Peter Paul Rubens - Ganymede and Hebe

by Alexandra Tuschka


The early work "Ganymede and Hebe" from 1611 shows the eagle-Ganymede group within a square format. The two are offset a little to the left from the center of the picture. Only rarely was the moment chosen by Rubens processed in art, because eagle and youth have already arrived here in heaven. Landing with both claws on the cloud, the boy is set down by Zeus. His body, however, is turned backwards towards the two goddesses who are at the upper right edge of the picture. One of them is Hebe, the goddess of youth. She wears her identifying signs, a wreath of flowers and a chalice.

Although she had faithfully performed her role as cupbearer for centuries, Zeus used a ruse to vacate her place and name Ganymede her successor. Hebe is often depicted in Zeus' entourage with a bowl or, as in this painting by Louis Fischer, feeding the eagle - the symbolic animal of the God the Father. One day, while serving, Hebe fell to the ground. She embarrassed the deities present, as her gender could be seen, causing unrest. Zeus took this as a welcome opportunity to appoint his favorite Ganymede as cupbearer, who would cause less of a stir. Rubens shows the handing over of the goddess's cup to Ganymede - she does not look cheerful. Ganymede's role as the new cupbearer is now sealed. In addition, in the upper left edge of the picture the cloud cover opens and reveals a view of a feast of the gods. These are gathered at a brown wooden table while two nymphs entertain them with musical instruments. In fact, the painting is able to convey the present, past and future simultaneously. The eagle's wings are still wide open - the abduction seems to have just taken place - Ganymede has not even completely left the eagle's clutches. This wing of the eagle also mediates compositionally between the two scenes, as it refers to the goddesses.


The viewer's gaze now follows the action further back to the left, where the goddesses' banquet reveals the young man's future workplace. The clear reading direction of the painting is supported by a band of clouds, which runs through the painting like a curve. The scenes are also clearly graduated in depth, this is even so pronounced that the banquet of the gods can be considered completely detached from the other two scenes. 


Peter Paul Rubens - Ganymede and Hebe

Oil on canvas, 1611 / 1612, 207 x 207 cm, Princely Schwarzenberg Art Foundation in Vaduz