The myth of Apollo and Daphne started with an act of arrogance by Apollo, the god of the sun, music, poetry and reason. Apollo wished to prove he was the superior archer and teased the god of love about the size of his arrow. In an act of revenge, Cupid shot Apollo with an arrow condemning him to fall in love with the next person he saw. This led Apollo to see Daphne, a nymph who above all valued her virtue and resented her own beauty. Apollo under the spell of love pursued Daphne. Cupid, still angered, shot Daphne with a lead-tipped arrow that would keep her from falling in love and encourage a repulse for Apollo.
Daphne fed up with Apollo's constant advancements, prayed to her father, the river god, Peneus. Hearing his daughter’s cries, Peneus transformed Daphne into a laurel tree in order to help protect her virtue:
"...and seeing Peneus’s waters near cried out ‘Help me, father! If your streams have divine powers change me, destroy this beauty that pleases too well!’ Her prayer was scarcely done when a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty was left"
From then on, Apollo was cursed with unrequited love and Cupid’s need for revenge was satisfied. The God of the Sun, still pinning for what he believes is his true love made a laurel leaf one of his symbols to honor Daphne and learned his lesson about ridiculing Cupid.
Throughout history, artists have tried to capture this story in a variety of styles and mediums. Read on to discover a few notable portrayals of this heartbreaking myth played out due to the rivalry of the Gods:
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “Apollo and Daphne”, 1622-1625, marble, 243cm,
Borghese Gallery and Museum and Smarthistory
Within the Borghese Gallery in Rome, there is a marble sculpture crafted in the Baroque style by Italian artist, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The marble work depicts Apollo as he chases the virgin Daphne who is slowly morphing into a tree to protect her virtue. Her prayer to Peneus was answered to “Destroy the beauty that had injured me, or change the body that destroys my life.”
Within this sculpture, Daphne’s transformation takes place as her hands turn to twigs and her legs root into the ground. Her admirer, Apollo swiftly pursues her as he desperately watches his love slip away. His hand grabs onto her hip as her body transforms into bark.
Piero del Pollaiuolo, "Apollo and Daphne" 1470-80, Oil on wood, 29.5 x 20 cm,
credit: Wynn Ellis Bequest, 1876
In this painting, Piero del Pollaiuolo captured the moment of Daphne’s transformation as the nymph’s arms turn to branches. Pollauillo exquisitely showcases Daphne’s peace as she finds her oasis while Apollo enraptured is punished with his never-ending chase.
The distant hillsides and subtle reflections of trees in the river allude to the presence of Peneus as the river god protects his daughter from the advancements of Apollo. The artist’s use of delicate details in this work is recognizable suggesting its a painting to be admired closely.
Studio of Francesco Albani, "Apollo and Daphne" Bologna, 1615-20, 32.1 x 40.7
In this Italian Baroque-style painting, the female nymph looks back at the charmed and desperate Apollo, as Eros (or Cupid) hovers over the couple mischievously. This scene takes place shortly before the Niad nymph takes drastic action in order to avoid Apollo's efforts. Daphne noticing Apollo's gain on her, runs towards her father, the river god Peneus who is represented lying in a body of water clutching an urn, his symbol. It is here that she will be transformed into the laurel tree that the artist cleverly suggests with his chosen background.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, "Apollo Pursuing Daphne", 1755-1760
oil on canvas, 68.5 x 87 cm, National Gallery of Art
Throughout his artistic career, Tiepolo enjoyed introducing religious and mythological themes into his work. He was fascinated with bringing ancient literature to life within the context of a new medium. His depiction of Apollo and Daphne sourced from Ovid's, Metamorphoses was an example of his many achievements. The artist depicts the four characters of the story: Apollo, Daphne, Cupid and Peneus. Tiepolo choose to use diagonal and curved lines within the painting in order to give the allusion of movement and highlight the body language of the figures.
The artist depicts Daphne as she leans away discouragingly, starting her transformation into a tree, Apollo making his way towards her while decorated with his laurel wreath and beaming in her presence, Peneus protecting Daphne as he clutches his urn of water, alluding to his title as the river god and Cupid, cowering behind watching the scene play out.
The artist's inclusion of props helps to fuel the narrative of this story as it showcases the intentions of each subject. Tiepolo's depiction of Cupid leaves the viewer questioning his remorse as they wonder why he chooses to hide behind the scenes.
Francisco Bosoletti & Young Jaris, "Daphne and Apollo" 2018, 45 meters, Berlin. Courtesy of Urban Nation Museum For
Urban Contemporary Art
This project is part of the "One Wall, One Message" series, an Urban Nation initiative to invite emerging and well-known artists to design building facades. In 2018, artists, Bosoletti and Young collaborated on a large-scale street artwork of Apollo and Daphne. The artists choose to binarize the image of Daphne while highlighting Apollo in color in order to represent the feeling of unrequited love.
Interestingly, the artists found a way to create a hidden transformation within the work, encouraging the viewer to use their phones to photograph the artwork and to use a color reversing function to portray Daphne in a different light.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Edited by R. J. Tarrant. Oxford University Press, 2004. Oxford Classical Texts.