Sculptures of Ganymede — the handsome mortal snatched from earth by an eagle to become cupbearer for the gods on Mount Olympus — are favorites in the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Bertel Thorvaldsen, a famous Danish sculptor that worked mostly from Rome during the 19th century, made several sculptures of Ganymede. The best one is of Ganymede and the eagle of Jupiter (Zeus). An earlier work shows a standing Ganymede offering a cup while a later rework altered the composition to a more dramatic Ganymede filling the cup. Marble copies are on display in the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark, with two of these considered as being carved by the master himself. The museum famously has the complete oeuvre of working plaster models by Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844), as well as several works carved in marble.
Ganymede in Greek and Roman Mythology
The basic story of Ganymede in Greek and Roman mythology is that the handsome human (mortal) boy Ganymede is fetched from the land of the mortals to become the cupbearer of the gods (immortals) on Mount Olympus. The basic tale is elaborated and altered depending on who is telling the story and for what purpose.
Ganymede is usually considered as a Trojan prince that was exceptionally handsome — Homer described him as the loveliest born of the race of the mortals. In some versions, the gods were impressed by his mind or soul but most focus on his physical beauty. A popular version has Hera filled with jealousy as Zeus (Jupiter in Roman mythology) fell in love with Ganymede.
The eagle of Zeus (or in some versions Zeus himself transformed into an eagle) is sent to fetch Ganymede from earth to Mount Olympus. Here he replaced Hebe as cupbearer for the gods — Hebe, daughter of Zeus and Hera, was relieved of this duty after marrying Heracles (Hercules). Other versions have Ganymede as the personal cupbearer of Zeus. Ganymede is rewarded with immortally and eternal youth.
Ganymede in Art
In literature and visual arts, Ganymede is usually portrayed as a beautiful youth who attracted homosexual desire and love. In antiquity, he was usually a young male but with a physique less developed than athletes. He appeared on many vases and even sarcophagi. Later works often have him younger with stronger homoerotic overtones — he is rarely painted dressed. Heterosexual versions of the story seem to be a harder sell.
The abduction of Ganymede, sometimes also termed the rape of Ganymede, is particularly popular in paintings and drawings. It gives artists the opportunity to not only paint a human and animal in action in the same dramatic scene but also an input on the amount of cooperation or resistance Ganymede put into the event. Rembrandt avoided the homoerotic by painting Ganymede as a (fat) baby wetting himself while being carried away in the claws of the eagle. The baby is bare-bottom but Rembrandt took extra care with the clothing and even signed the work on the hem of the shirt in the center of the painting. (This Rembrandt is in the Zwinger in Dresden.)
In sculpture, the events portrayed are usually post-abduction. Either Ganymede with the eagle (sometimes in an embrace) or in his role as cupbearer. Cellini repurposed an antique torso (probably originally a Bacchus) to become Ganymede snatching two eaglets away from a full-size eagle at his feet — an ironic reversal of the usual legend of the eagle sent by Zeus to snatch Ganymede away. (On display in the Bargello in Florence.)
Thorvaldsen’s Sculptures of Ganymede in Copenhagen
The Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen has three marble Ganymede sculptures by the Danish sculptor:
- Ganymede Offering the Cup (1804)
- Ganymede Filling the Cup (1818)
- Ganymede and the Eagle of Jupiter (Zeus) (1817)
Freestanding Sculptures of Ganymede by Thorvaldsen
Thorvaldsen sculpted Ganymede Offering the Cup as a freestanding sculpture in 1804. The marble version on display in the first numbered hall of the museum is probably by the artist himself.
In this version, a standing Ganymede has a jug in his relaxed right hand while a full cup is held in his left with this arm stretching out to the viewer. Is Ganymede offering the visitor the cup, or is he going to drink it himself?
Thorvaldsen altered the sculpture when he made a second version around 14 years later: Ganymede is now actively filling the cup with his right arm lifted high and his focus on the cup. A far more dynamic pose, especially seen together with the earlier version, as they are displayed in this room of the museum.
Ganymede and the Eagle of Jupiter
Ganymede and the Eagle of Jupiter (1817) is by far the most impressive of the Ganymedes in the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen. The marble copy on display in the museum is thought to be by Thorvaldsens himself.
The almost triangular composition of Jupiter’s eagle and Ganymede is of a peaceful scene. Although the eagle is with a sharp beak and strong claws, it is a composition without the drama and violence of the eagle snatching the mortal. Thorvaldsen sculpted Ganymede and the eagle almost at the same level. Ganymede kneels down while pouring the eagle a drink. They are clearly at peace and comfortable in each other’s presence — almost like a child with a puppy.
The scene is already a role reversal — it doesn’t go as far as Cellini snatching the eaglets, but here Ganymede also has the upper hand. He is offering the eagle a drink — he shares his excess without asking anything from the eagle that anyway seems to have nothing to offer in return.
Thorvaldsen was influenced by the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller, who considered it typical for a cultured human being to neither destroy nor exploit nature but rather respect the freedom and welfare of other beings.
Thorvaldsen was not only very familiar with the works of Schiller, he also produced an oversized statue for a memorial in Stuttgart. The original cast model is on display in the hall of honor of the museum.
Thorvaldsen sculpted several birds and eagles, usually as minor additions to the main characters. The owl for Athena and peace doves are common while the Apostle John made for the Domkirke in Copenhagen is also accompanied by a fine eagle. A marble version may be seen near the front of the cathedral in Copenhagen while the plaster model is in the museum. The model of Ganymede and the Eagle is also in the museum — in the back corner of the upper floor.
See also Visiting the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen for more on the museum and the remarkable artist from Denmark who sculpted the European who’s who of the early 19th century. (He’s the only protestant artist with a work, and a really big one too, in the St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.)