Apollo and Daphne: Love in Vain

An art analysis by Nasstasha Cara Figueras

           ‘He saw her eyes bright as stars; he saw her lips, and was not satisfied with only seeing them.He admired her hands and arms, naked to the shoulder, and whatever was hidden from view he imagined more beautiful still. He followed her; she fled, swifter than the wind…’


        “Apollo and Daphne” by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. Location: Galleria Borghese, Rome


Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, Italian Baroque

Italian Baroque painter and sculptor Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini transformed poetry into art in his famous sculpture, Apollo and Daphne. Famous for its intricacy, Apollo and Daphne is just one amongst the notable works of Bernini. The sculpture is largely based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” that depicts the love story of Apollo, who was the God of healing and the sun, and Daphne, a river nymph.  Fate had reckoned a cupid’s desire to pitch two arrows, but only one was bound to love and the other would bear in apathy. Apollo eventually fell in love with Daphne, who was then entailed to resist anyone who attempts to go after her.  And so Apollo was in an endless chase of Daphne’s heart that favors only to break loose. He was eternally charmed. Longing for the beautiful maiden, he followed her everywhere;

                “”Stay,” said he, “daughter of Peneus; I am not a foe. Do not fly me as a lamb flies the wolf, or a dove the hawk. It is for love I pursue you. You make me miserable, for fear you should fall and hurt yourself on these stones, and I should be the cause. Pray run slower, and I will follow slower. I am no clown, no rude peasant. Jupiter is my father, and I am lord of Delphos and Tenedos, and know all things, present and future. I am the god of song and the lyre. My arrows fly true to the mark; but, alas! an arrow more fatal than mine has pierced my heart! I am the god of medicine, and know the virtues of all healing plants. Alas! I suffer a malady that no balm can cure!””

Daphne pleads to his father for him to change her form, and it was not too long after she was heard. Slowly she transformed; her hands and fingers to branches and leaves, her feet to roots, and her body to bark. “Nothing of her was left except her shining loveliness.”

Bernini captured the story’s climax as he showed more than just a sculpture in marble. He showed dynamism, action and change. Furthermore, he presented the figure in a very idealistic manner; the contours of the body, the foliage of the tree, the finespun of draperies falling from Daphne’s shoulder and the expression on both Daphne and Apollo’s face. It was as if he treated every part a living thing.


Nevertheless, art should be analyzed in three different planes namely; semiotic (plane of elements), iconic (plane of image) and thematic (plane of context).

In the semiotic plane, we take not only the elements but the techniques used, material, dimension, etc. as they have meaning-conveying potential. The word ‘classical’ might well be emphasized with the use of white marble as its primary medium. The waxy look of marble gives life to the sculpture as seen in the softness and contours of the body. The technique takes hold on chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and dark. The dramatic presence of light in the sculpture by means of shades creates emotional effects and gives the sculpture a more 3-dimensional look. The treatment of space does not restrict itself as to giving the audience a single viewpoint. It forces the viewer to see it in different views because each of these views has a certain significance.


           Apollo and Daphne in different views.

Front view would tell the audience the expression on Daphne and Apollo’s face, the former illustrates tragedy in the openings of her mouth and the latter, in an endless hope supported by how he directly gazes at Daphne while she transforms. The side view would display the transformation itself; how Daphne’s feet turn into roots and her fingers into leaves. In the rearview, the hand of Apollo wrapped around the waist of Daphne tells of his possessive desire of the young maiden.

As I was discussing the 1st level of analysis, I have already worked my way in including the Iconic plane that covers the presentation of the figure, the gaze of the subject and the style of figurization, hence, I shall discuss the last plane which is the plane of context or the Thematic.

Already presented is the background of the sculpture, but more to that is to see how one derives meaning from its context. I would practically interpret it as a sculpture which simply depicts the nature of loving in vain. It contradicts the concept that the universe will conspire in order to attract something that is of great interest to you. But a deeper understanding to this is one that I watched in a documentary which accounts that chasing earthly pleasures would just lead to frustration. The sculpture delivers not only a love story in text but also stresses the unending desire for material things even to the point of harming not only oneself but also other people as well.









“Art Criticism” by Alice Guillermo