This painting, by the Italian artist Girolamo Troppa (c. 1630?-1710+), was inspired by an ancient Greek myth involving the messenger god Hermes (or Mercury) and the giant hundred-eyed watchman, Argus. As the story goes, the clash of Mercury and Argus was a proxy war between the ever-feuding divine couple, Zeus (or Jupiter) and Hera (or Juno). In this particular instance, the ever-lustful Zeus had assaulted a Naiad nymph named Io, and then he transformed the violated nymph into a cow in an attempt to hide the deed, or to give some protection to Io, for Hera was often more wrathful against Zeus’ victims than against Zeus, himself. Hera, however, knew her husband well and suspected there was something odd about the suspicious animal. Noticing Zeus’ defensiveness and anxiety over the cow, Hera felt that her suspicions about the creature were well founded, and she ultimately demanded that the cow be handed over to her as a gift. This was done, and Hera, in turn, tasked the aforementioned Argus to watch the cow’s every move.
Zeus, feeling sorry about the trouble he had caused his victim, called up the messenger-god Hermes and sent him on a mission to free the transformed nymph at all costs. Hermes would succeed in his task, and, according to the account of the Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), the messenger-god used a unique tactic to win the day. Hermes was said to have blandly narrated for Argus the myth about the nymph, Syrinx, being chased by the god Pan—a chase that ultimately resulted in Syrinx transforming into marsh reeds to escape the god’s clutches. Due to the messenger-god’s dull narration, Argus could not help but fall asleep mid-tale. Hermes fatally punished the sleeping figure for his rude inattentiveness. Ovid described the event:
“When he saw that his enemy’s drowsy eyes had all succumbed
and were shrouded in sleep…[a]t once he stopped talking and stroked the sentry’s
drooping lids with his magic wand to make sure he was out.
Then he rapidly struck with his sickle-shaped sword at his nodding victim
Just where the head comes close to the neck…”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, I.714-717)
Such is the story that is unfolding in Girolamo Troppa’s painting. It shows Hermes, on the left side of the canvas, about to strike down the sleeping watchman, Argus, who can be seen slumbering in the center of the artwork. In the distant background of the painting, the scene progresses to a future stage, showing Hermes herding cow-transformed Io away from Hera’s clutches.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.