Apollo as Recorder Player

The Greek god Apollo, one of the Twelve Olympians, is often represented in the figurative arts holding an ancient lyre or a contemporary stringed instrument in its stead such as the lira da braccio, vihuela, viol, violin, lute, or guitar. However, as a punishment from Zeus for killing Delphyne (or as later tradition has it, the Cyclopes) for the death of his son, Asclepius, Apollo was made to spend a year as a mortal serving as cowherd for King Admetus of Pherae in Thessaly. Admetus was famed for his hospitality and justice. In this mortal guise, Apollo was playing the flute when Mercury stole Admetus’ herd of cattle. Apollo subsequently received the lyre from the thief by way of compensation. Thus, as well as stringed instruments Apollo’s attributes sometimes included wind instruments, amongst them recorders.

The following examples of depictions of Apollo associating him with the recorder or other duct flutes are drawn from the extensive enumerative iconography of the recorder presented elsewhere on this website.

May: The Triumph of Apollo (1476–1484), Francesco del Cossa (1435–1477) & Cosimo Tura (1430–1495). Ferrara: Palazzo Schifanoia.

Steered by a young woman, horses drag a highly decorated cart carrying Apollo (God of light, music, hunting, healing, poetry and prophecy) triumphant, holding his bow. Across the stream behind him is a crowd of naked children. In the background a group of women (presumably the Muses) sing to an accompaniment of a lute. Beneath, in the underworld, Apollo variously plays his pipe to one of the poor souls who dwell there, heals a patient, and strides forth as a hunter with his bow and arrows, turning his back on darkness where two putti try desperately to prevent the rays of the sun from shining. The pipe is a long cylindrical recorder with a flared bell; the window/labium is shown, and the lowermost finger hole is offset.

Title page of Carmina apposita Pasquillo (1513): Apollo, woodcut, Rome. London: Christies, Sale 5960, Valuable Manuscripts and Printed Books, 21 November 2012, Lot 118.

Carmina apposita is a rare pasquinade, a prototype of satire, here celebrating the election of the humanist Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici as Pope Leo X and anticipating his patronage of arts, literature and humanism. The verse form derives from the name Pasquillus given to a classical statue unearthed in 1501 and erected by the Italian cardinal and diplomat Oliviero Carafa in the Piazza Navona, Rome. A tradition quickly sprang up of declaiming satiric verse in front of the statue on the feast of St Mark (25 April) and affixing copies to it; in addition, each year the statue was dressed as a different pagan god. The verses began to be printed in 1509, often illustrated with a woodcut of the statue in its guise for that year, and with the arms of the cardinal who was patron of that year’s festival. Here, Apollo’s musical attributes are represented by a lira da braccio, and two stout, crossed duct flutes. One of the latter has six visible finger holes, but a seventh might be hidden by the arrow crossing it. Recorders are a distinct possibility.

The Young Mercury Stealing from Apollo’s Herd (1530), oil on canvas, 107 × 103 cm, Girolamo da Santacroce (1480/5–1556). Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, Inv. SK-A-3966.

On the edge of a forest in a hilly pasture, Apollo (disguised as a shepherd), plays an alto-sized recorder with a slightly flared bell. Behind Apollo’s back, Mercury (as a child) rustles a calf from the herd. Not far off, a young lad seems to be sounding the alarm. In the distance is a walled town.

Apollo Disguised as a Shepherd, oil on canvas, 74.23 × 63.2 cm, Jean Valentin de Boulogne (1594–1632). Atlanta: High Museum of Art, Inv. 1988.41.

One of a number of versions of this composition attributed to Valentin de Boulogne (1594–1632). A young shepherd in a red shirt and leather jacket holds a perfectly depicted cylindrical recorder with a flared bell, and with four holes for the fingers of the lowermost (right) hand clearly visible. This work has been variously attributed to Nicolas Régnier (1590–1667) and jointly to Jean de Boulogne (1594–1632) & Moïse Valentin (ca 1591–1632).

Apollo as a Shepherd with a Flute (mid-17th century), Italian. Modena: Museo Civico di Arte di Modena, Inv. 61.

A youthful shepherd wearing a laurel wreath, a crimson-sleeved jacket, and a fur jerkin plays a cylindrical duct flute with a slightly flared bell. His fingers are clumsily arrayed showing one open finger hole and another partially vented. The little finger of his lowermost (right) hand appears to be covering its hole, so this almost certainly represents a recorder. It is easy to image that the player is meant to represent Apollo in his role as herdsman.

Young Shepherd with a Wreath on his Head, red chalk on paper, 47.5 x 29.4 cm, after Valentin de Boulogne (1594–1632). Warsaw: National Museum, Inv. Rys.Ob.d.80.

A drawing from the 17th century Codice Bonola from the National Museum of Warsaw.  A wide-eyed shepherd boy wearing a leafy wreath holds a flared bell duct flute in his left hand. Only two finger holes are visible, but this may have been intended to represent a recorder. Possibly after a lost painting by Valentin de Boulogne, Apollo Dressed as a Shepherd

Mercury Stealing the Herds of Admetus guarded by Apollo, 261.6 × 201.9 cm, fresco (transferred to canvas on wood), Domenichino (1581–1641). London: National Gallery, Inv. 6291.

Apollo sits dreamily tootling away on his pipe, a conical instrument played with all fingers of his lower (left) hand covering their holes, and the hint of a window/labium suggesting a recorder. Across the river behind him, a herd of cattle amble downstream, chased by Mercury in his winged helmet. One of a series of large frescoes (now transferred to canvas) that once decorated the walls of a spectacular pavilion in one of the great Italian Baroque gardens, the Villa Aldobrandini in Frascati, rebuilt by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, nephew of Pope Clement VIII. Domenichino’s frescoes – two of which remain in situ – were arranged around a room called the Stanza di Apollo, which also contained a musical fountain representing Mount Parnassus, the mythical home of the Greek sun god Apollo and the Muses. Based on themes drawn from the Greek myths, the iconographical programme glorified the triumph of the Catholic Church, and the role of the Aldobrandini family in it, emphasising the superiority of the intellect over the emotions. Although Domenichino designed the pictures, much of the actual painting was done by his assistants.

Detail of Grand Staircase of the Ambassadors, Versailles: America (ca 1683), engraving by Étienne Baudet (ca 1636–1711), after frescoes by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690). Melbourne: National Art Gallery of Victoria, Print Collection, P.183.46-1.

One of a series of six engravings meticulously depicting the architecture and frescoes of the Grand Staircase of the Ambassadors painted 1677–1679, reputed to be Le Brun’s masterpiece, but destroyed in 1752 on the order of Louis XV. The engravings include personifications of four continents, the arts, and the Greek pantheon. One of these engravings depicts King Louis XIV dispensing rewards to the leaders of his armies. Above, in a circular plaque, Mercury rides Pegasus; below, Uranie (Muse of astronomy) sits on a globe holding her dividers, and Euterpe (Muse of music and lyric poetry) holds a flared-bell duct flute, probably a recorder. The royal propaganda machine strongly identified Louis XIV with Apollo, amongst other exalted mythological and historical figures. Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632–1687) in his tragédies-lyriques twice uses recorders in scenes with Apollo and these same two Muses.

Apollo as the Herdsman of Admetus (ca 1752), etching & engraving on paper, 15.3 x 9.0 cm, by Claude Augustin Duflos (1700–1786), after Hubert François Bourguignon [aka Gravelot] (1699–1773). London: British Museum, Reg. 1867,0309.1110.

This illustration comes from Comédiens, in the eighth volume of Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle’s Oeuvres, 10 vols (Paris: Brunel, 1752). Disguised as a young shepherd, Apollo stands at the edge of the woods on the right. He plays a wind instrument with a flared bell to a flock of sheep lying resting at the left. A dog sits at the lower right, and a crook and lyre lie on the ground before him. A few buildings are in the left distance. The lyre in the etching identifies the shepherd as Apollo, but in this image the lyre has discarded in favour of the ‘flute’ which he plays while he watches over the flock belonging to Admetus. If we take the French caption at its word then the instrument must be a flûte à bec, but no window/labium is visible, and it looks rather more like a shawm.


Cite this article as: Nicholas S. Lander. 1996–2023. Recorder Home Page: Apollo as Recorder Player. Last accessed 6 February 2023. https://www.recorderhomepage.net/apollo-as-recorder-player/