Bowes Museum: The Harnessing of the Horses of the Sun


The above oil on canvas painting is the work of the 18th century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and dates to circa 1731. Tiepolo was commissioned by the Italian nobleman, Carlo Archinto, to decorate the ceiling of his palace in Milan. One of the five elements of the ceiling illustrates the story of Apollo and Phaethon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Helios, the father of Phaethon, rides the chariot of the sun across the heavens every day. After making an oath to Phaethon, Helios reluctantly allows Phaethon to drive the chariot which subsequently leads to tragedy. As Phaethon cannot control the horses, they veer off course causing the earth to burst into flames creating deserts and forest fires. Eventually, Jupiter throws a thunderbolt which hurls Phaethon from the chariot to his death. Helios is depicted in the painting trying to dissuade Phaethon from riding across the sky while the horses are harnessed to the golden chariot. In the background of the painting, Tiepolo has included the marble columns of Apollo’s palace.


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