Old Master Painting That Recounts How Olympian God Apollo Got His Lyre

Apollo is one of the important Olympian deities in classical Greek and Roman mythology. He has been recognised as the god of music, truth, healing, sun and light, poetry and more. Apollo’s lyre is probably the most well-known symbol of the god, signifying his accomplishment in music. Apollo is often depicted with his symbolic lyre in paintings, sculptures or literature. In fact, there is an interesting story of how Apollo got his lyre. 

Apollo, the god of music, is often depicted with his lyre

Apollo, the god of music, is often depicted with his lyre

Here is how the story started. Coronis, a mortal princess and Apollo’s lover, was pregnant with Apollo’s son, Asclepius. While Apollo was away, Coronis had an affair with Ischys. When Apollo found out Coronis was being unfaithful to him, he sent his sister, Artemis, to kill Coronis. Apollo rescued his unborn child by cutting open Coronis’ belly.

Apollo rescued Asclepius by cutting open Coronis’ belly

Asclepius was the god of medicine who had the ability to raise the dead. This ability disturbed the order of things and Nature, causing an influx of human beings. To restore the balance, Jupiter (the equivalent of Greek Zeus) killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt made by the Cyclopes, gigantic, one-eyed beings with enormous strength. Enraged by his son’s murder, Apollo killed Cyclopes. He was therefore sent to serve King Admetus of Pherae in Thessaly as a shepherd for nine years as a punishment.

A fresco depicting the scene of Apollo killing Cyclopes

On the hand, Mercury (comparable to Hermes in Greek mythology), the child of Jupiter and Maia, was born in a cave of Mount Cyllene in Arcadia. Hours after he was born, the precocious baby went on an expedition. He saw a tortoise shell and invented his first seven-stringed lyre using the shell. In the evening, he devised a scheme and stole fifty best cows from his brother Apollo’s herd.

A landscape with Apollo guarding the herds of Admetus and Mercury stealing them by Claude Lorrain (1600-1682)

A landscape with Apollo guarding the herds of Admetus and Mercury stealing them, created by Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), depicts the scene of Mercury driving Admetus’s cattle across the stream while Apollo was pining for his lost love, Coronis. The trickster god appears just beyond the hill behind Apollo, partially concealed yet easily identifiable by his winged helmet.

Apollo was pining for his lost love, Coronis, when he was guarding the herds of Admetus

Mercury was stealing Admetus’s cattle beyond the hill behind Apollo

Apollo later found out that the thief was Mercury, who had already returned to the cave and acted like an innocent baby. Apollo confronted Mercury and questioned him about the stolen cattle. Mercury claimed that he did not know a thing since he was born only yesterday.

Landscape with Apollo and Mercury (1645) by Claude Lorrain

Apollo brought Mercury to the top of Mt. Olympus, where he sought justice from Jupiter himself. Jupiter forced Mercury to return the herd. As commanded by Jupiter, Apollo and Mercury reconciled and exchanged gifts. Hermes presented the lyre that he had invented and played a beautiful song. Enthralled by such beautiful music, Apollo said it was worth fifty cows and agreed to say no more about the theft. That's how Apollo received his lyre, a symbol of his power.

In exchange, Apollo gave Mercury a golden wand called the caduceus, a winged staff entwined by two serpents. The caduceus has also become a symbol of Mercury. He is often depicted holding the caduceus in his left hand.

Mercury is often depicted holding the caduceus in his left hand

Claude Gellée, called Claude Lorrain (1600-1682). A landscape with Apollo guarding the herds of Admetus and Mercury stealing them

Lot no.: 49
Size: 50.8 x 68.8 cm

  • Welbore Ellis Agar (1735-1805), Commissioner of Customs, by whom bequeathed as part of his collection to his illegitimate sons, Welbore Felix Agar and Emmanuel Felix Agar; Christie's, London, 2-3 May 1806, lot 36, where acquired before the sale en bloc with the whole Agar collection, by
  • William Seguier, on behalf of Robert, 2nd Earl Grosvenor, later 1st Marquess of Westminster (1767-1845), Eaton Hall, Cheshire, and by descent in the family to
  • Hugh Richard Arthur, 2nd Duke of Westminster (1879-1953); (†) Sotheby’s, London, 24 June 1959, lot 10, where acquired by the present owner.

Estimate: US$600,000-800,000

Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Sale: Old Masters
Sale date: 30 October 2018|10am
Lots offered: 192