Pieter Lastman - Juno discovers Jupiter and Io

by Anna Maria Niemann


Clouds of fog rise and a cow triggers a divine marital quarrel. Which curious storyline Pieter Lastman picks up in his painting "Juno discovers Jupiter and Io" and what the proverbial Argus eyes have to do with the beautiful peacock wheel, clarifies with a look into the first book of Ovid. The story of Jupiter and Io joins the long list of love affairs of the father of the gods. Charged with intrigue, the cover-up of a secret affair and the vendetta of a jealous wife, it is not surprising that this tale, of all things, has become very popular in the visual arts. One of the interpreters of the story is the Dutch painter Pieter Lastman, who dedicated himself to the subject in 1618. Lastman's richly detailed painting "Juno Discovers Jupiter and Io" illustrates with its dynamic composition a convoluted and complex narrative of the mythology.

The insatiable Jupiter, who has countless affairs in addition to his marriage to the powerful Juno, has a new object of desire. The latest target of his mostly non-consensual advances is the young nymph Io, daughter of the river god Inachus. But she is not enthusiastic about her divine admirer and, after he tries to convince her with an eloquent display of his power, she flees. Well aware of the raging jealousy of his wife Juno, Jupiter nevertheless decides to take up the pursuit of Io. In the form of a dark mist he gets hold of the nymph and rapes her. Juno, by now aware of her husband's secret love games, keeps watch for Jupiter to catch him in the act. Astonished by the dark clouds of mist behind which Jupiter is hiding, Juno pushes them aside to spy her husband. But he reacts quickly and cunningly. Before Juno can catch him making love to Io, he quickly transforms her into a cow to keep her true identity a secret. He knew that the cows were sacred to Juno and she would not harm the animal. The suspicious Juno seems to see through her husband's game and suspects that the particularly beautiful cow must in fact be Jupiter's mistress. To put a spoke in his wheel, Juno demands that her husband give her the cow as a gift. Reluctantly, but hoping not to blow his cover, Jupiter hands over the animal to Juno. But Juno's suspicions are not yet extinguished. To put an end to her husband's alleged affair, she has the cow guarded by day and night by the hundred-eyed giant Argus. Caught in the cow's guise, Io manages to reveal herself to her father one day while grazing on the riverbank. He is terribly sorry to have lost his daughter. Finally, it is Jupiter who undertakes something to put an end to Io's suffering. With the help of Mercury, the messenger of the gods, he is supposed to succeed. Disguised as a shepherd and equipped with his sleep-inducing staff as well as a shepherd's flute, Mercury sets out to trick Argus. Hoping to drive him to sleep, Mercury sings to Argus with all kinds of songs until finally one, which tells the story of Pan and Syrinx and the origin of the pan flute, achieves the desired effect. Argus falls asleep and Mercury helps with his sleep-inducing staff before decapitating the hundred-eyed man. Juno, watching the spectacle, collects Argus' eyes and gives them to a bird, the peacock, as star jewels on its feathered tail. Thus the peacock receives its wheel adorned with eyes and Juno receives it as an attribute. Now even more incensed by her husband's renewed cunning, Juno again punishes Io. She has the cow pursued and plagued by the dangerous Erinys, a gadfly. Only after Juno has received a sincere apology from Jupiter, she gives Io back her old form. The latter returns to her kingdom, where she gives birth to Epaphus to Jupiter and is henceforth worshipped as a goddess.

Pieter Lastman succeeds in placing many of the elements of this complex narrative in relation to each other in his work, so that it is quite easy to identify the theme of the painting. We read the painting from the upper left, to the lower right corner of the picture. Descending from her heavenly kingdom, we see the mother of the gods, Juno, accompanied by her peacocks, pushing aside the clouds of mist to get to the bottom of what is hidden behind them. The cloud of mist on which Juno glides down, identified as a goddess by her brocade-adorned clothing and crown-fringed head, serves in the composition of the picture as a diagonal boundary element separating the realms of heaven and earth. In the lower right area of the picture, the actions overlap. Jupiter has already transformed Io into a cow in order to hide her identity from his jealous wife. The fact that the cow and the man protectively pulling her towards him are the duo Io and Jupiter is suggested by the winged Cupid in the center of the picture. He seems to have already completed his love-giving work, for no further arrows are to be seen in his quiver and he seems to have got rid of his bow after completing his work and to have laid it down at his feet. The fact that the relation between Jupiter and Io is not a consensual one forced by Cupid, but a rape, does not seem to be relevant for Pieter Lastman's conception of the picture. He adds details to the Ovidian narrative in his painting that are certainly meant to contribute to the narrative quality of the history painting. In Lastman's work, it is not Juno herself who discovers her husband's relationship by removing the fog front. She has help from another figure who, in the background of the picture, pulls aside a flowing fabric under which Jupiter was probably hiding his offense to Io, thus revealing the secret of the affair. The muscular attendant, adorned with a red fox fur on his back as well as red face paint, is possibly Juno's son, the god of war Ares. The latter is often accompanied by the attribute of the guileful fox. The red face painting resembles war paint, which may have been common to Pieter Lastman contemporarily and identifies the man as a warrior. With the depiction of the peacock and its adorned plumage as an attribute of Juno, Lastman anticipates that part of the narrative in which Ovid tells of Juno giving the peacock the hundred eyes of the slain Argus as an ornament. The two peacocks in Lastman's painting thus serve as attributes more of a marking of Juno than they are part of a chronological rendering of Ovid's narrative.

The scene surrounding the adornment of the peacock is the subject of Rubens' painting of Juno and Argus, painted shortly before. There we see Juno, arrived in her chariot, as she finds the decapitated hundred-eyed guardian of Io and sets to work to give its eyes a new use. With the help of her two companions, she collects the Argus eyes and decorates the peacock's spring-loaded wheel with them. Another interpretation of the theme by David Teniers the Elder takes up another part of the story of Io, Juno and Jupiter. In his 1638 painting, Teniers sketches Jupiter's handing over of Io to Juno in the form of a cow. Embedded in a landscape depiction, we see Juno who has just taken the cow from Jupiter. The two spouses seem to be in a dispute. The viewer can probably guess what they are arguing about. Several pictorial elements serve to identify the subject of the picture with certainty. The setting of the scene on the banks of a river coincides with Ovid's account of Io grazing in the form of a cow by the waters of her father, the river god Inachus. Without a doubt, the eagle, as an attribute of Jupiter, and the peacock, created by Juno, in the lower right corner of the picture give us a confirmation of the picture's theme. Representative of the two deities, the animals also seem to be engaged in an argument. Still Jupiter's eagle with puffed wings seems to defend the deeds of his patron. But apparently, so it seems, Juno's peacock already starts to open his all-seeing wheel to make sure with Argus eyes that no misdeed will escape him in the future.


Pieter Lastman: Juno discovers Jupiter and Io

1618, oil on wood, 54 x 78cm, London, National Gallery


Peter Paul Rubens: Juno and Argus

around 1610, oil on canvas, 249 x 296 cm, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum


David Teniers the Elder: Jupiter gives Juno Io, who has been transformed into a cow

1638, oil on copper, 47.3 x 61.2 cm, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum