Mercury and Argus (Jordaens)

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Mercury and Argus is a painting by Jacob Jordaens, painted around the year 1620. It is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon (oil on canvas 202 x 241 cm).

Mercury and Argus
ArtistJacob Jordaens
Year1620 (1620)
Cataloginventory number H-679
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions202 cm × 241 cm (79.5 in × 94.8 in)
LocationMuseum of Fine Arts of Lyon, Lyon


Jacob Jordaens (also known as Jacques Jordaens) was born in Anvers, United Provinces of the Netherlands, in 1593. He was brought up in a rich family and received a good education, proven by his biblical and mythological knowledge. In 1620, he painted Mercury and Argus and started collaborating with Van Dyck and Rubens.

The Mayor of Lyon Jean-François Termes acquired the artwork in 1843 for the sum of 2,000 francs (US$1,990). It was restored in 1991 and was lent to the Petit Palais during the exhibition "Jordaens (1593-1678), la gloire d'Anvers" from September 19, 2013 to January 19, 2014.[1]


The painting refers to the myth of Mercury, Argus (Argos) and Io, found in The Metamorphoses written by Ovid (I, 583 ; IX, 687) :

Jupiter (Zeus) falls in love with Io, who is the daughter of Inachos, as well as a priestess of Hera. But Jupiter's wife Hera investigates and finds out about their relationship. Jupiter has to transform Io into a beautiful, white heifer in order to save her from Hera's wrath and in the meantime transforms himself into a bull. Hera understands his strategy though and demands the heifer as a present. To end their affair, Hera puts Io under the guard of Argus Panoptes, her shepherd, who has 100 eyes. Jupiter commands his son Mercury (Hermes) to set Io free by lulling Argus to sleep with an enchanted flute. Mercury, disguised as a shepherd with a herd of stolen sheep, is invited by Argus to his camp. Mercury charms him with lullabies and then cuts his head off.

"Thus Argus lies in pieces, cold, and pale; And all his hundred eyes, with all their light, Are clos'd at once, in one perpetual night. These Juno takes, that they no more may fail, And spreads them in her peacock's gaudy tail."[2]

Io, cursed by Hera, has to escape and goes away to Egypt. Io will become the Egyptian goddess Isis.



The framing is narrowed; the canvas is cut on the right-hand side and leaves no area to the scenery. The heifers are located on the superior part of the painting and it is difficult to distinguish them because their traits become confused. Their bodies form an upside down triangle and form, along with the bodies of the characters, a chiasmus (heifer, human, human, heifer) that appeals to the eye. The background is in fact a foreshadow of the murder; the colours of the sky and the bushes are dark, and three of the heifers are looking at the spectator.

Mercury, disguised as a barefooted young shepherd with a straw hat, is gazing at Argus (who, unlike the myth, has only two eyes) and is about to strike a lethal blow. Argus is asleep, his hand on his stick. Argus' dog is also present, but seems sheepish and impassive.

In fact, the dog is looking at the hidden knife under Mercury's leg. Mercury's movement with his knife, from the bottom to the top in a circular way, is highlighting the impression of movement and reinforces the suggested dramatic tension.

Colours and lights[edit]

The colours are dark; there are brown and dark green tones for the bushes at the left bottom corner, on the right hand side and in the middle; dark blue and shades of grey for the sky, but also very light colours, typical of the baroque style with the chiaroscuro technique, that enlightens the characters and the action and highlights their anatomy.

The light of the artwork is similar to the light of a thunderstorm; the sky is dark and the light is raw. The sky confirms this feeling of a calm before the storm and sets a dynamic characteristic to the artwork along with curves that set an impression of movement. The leaves and the heifers also give a gloomy impression because of their very dark colours.

While the landscape is a foreshadow, the scene is not violent because the murder is on the verge of happening. Mercury is dressed in blue and white while Argus is dressed in red, and these two colours are opposed. Blue refers to Mercury's divinity and white his feigned innocent. The red colour announces Argus' death because it is the colour of blood, but it also is an echo to Caravaggio who painted his Saint Jerome (Valletta) in red, the colour of wisdom. It can also be interpreted as the colour of lust, as if Argus, charmed, was in the same time perverted by Mercury. The colours of the heifers are in opposition too; while Io is white, the colour of purity, there is also a black one, a symbol of fatality and death, that covers a corner of the painting, showing a point of no return.

Esthetic and reception[edit]

The contrasts and the movements are highlighted by a low angle shot point of view of the scene. There is no supernatural aspect and the painting is clearly influenced by realism, as if the scene could happen in real life, except the fact that the characters are only dressed with togas.

There is a real precision in the traits of the human characters, precision that can be found once again in paintings of Caravaggio. There is a true study of anatomy, shown in Argus' shrivelled up skin. Mercury's muscles are prominent. This precision reinforces the baroque style of the artwork.

The 16th century Flemish painter and poet Karel van Mander gave an example of interpretation of Ovid's myth; more than a conflict between two generations, there is a lesson of morality. Argus is charmed by Mercury who represents lust and desire, and finally dies from his hand. Jordaens likes to give an echo to morals in his paintings, even in those with prosaic subject-matters. Mercury and Argus is a representation of the myth, but also renews it with a very baroque style influenced by realism that re-establishes the myth in reality and popularises it.

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