Apollo Pursuing Daphne
Grade Level: 5–6
Students will be introduced to the Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne by critically analyzing the painting Apollo Pursuing Daphne by Tiepolo. They will then design a coat of arms with symbols that best represent their personality and interests. As a class, students will play a guessing game to figure out who created each design based on these symbols.
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
Apollo Pursuing Daphne, c. 1755/1760
oil on canvas, 68.5 x 87 cm (26 15/16 x 34 1/4 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection
- History/Social Studies
- Language Arts
- Paper (both for writing and drawing)
- Colored paper to post drawings on
- Markers or colored pencils
- Post-its for guessing game
- Copies of the “Design Your Own Coat of Arms” template
What do you think is happening to the woman in this painting?
Have you heard of Cupid, the baby god of love? This painting shows what can happen when Cupid’s arrows make love go wrong.
Daphne, a beautiful mountain nymph, had the bad luck of attracting the affection of Apollo, the god of reason, music, and poetry. Apollo was returning from slaying a monster named Python when he saw Cupid. Apollo bragged to Cupid that his bow was bigger than Cupid’s. Angered by the insult, Cupid shot him with a golden love arrow causing Apollo to fall in love with the first person he saw. Cupid then shot Daphne with a lead-tipped arrow causing her to be impervious to love. At that moment, Apollo caught sight of Daphne, who was out hunting, and fell in love. But Daphne was not interested. He began to chase her. Daphne, a superb athlete tried to run away, but she was no match for Apollo. He was close behind when she reached her father, the river god Peneus. (Note his symbols: a water urn, an oar, and a tiny waterfall at the left of the painting.) Hearing her cries for help, Peneus quickly transformed Daphne into a laurel tree. Seeing the havoc he caused, little Cupid hides behind Daphne’s white robes.
Apollo reached the tree and, still enamored with Daphne, he mourned, as Ovid wrote in the Metamorphoses:
Fairest of maidens, you are lost to me. But at least you shall be my tree. With your leaves my victors shall wreathe their brows. You shall have your part in all my triumphs. Apollo and his laurel shall be joined together wherever songs are sung and stories told.
This explains why the laurel is a symbol of Apollo and why winners of competitions in sports, music, and poetry were crowned with laurel leaves.
Throughout his career, Tiepolo painted pictures of mythological themes. The subjects of these works came from the best-known stories of ancient literature. This depiction of Apollo and Daphne comes directly from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Tiepolo was born in Venice and, like other Venetian painters before him, he painted with sunlit brilliance, reveling in color and light. In his twenties, he had already won an international reputation and became the most important painter in Venice in the eighteenth century. Here, he depicts the moment of Daphne’s metamorphosis or transformation when her hands turn into branches, her left leg becomes a tree trunk, and her neck stiffens into bark.
In case you’re wondering why these figures aren’t wearing clothes: Figures in art of characters from Greek and Roman myths are often partially-dressed or nude to resemble their original depictions in the literature and statuary of ancient times.
- Based on the scenery, what type of nymph is Daphne? (Mountain)
- What moment in the story of Apollo and Daphne has Tiepolo depicted? (The moment in which Daphne is turning into a tree.) How do we know Daphne is turning into a tree? (Her fingers are sprouting branches, her left leg is rooting in the ground as a tree stump, and her neck seems to be thickening into woody bark.)
- Why do you think Tiepolo painted this moment?
- Tiepolo painted Apollo crowned with a laurel wreath to identify him. Why did laurel become a symbol of Apollo? (The laurel wreath on his head refers to Daphne, for because of him she was transformed into a laurel tree.)
- When artists use horizontal and vertical lines, their paintings often look very stable and still. Take a look at the lines in this painting. How would you describe them? Do the figures look as if they are moving? Tiepolo used diagonal and curved lines that make them seem to move. See if you can make the same gestures with your body.
- What customs are explained in this story?
- Why is Cupid hiding? (He hit Apollo with his arrow, causing Apollo to fall in love with Daphne, who does not love him back.) How was this story affected by Cupid’s rashly shooting Apollo with an arrow? If you were Cupid, do you think you would have made the same choice? Why or why not? What if you were Apollo who bullied Cupid and chased Daphne? How might you have handled the situations differently? If someone liked you but you didn't like him or her, how would you handle the situation?
Students will create their own coat of arms from symbols that represent their personality and interests:
- Students will write at least four personality traits or hobbies.
- Beside each trait or hobby they should write an idea or sketch a symbol they could use to represent it. Symbols are things that stand for something else. A lion is sometimes a symbol of courage, and a heart is a symbol of love. Have them think about what makes them special: Do you like to read? Maybe a book could be one of your symbols. Are you a good friend? What could symbolize friendship? (Perhaps a handshake.)
- With their writing and sketching as their guide, students will create a coat of arms incorporating their personal symbols. Using the “Design Your Own Coat of Arms” template, students can choose to have their four symbols separated into quadrants or combine them into a singular design. (For the time being, students should not fill in their name on the banner until after the guessing game described below.)
Display students' coats of arms on colored paper and hang as a class quilt or collage with a number on a post-it assigned to each design. Students will select three coats of arms that they think they know who the artist is. On a separate sheet of paper, each student will write the number, the name of their guessed student artist, and then justify their reasoning: What are the symbols? What do you think they stand for? Why do you think it fits this student? Students will then share their answers and see who gets the most right. Lastly, they can sign their masterpieces.
National Core Arts Standards
VA:Cr1.2.5 Identify and demonstrate diverse methods of artistic investigation to choose an approach for beginning a work of art.
VA:Cr2.3.5 Identify, describe, and visually document places and/or objects of personal significance.
VA:Re7.1.5 Compare one's own interpretation of a work of art with the interpretation of others.
VA:Re7.2.5 Identify and analyze cultural associations suggested by visual imagery.
VA:Re8.1.5 Interpret art by analyzing characteristics of form and structure, contextual information, subject matter, visual elements, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.