In search of Apollo at Lady Lever Art Gallery

Of all the gods who make up the Ancient Greek pantheon, Apollo is arguably the most charismatic. It is perhaps no coincidence that the American lunar space programme of the 1960s and 1970s was named in his honour. But who was Apollo, and how can we recognise him in works of art?

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Apollo is one of the twelve gods who lived on Mount Olympos, along with his father Zeus and twin sister Artemis (known as Diana to the Romans). Unlike several other classical deities, Apollo was known to both the Ancient Greeks and Romans by the same name ‘Apollo’, and the Etruscans of central Italy referred to him as ‘Aplu’, 

Some of the many roles of Apollo include the god of healing, of prophecy and of the sun. However, he is probably best known as the patron god of music and the arts. To signal this, Apollo is often shown carrying a kithara, a stringed instrument related to the lyre, associated in Ancient Greece with highly accomplished musicians. 

With such a close connection to the arts it’s probably not surprising that there are references to Apollo throughout the Lady Lever Art Gallery’s collections.

procession of people in classical robes, singing and playing music
Frederic Lord Leighton's The Daphnephoria

Perhaps the most striking work of art in the gallery that is associated with Apollo is The Daphnephoria. This magisterial work, painted between 1874 and 1876 by Frederic Lord Leighton, depicts a festival in honour of Apollo. The Daphnephoria created a stir in the art world when it was first displayed at the Royal Academy in London, the ‘Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art’ describing it as "THE picture of the season". Although its original owner commissioned it for a dining room, Lever, who bought the painting in 1913, always intended it to be displayed at the north end of the art gallery’s imposing Main Hall, where it can be seen today.  

The Daphnephoria was a festival in honour of Apollo held every nine years in Thebes, a city in central Greece, to mark a military victory. Ancient Roman literary sources provide very detailed accounts of the Ancient Greek festival and its participants, and Lord Leighton’s careful attention to this scholarship is a strong feature of the painting. 

At the heart of the festival was a procession from Thebes, shown on the left side of the painting, to the sanctuary of Apollo Ismenos, named after a nearby river, on a hill south of the city. The main figure was the Daphnephoros, literally ‘Laurel Bearer’, a young male priest of Apollo, dressed in a floor-length garment. Lord Leighton showed the Daphnephoros wearing elaborately embroidered robes and a radiate head-dress, recalling Apollo’s association with the sun, and carrying the laurel branch of his office. 

man in white robes and man carrying a wooden standard, leading the procession
The Daphnephoros and man carrying the kopo at the head of the procession

He is preceded in the procession by a younger family member, who is shown carrying the ‘kopo’, originally a wooden log wrapped in flowers and hung with bronze spheres symbolising the sun, moon and stars. Lord Leighton has, however, chosen to depict the kopo in a much less rustic manner as an elaborately lathe-turned standard. 

Immediately behind the Daphnephoros, young men carry two trophies, one a brightly shining breastplate, the other a shield, reminding the viewer that the procession was to commemorate a Theban victory. Appropriately for a festival in honour of Apollo, the god of music, the Daphnephoros is followed by a procession of female singers of varying ages, led by a young man wearing a gold-trimmed white robe and laurel wreath in his hair, his back to the viewer. He carries an elaborate musical instrument, with the appearance of gold. The young man directs the singers, who also wear laurel wreaths in their hair and perform songs in honour of Apollo. Youths carrying metal tripods, to be dedicated to Apollo at the sanctuary, bring up the rear of the procession. 

singers in classic robes led by a man in a toga carrying a harp like musical instrument
Singers in the Daphnephoria procession

Lord Leighton has depicted the festival procession in incredible detail apart from one key participant – Apollo himself. This might be because the sight of Apollo would be too overwhelming and too magnificent for the sight of mere mortals. The musician is in the guise of Apollo, but if you want to see a depiction of the god himself you need to delve further into the Lady Lever Art Gallery’s collections.

Wedgwood vases, plaques and other items in display case
Wedgwood display at the Lady Lever Art Gallery © Pete Carr

The rediscovery of classical works of art, particularly sculpture, from the 16th century onwards led to a renewed interest in the use of classical motifs in decorative arts in Britain. Josiah Wedgwood’s ceramics include fine examples of this, so if you want to find Apollo in the Lady Lever Art Gallery the best place to look is the far end of the building from Leighton’s arresting painting. In the Wedgwood rooms, amongst the internationally renowned collection of ceramics, you can find Apollo on several pieces.

framed plaque with figures of the gods in wax relief
Twelve gods, including Apollo fourth from left, on Giuseppe Angelini's wax tablet

Apollo and his sister Artemis, along with Zeus and the other nine deities who lived on Mount Olympos, can be seen on a wax on slate tablet, sculpted by Giuseppe Angelini in 1790, as a the model for the figures on a Wedgwood vase. The identities of the different gods and goddesses are indicated by the attributes by which they are generally recognised. Accordingly, Poseidon, the god of the sea, carries a trident and Hephaistos a hammer, as befits the patron god of smiths and artisans. Apollo is readily identifiable by his kithara.

droplet shaped blue Wedgwood earrings decorated with a figure in a chariot on each
Wedgwood earrings featuring Artemis on the left and Apollo on the right

The association between Apollo and Artemis was frequently shown in Ancient Greek art, a theme which continued into later centuries. A delightful example of this can be seen on a pair of earrings produced by the Wedgwood factory around 1790. One earring shows Apollo in his chariot, the other his sister Artemis driving her chariot, allowing the wearer to display their awareness of classical scholarship in a fashionable manner. 

a lilac and a blue Wedgwood vase, both with white relief decoration showing the god Apollo with female muses
Apollo playing music for the Muses, on two Wedgwood vases

On two vases, one lilac and one blue, as well as a plaque at the gallery Apollo is shown in his role as leader of the Muses, goddesses who each personified a different aspect of literature, science and arts, such as tragedy, astronomy and dance. As before, he is holding his kithara, perhaps about to entertain his female companions with some music.

Wedgwood plaque showing Apollo playing music to four female muses
Apollo taking centre stage again on a Wedgwood plaque

Together, these Wedgwood ceramics give a depiction of Apollo as a handsome, dashing young man with an athletic build. His association with the kithara is not only a reminder of Apollo’s expertise on such a difficult musical instrument, as befits a deity, but the scenes alongside the Muses also evoke a landscape resonant with wonderful music, which the viewer is invited to share.

However, perhaps Lord Leighton’s The Daphnephoria provides the visitor to the Lady Lever Art Gallery with the most lasting impression of Apollo’s magnificence. The impression of sound and movement alongside visual splendour, epitomised by the Daphnephoros, the young male priest whose appearance reflects Apollo himself, even though the god himself is not depicted. In this way, Leighton allows the viewer to get a glimpse of both the mythical world of Mount Olympos and the esteem in which Apollo was held in the sanctuaries in which he was worshipped throughout the Ancient Greek world, providing an unforgettable impression on visitors to the Lady Lever Art Gallery.

For more of the drama and excitement of this world, you can also visit the Return of the Gods exhibition at World Museum in Liverpool, from 28 April 2023.

Art gallery visitors looking at the huge Daphnephoria painting
The Daphnephoria at the Lady Lever Art Gallery © Pete Carr