NGV Old European Masters: Jacob Jordaens

NGV - Jacob Jordaens - Mercury and ArgusSunday, 9 January 2011

NGV Old European Masters: Jacob Jordaens

Another little gem of the National Gallery’s collection is Mercury and Argus by Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678). Jordaens was an interesting artist inasmuch as his skills in rendering birds and animals was so highly regarded, that Peter Paul Rubens, the most outstanding artist of the Flemish Baroque period, employed Jordaens in his studio to paint the creatures within the backgrounds of his own works. Jordaens’s picture in the NGV’s collection bears witness to his superior skills in this metier.

NGV - Jacob Jordaens - ArgusThe painting is inspired by a legend from Greco-Roman mythology, according to which Jupiter, the principal Olympian deity, fell in love with a nymph Io. In order to hide his amorous dalliances from his jealous wife, Juno, Jupiter turned Io into a white heifer (presumably turning Io back into a woman when making love to her…). Nevertheless, Juno got the wind of her husband’s latest infidelity, and sent her servant Argus to keep a watchful eye on Io the cow. Argus had 100 eyes all over his body, and thus the creature never slept, always keeping a watchful eye, preventing Jupiter’s further trysts with Io (the reader might recall that a number of British and Australian newspapers were also called Argus in an allusion to this watchful, ever-seeing creature!).

Jordaens illustrated the next moment of the narrative, where Jupiter sent the messenger god Mercury to lull Argus to sleep with a sonorous melody from his flute (which we see resting in the left foreground of the picture). Mercury is reaching out for his sword and is about to slay the sleeping Argus and set Io free. The artist simplified the painting and eschewed depicting Argus’s one hundred sleeping eyes. Instead, he concentrated on juxtaposing the muscular suppleness of Mercury’s body against the tanned sagging skin of the ageing Argus.

NGV - Jacob Jordaens - Mercury

The rest of the story went as follows: Juno mourned the slain Argus, and placed his one  hundred eyes on tail feathers of the peacock, which thence became her sacred bird. She also sent a gadfly to mercilessly bite the liberated Io, chasing her out to Africa. The name of the place where she crossed from one continent to another is called Bosporus (in modern-day Turkey), which some etymologists claim to mean an ox passage.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

January 2011


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