The Greek and Roman poets: another vast debt. This is Rembrandt’s peerless interpretation, painted for a Calvinist patron, of the Rape of Ganymede from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Ganymede, a shepherd boy and the son of Tros, a legendary king of Troy, was abducted by Zeus, who disguised himself as an eagle in order to bear the famously beautiful boy away; Zeus then appointed him cup-bearer to the Gods.
Rembrandt’s painting, an early work, reveals his mastery of chiaroscuro. But its singularity lies in the fact that Ganymede is not depicted by the artist as some gorgeous, pouting youth, but rather as an ugly toddler, his face made ghastly with fear (look carefully, and you’ll see that he’s also peeing himself).
There’s something revolting about the child’s fleshy thighs, about the fact that, even as he squirms to escape the bird’s grip, he continues greedily to cling to the cherries he holds in one hand. This is a spoiled baby, not the idealised boy we’ve come to expect — a twist that reminds us how, with the requisite daring and humour, a great artist can completely upend an ancient narrative.