According to the Greek myth, Ganymede was a young Trojan, who was noticed by the Greek god Zeus due to his exceptional beauty. Zeus decided to abduct Ganymede in order to make him his cupbearer and lover on the Mount Olympus. In exchange for his services, Zeus would grant Ganymede immortality. To carry off the boy to Olympus, Zeus transformed himself into an eagle.
This scene from Greek mythology has been depicted by several artists. On the right we see a copy of Michelangelo’s The Rape of Ganymede from 1532. This drawing captures the moment of Ganymede being picked up from the ground and taken away by Zeus. Contrary to what one might suspect, Ganymede seems to be quite relaxed and submissive.
The original drawing by Michelangelo is presumably lost, although several versions have been claimed as the original. Fortunately, some copies of the original drawing exist, of which this (by an unknown artist) is one. Michelangelo made his drawing as a gift for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, the beloved son of a Roman nobleman, to encourage the boy in his efforts to learn to draw.
When we take a closer look at Rembrandt’s painting, we can see that he depicted this scene in a very different manner than his predecessor. Ganymede isn’t the attractive young man from the mythological story, who is taken away to Olympus without much reluctance. Rembrandt depicted Ganymede as a small child that is crying, struggling and peeing, whilst being abducted by the ferocious eagle. The background is painted with dark colours, underlining the frightening nature of the scene.
Rembrandt, The Abduction of Ganymede, 1635 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) and a copy after Michelangelo’s The Rape of Ganymede, 1532 (Harvard Art Museums, Fogg Museum, Massachusetts)