POUSSIN, Nicolas
(b. 1594, Les Andelys, d. 1665, Roma)

Helios and Phaethon with Saturn and the Four Seasons

c. 1635
Oil on canvas, 122 x 153 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

In Greek mythology Phaethon was the son of Helios, the sun-god. (To the Greeks the nature and functions of Apollo and Helios were distinct and separate. Apollo's identification with the sun was a later development, and was particularly associated with his cult in Roman times.) Helios drove his chariot daily across the sky. His golden chariot is a 'quadriga' yoked to a team of four horses abreast.

Ovid tells of the palace of Helios and his retinue - Day, Month, Year, the Four Seasons and so on. Here Phaethon presented himself and persuaded an unwilling father to allow him for one day to drive his chariot across the skies. The Hours yoked the team of four horses to the golden car, Dawn threw open her doors, and Phaethon was off. Because he had no skill he was soon in trouble, and the climax came when he met the fearful Scorpion of the zodiac. He dropped the reins, the horses bolted and caused the earth itself to catch fire. In the nick of time Jupiter, father of the goods, put a stop to his escapade with a thunderbolt which wrecked the chariot and sent Phaethon hurtling down in flames into the River Eridanus. He was buried by nymphs. Phaethons's reckless attempt to drive his father's chariot made him the symbol of all who aspire to that which lies beyond their capabilities.

On the painting the sun-god, having Apollo's appearance and attributes, sits on a cloudy throne framed in the zodiacal belt, a lyre beside him; Phaethon kneels in front of him.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 43 minutes):
Vivaldi: Four Seasons, violin concertos op. 8 Nos. 1-4