontormo’s subsequent, mature work is called Mannerism. Bloemaert’s drawing is a good example of that style. Works from the Italian High Renaissance (beginning in the 1490s and ending by 1526, the date of the sack of Rome) feature idealized subjects that are centered within the composition (as was the early Renaissance medallion by the Master of the Orpheus Legend). The Mannerists, on the other hand, draw in the achievements of the High Renaissance, but make peculiar variations on it. They often de-center the primary figures, and place them in the distance, as in Bloemaert’s drawing. Beyond the pointing hand of the muscular young man in the foreground (who owes much to Michelangelo’s perfected anatomy), Apollo is catching Daphne, but she is already turning into a rather large tree.
The triumphant figure on the hill in the upper left is Apollo, just after he has slain the dragon-like Python (thus representing the beginning of the story). Mannerist works are beautiful, complex, and meant to be startling in their originality. The foreground figure is in a very unusual and unnatural pose, which causes his muscles to flex. This kind of innovative complexity (along with nudity — usually with lots of rear ends — and dramatic gestures, especially pointing) was common in Mannerist works. The aged man in the left foreground is Peneus, the river god, who is identifiable by his long hair and beard, the reeds he cradles in his right arm, and his jug of spilling water (the latter represents his river). Peneus twists and turns as if he is just becoming aware of the metamorphosis that the young man is pointing out, even though Peneus is the demigod who set it in motion. A third figure behind Peneus is discernible only by a portion of his face and the dramatically splayed hand that he rests on Peneus’ right shoulder. (I would not identify the two subsidiary figures as river gods, since they appear to be young and they do not possess any of the traditional attributes of river gods.) The Getty drawing is an excellent example of the fully developed Mannerist style.
Baroque and Rococo
Jacob Pynas’s sketch is a compendium of Baroque characteristics. It is defined by an extreme degree of dramatic chiaroscuro (light/dark contrast) that is one of the hallmarks of the style. It is an image of epic energy and struggle, with Daphne streaking to the right, and Apollo pulling on her garments with all of his might. Her body forms a dynamic diagonal as she thrusts forward. Apollo and the tree behind him constitute counter-diagonals. Apollo’s strength and resolution will avail him none, since Daphne is already sprouting twigs and leaves from her head and hands. Like many works by Northern artists, Pynas’ figures do not reflect the idealized, classicizing forms of the Italian Renaissance. They are a Northern counterpart to the realistic figures popularized by Caravaggio.
Charles Le Brun was Louis XIV’s artistic director and the supreme taste-maker of French art. His design for a never-built Apollo and Daphne fountain reflects his classicizing taste. He resurrects the pyramidal form that was so beloved by High Renaissance artists. His figures are idealized, measured, harmonious, and balanced — particularly in comparison to those of Pynas. Fittingly, since Le Brun was a disciple of Poussin, even the features of the base follow a rational sequence of forms that are readily legible in space. Le Brun’s figures have a static quality, since movement is altogether beside the point. Daphne eternally crowns the summit, just as laurel crowns her head and hands. If Pynas’s figures struggle in darkness, Le Brun’s are petrified in light. These works by Pynas and Le Brum exemplify antipodal aspects of the Baroque.
Luca Giordano packs many elements of the Apollo and Daphne story into this painting. A striding Apollo is placed in the center of the painting, where his halo lights up the nocturnal scene. The disheveled corpse of the slain Python lies in the background to the right of Apollo’s left foot. Cupid, who clutches the little bow that set the story in motion, hovers behind Apollo. The horses that drive Apollo’s chariot of the sun are visible in the extreme upper right.
Daphne, who has reached the end of a rocky outcrop that overlooks her father’s river, is already sprouting roots from her left foot, and leaves extend from her upraised hands. Her muscular father, whose back is turned to us, rises out of the river, while waters churn from his jug. On the left, a trio of water nymphs bears witness to Daphne’s arrested flight and her incipient metamorphosis.
A drawing for this painting is in the Musée du Louvre, which the museum dates c. 1685. This painting is likely contemporary with the drawing. Giordano also painted a cycle of 12 or more mythological paintings between 1687 and 1689, which he sent to Madrid from Naples. One of the 12 (all of which remain in Spain) is a similar painting of Apollo and Daphne.
Tiepolo, who is famed for his grand decorations in the palaces of Europe, is one of the most robust exponents of the Rococo. In his beautiful color and painterly fluency, he was deeply influenced by the work of the Venetian Renaissance artist Veronese. Tiepolo’s two relatively modest-sized canvases of the Apollo and Daphne myth that are discussed here are light and airy, with bright colors and an emphasis on physical beauty. His figures are strong and vigorous, relative to many Rococo works.
In the first version, now at the Louvre, the four protagonists are crowded together. Apollo, who is already wearing his laurel crown, extends his left arm as he looks up in surprise to see Daphne’s right hand burst into greenery. Daphne herself, who is in mid-stride, apparently running so fast that her clothes fall off, also surveys this development. Her father Peneus, however, who is outfitted with jug and oar in the foreground, is looking to the right, perhaps at Cupid, who is beneath Daphne’s cascading garments. Cupid must have been running alongside Daphne, given that the position of Apollo’s left foot indicates that he is in full stride.
In Tiepolo’s second version, Apollo approaches from the right to find Daphne — who is perched on her father’s water jug — already turning into a tree. Her upraised hands are bursting into leaves, and her left leg is becoming a large tree trunk, which is taking root on the far side of the jug.
Peneus turns dramatically in Apollo’s direction. Cupid, who is behind the jug and beneath Daphne’s garments, is clearly hiding from Apollo.
Traditional Jewelry and Ceramics
Perhaps the most elaborate and luxurious jewel with an Apollo and Daphne theme, this pendant is also well-crafted.
Both Apollo and Cupid are represented twice. Cupid is in flight at the very top of the pendant, with a blue quiver. To the right of the central roundel, he has his back turned, with a red quiver. Apollo balances him on the other side, also with a red quiver. In the center, Apollo appears again, in his gold armor and ruby boots. He embraces Daphne, who seems to dwarf him as she sprouts emeralds from her head and hands. Her lower legs are becoming greenish tree trunks, and an emerald shoot extends from the left. A cartouche beneath the roundel reads: DAPHNE PHEBUS AMAT (Apollo loves Daphne).
Cupid flies over the figure of the sprinting Apollo, who grasps his bow in his right hand and violently grabs Daphne by the hair with his left hand. Foliage is already sprouting from Daphne’s upraised hands. A strange-looking creature — it looks like a sphinx, but it is surely the Python — sits behind Apollo. Hence the story is collapsed: Apollo sprints from the still-living Python to grab the already-transforming Daphne.
This onyx cameo is from a set of eight, all of which treat mythological and agricultural scenes. Unlike contemporary Milanese cameos, which were usually mounted on vessels, French cameos like this one were often worn, either as ornaments or strung onto necklaces. The petal-like mounts facilitated such usage.
In this majolica plate, the story begins on the left, where Apollo looks like he is riding a dragon, but he must be finishing off the Python, apparently with his bare hands. The grotto cave in the background presumably represents the Python’s lair. Chronologically, the next scene is up in the clouds, where Apollo must have already insulted Cupid. The latter is brandishing his little bow, and he appears to be angry. The story continues in the lower left center, where Apollo (his cape is not as red as in the other scenes) grasps his bow in his right hand; he appears to be grabbing at Daphne with his left hand. A sapling is springing from Daphne’s head, and significant branches sprout from her arms. Apollo’s pose is particularly awkward. Peneus is in the lower right: his upturned vessel pours water that runs down rocks and becomes a rivulet. In the upper right, Daphne has already transitioned into a tree, though her upper body retains human features. The area beneath her human trunk is a tree trunk. Her arms and head must continue in arboreal form, but they are obscured by clouds on the left and foliage on the right. Thus her human aspect is emphasized as Apollo plucks laurel leaves to adorn his head and instruments.
This exquisite bowl was made for a noble patron: the center prominently features the arms of Gonzaga impaling Este (for Isabella d’Este, the Marchioness of Mantua). The story begins in the lower left, with Apollo victorious over the Python. The next scene is at the top.
Significantly, Cupid is on an equal scale with Apollo in this beautifully painted detail (note the individual brushstrokes). Cupid’s bow looks just as big as Apollo’s, too. Cupid is blindfolded, though he seems to be peeking through the inadequate blindfold. Significantly, he foresees the future (he tells Apollo that he will avenge his slights), whereas Apollo does not (Apollo is too arrogant to take Cupid seriously).
In the lower right, Apollo, who already wears a laurel crown, pursues Daphne. He has perhaps grasped her neck with his left hand, but Daphne’s head and arms have already burst into big branches and leaves that bend backward and frame the distant landscape. Peneus observes the chase from his watery seat at the bottom of the dish.
In this plate, Apollo chases Daphne while holding a violin (an updated lyre). Though the two figures are relatively distant — perhaps because Daphne appears to be much more muscular and athletic than the skimpy-shouldered Apollo — a tree is already sprouting from the top of her head. It is as eccentric-looking as the trees growing out of the ground in the landscape. Peneus appears to be in the foreground. If so, one wonders if his water jug is resting on something we cannot see, or if it is suspended in thin air.
On the right, Apollo stands on the corpse of the Python, riding it like a surfboard. The arrow through its ear and the blood on the ground point to its cause of death. Trees frame the two sides of the dish. On the left, the Daphne/laurel tree bends away from Apollo, as if she is still avoiding his clutches. This tree has a human face and a pair of bark breasts. The two branches on either side of the head read as upraised human hands. Peneus, on the other side of the tree, resembles an Asian wise man.
The back of the dish bears this inscription:
1537 This is she who with her golden hair once fired with love the sun whom the world beholds and through him still bears heavy burdens. Francesco of Urbino, at Deruta
Cupid meets with a man in the central boss, which is framed by a white ring. The British Museum says it is Apollo (even though he has green armor, rather than the gold armor that Apollo wears below). Could Cupid be shooting him with the gold-tipped arrow, while holding the lead-tipped arrow reserved for Daphne? Or is this person Vulcan, who makes weapons for the gods, who could be handing one of the magic arrows to Cupid? In any case, Urbini’s handling of the water and the rocks is particularly beautiful.
This plate features all four of the story’s essential figures in large scale and in close proximity to one another. Apollo, striking the pose of a diver, is about to lunge at Daphne, who has her hands above her head — seemingly to fend off Cupid, who is shooting at her at extremely close range (though this took place at the beginning of the story). A large green shoot is springing from her head, and her left foot looks like it got stuck in some green goop. Old man Peneus, meanwhile, is just chillaxing in the corner. This plate features unusually saturated colors.
Apollo, who already has laurels in his hair, is lumbering towards Daphne like Frankenstein’s monster. She is already bursting into little trees at her upper extremities, and her feet are taking root in the ground. In the background, Cupid and a bevy of putti are cavorting in celebration of the vengeance he has achieved.
According to the Met website, this perfume bottle bears the French inscription “RENDEZ VOUS A L’AMOUR” (rendez-vous of love) on the underside of the base. In the Greco-Roman story, the meeting of Apollo and Daphne was anything but a romantic tryst, and it was not pre-arranged in any manner whatsoever. Wouldn’t a scent bottle based on the original story be more appropriate for a container of repellent than perfume? Clearly, this bottle is recasting the tale as a love story — a phenomenon we will also see in a recent work near the end of this article.
A version in the British Museum features a bird stopper instead of a laurel-and-berry stopper. In the rear view illustrated above, Apollo looks like he is hauling off a decorated Christmas tree. Apparently only the top of Daphne’s head and her backside are sprouting branches.
A photograph on the British Museum website shows that rendez is spelled with an “s”: “RENDES VOUS A’ L’AMOUR.” The British Museum has multiple zoomable images of its perfume bottle.
An example similar to the Met’s bottle was at Christies in 2005, where it was dated c. 1762.
Le Brun’s classicizing tastes led to an academy that dominated the arts, and ultimately had a stultifying effect in France. Art degenerated into an enervated and preposterous historicizing classicism. Figures and poses like those in the above drawing were all-too common (though there is admittedly some very fine interwoven foliage throughout the work). If the figures seem like they were collaged into the tapestry design, that is because they essentially were. A figural specialist must have drawn Apollo, Daphne, and Peneus with the most histrionic gestures he could muster, and the design team must have plopped them into their respective places.
It is truly hard to decide which figure is more ridiculous. Take your pick. Daphne seems to be surrendering — whether it is to her cruel fate or to the kitsch excesses of this scenario, I cannot be certain. In my efforts to crown the silliest figure in this composition, I gravitate between Apollo and Peneus, both of whom could have taught the over-acting silent film stars of the future a thing or two.
To add insult to artistic injury, the words Liberté, Égalité, and Fraternité (the national motto of France) are inscribed at the summit of Daphne’s fast-growing laurel tree. How, exactly, are these values reflected in the theme of this image? Daphne’s fate is the antithesis of this slogan.
This kind of kitschy insincerity is what caused modernist artists (Courbet, Manet, the Impressionists, and their successors) to rebel against the taste of the art establishment. Degrees of actual rebellion, or course, varied: Courbet was imprisoned and had to go into exile in Switzerland; Manet — often futilely — continuously tried to find success at the state-sponsored Salons.
The inscription at the top of this design is adapted from Ovid’s Metamorphosis:
THY LEAVES SHALL CROWN MY LOCKS MY LYRE MY QUIVER
THINE THE BROWS OF LATIUMS LORDS TO WREATHE WHAT
TIME THE VOICE OF ROME SALUTES THE TRIUMPH
Apollo is kissing Daphne as she turns into a tree. But without this inscription, it would be difficult to identify the subject as Apollo and Daphne. The Huntarian notes that its style is more similar to Margaret McDonald’s designs than to Macintosh’s typical graphic style.
In Mueble de Viena (2020), Julio Vives Chillida argues that this design inspired Klimt’s Kiss. Chillida also interprets The Kiss (un-persuasively, in my view), as a depiction of the Apollo and Daphne theme.
A close follower and associate of Gustav Klimt, Wilhelm List was a founding member and one of the leading figures of the Vienna Secession. He was the publisher of Ver Sacrum, the Secession’s journal, for which he executed many designs, including this lithograph.
In Daphne, Apollo is on his knees before the naked nymph, who, rather than metamorphosing into a tree, looks like she might be stuffed into the cleft of a jagged trunk. We do not see any part of her that is not completely human. Leaves and stems might be growing from her limbs, but the image is cropped in such a way that we cannot observe such a transformation. The disposition of the figures owes much to Chassériau’s influential Apollo and Daphne (1846). I reproduced the painting in Part 2. The composition was widely disseminated as a print, which is linked here. Unlike the vivid coloring and texture in Chassériau’s painting, List’s soft monochrome endows the lithograph with a dream-like quality, as if it were a fantasy rather than a depiction of an actual event. List set the scene on the bank of a tranquil river, without any other figures such as Cupid or Peneus.
20th and 21st Centuries
Witkin depicts Apollo as a rampant horned goat, which is outfitted with wings. By doing so, he stresses the god’s predatory, animalistic characteristics in this myth. Daphne is a little person who screams in terror at the goat’s advance.
Witkin explained his artistic philosophy to Michael Abatemarco:
… regardless of what physicality a person has, art related to any person is about the soul of that person, not the way they look per se. … the inner spiritual factor. Any attempt to make something that doesn’t have the latter purpose is empty. … What I want to do, and always have worked for, is to show the beauty of difference.
Unlike most contemporary artists that treat classical mythology, Witkin sees himself as a religious artist:
I make photographs that … have a historical and religious presence. … I consider myself a Christian artist, and I’m reacting to this time and life. For me, I make the work not for people’s reactions but to create truth as I see it.
These quotes are taken from Michael Abatemarco, “The beauty of difference: Photographer Joel-Peter Witkin,” Pasatiempo, Sante Fe New Mexican, October 19, 2018.
I saw a thumbnail of this image many times before I took a closer look at it and realized that it was actually painted with frosting. The Apollo and Daphne story has entered popular culture, as evidenced by its presence in cakes, tattoos, and various craft objects. Bernini’s famous statue is usually the work that made various craftspeople engage with the myth, as was the case with Sylwia of Sylwiascakes. Among Apollo and Daphne-themed confections, this one takes the cake. Sylwia’s frosting painting closely follows one of several illustrations of the Apollo and Daphne theme made by Beatriz Martín Vidal. In this instance, Sylwia used Vidal’s watercolor illustration for Ovid’s Metamorphosis, whose composition ultimately goes back to Chassériau’s example.
Apollo and Daphne tattoos are very popular these days. Many pay direct tribute to Bernini’s famous and remarkable creation, such as the one illustrated above.
Others treat more obscure works of art, or even details of these works. This tattoo repeats a remarkable detail from René-Antoine Houasse’s painting of Apollo and Daphne (1677) that is in the Château de Versailles (it was featured in Part 1).
This dramatic, full-back tattoo features a Daphne whose right leg has already become a substantial tree with gnarly roots. Her left arm has become a substantial branch, with subsidiary branches growing off of it. Though her lower torso is being encased in wood bark, seemingly forming an organic chastity belt, she remains largely human as she strikes a classic cheesecake pose. Daphne glances behind her, where a muscle-bound Apollo is flying at her.
This tattoo seems to say, as theatrically as possible: “I’d rather be a tree than be with you!” We can assume, however, that few rejected potential lovers ever receive this direct message.
But imagine a scenario in which a supreme drama king or queen (there is no need to be gender-specific in this day and age) suddenly disrobes to reveal a tattoo like the one above, and simultaneously reaches skyward, with hands capped by Heather Roblin Daphne and Apollo sterling silver fingertips that flash in the sun?
Whereas Christian writers and artists converted the Apollo and Daphne tale into an allegory of chastity, Antonietta Arnone — like the maker of the Chelsea scent bottle — recasts it into an erotic love story. Apollo is no longer a sprinting, rapacious predator. On the contrary, he offers his own heart to Daphne. In the left sleeve, he holds it in his left hand, while Daphne’s left hand (note the nail polish) is in the act of receiving it.
In the other sleeve, Daphne, who is holding a sprig of laurel, also has laurels in her hair. The snake in the lower section of the sleeve alludes to the Garden of Eden myth. But Arnone’s narrative seems to celebrate sexual knowledge and union, rather than prohibit them. Her florid, laurel-and-berry grove is the new Eden, and Apollo and Daphne are recast as the new Adam and Eve, united in a new moral universe.
Dear reader, Cupid bids you farewell until next Valentine’s Day, at which time he will present more renditions of his vengeance against the mighty Apollo. (If anyone should be wearing a weird little crown of victory, it is he.) In the meantime, do not be cruel and rude like Apollo — if you know what’s good for you. Remember that even the smallest person can bring down the seemingly mightiest. In the meantime, may all of your erotic frustrations be sublimated into fine art.
Ruben C. Cordova is an art historian and a curator.