Stories of tragedy and love: what do the statues in the Gardens of the Palace of Queluz tell us?
18 Jul 2023
Nothing was done by chance in Portuguese palaces: whether in practical day-to-day matters, in the logistics for organising large events or in the decoration of spaces, everything was thought out in detail, and the Gardens of the National Palace of Queluz were no exception.
The exterior spaces of the palace were decorated with lakes and sculptural ensembles in stone and in lead. The marble sculptures arrived from Italy, between 1757 and 1765, and the lead ones from England, in 1755 and 1756. These are by John Cheere (1709-1787). These elements reinforced the grandeur of the gardens of Queluz in a language updated to the standards of the time, in constant reference to nature, the loves of the gods, exotic animals, the exaltation of themes suitable for gardens.
These days visitors have an entire mythological journey to discover. Let's get to know some of the figures and stories represented in the Gardens of the National Palace of Queluz:
Vertumnus and Pomona
In one of the statues, it is possible to see the representation of Vertumnus - the god who had the gift of transforming himself into as many forms as he wanted - and Pomona - the nymph who watched over the fruits. Legend has it that Vertumnus disguised himself as an old woman to seduce Pomona. And note the figure hidden below: it’s Cupid, the universal symbol of desire and mediator of human and divine love.
Venus and Adonis
Venus and Adonis are the protagonists of a great love story.
While playing in the forest with her son Cupid, Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology) was struck in the chest by one of the arrows launched by her son and, the moment she laid eyes on Adonis, a young human of great beauty, she fell in love, setting all other loves aside. When Adonis dies, Zeus gives him the opportunity to live part of the year with Venus. This annual passage from the realm of the dead to the happy world of Venus has been interpreted as a symbol of the cycle of nature - It is one of the great ancient myths associated with death and resurrection.
Bacchus and Ariadne
Another well-known love story is that of Bacchus (Dionysus in Greek mythology) and Ariadne, princess of Crete.
After being abandoned by the Athenian Theseus on the island of Naxos, Ariadne is consoled by Bacchus, who ends up falling in love and making the princess his wife. The god of parties and wine offers Ariadne a golden tiara, studded with precious stones, as a wedding gift. At the request of Ariadne, Bacchus throws the tiara into the sky when the princess dies, thus preserving its beauty forever, in the form of a constellation - the Corona Borealis, also known as the Northern Crown constellation.
Aeneas and Anchises
The Trojan War is probably one of the most talked about and represented armed conflicts over the centuries. In the Gardens of the National Palace of Queluz, it is possible to find a sculpture that refers to one of the crucial moments of this conflict - the flight of Aeneas.
The Trojan leader escaped the sacking of the city of Troy carrying his father, Anchises, on his back. In this representation, he is accompanied by his wife Creusa and his son Ascanius. This is the starting point for Aeneas' saga towards the Italian peninsula, as told in Virgil's ‘Aeneid’.
Abduction of Proserpina
When strolling through the Gardens of the National Palace of Queluz, you will come across various love scenes, but also representations of dramatic moments. One of them is the Abduction of Proserpina (Persephone in Greek mythology).
The daughter of Jupiter and Ceres (Demeter in Greek mythology) is abducted by Pluto (Hades in Greek mythology) and taken to the depths of the Earth. In a rage, Ceres, the goddess of agriculture and harvest (who is also represented in statues in the Gardens of Queluz), destroyed all the crops. This reaction led Jupiter to negotiate with Pluto: Proserpina would spend half the year with her mother and the other half with Pluto.
This myth symbolises the changing of the seasons: when Proserpina was with Pluto, nature died and winter came; when she was with her mother, the plants were reborn and spring arrived.
Mars and Minerva
The Archer’s Room was the noble entrance to the National Palace of Queluz. This opens directly onto the Hanging Garden and was the place where the archers stood guard. But they were not the only ones responsible for the palace's security: its outer portal is guarded by Mars (Ares in Greek mythology) - the god of war and youth, who symbolises male strength - and his sister Minerva (Athena in Greek mythology), who, unlike Mars, represents the victory of reason and justice over impulsiveness.
The ‘guardians’ of the Palace thus end up representing a balance between themselves.
The presence of Priapus within the Gardens of the National Palace of Queluz is not a matter of chance. The god of fertility was also the guardian of gardens. He was considered the protector of vineyards, orchards, livestock and vegetables.
The figure of Priapus was almost seen as a ‘lucky charm’: the ancients left gardening instruments, fruit baskets, a scythe, a stick to ward off thieves and a rod to frighten birds next to this statue.
Another goddess responsible for guarding the Gardens at the National Palace of Queluz is Flora (Chloris in Greek mythology). She is the goddess of flowers, of Spring and presided over the blossoming of “everything that blooms”. This goddess even had a great festival in her honour: Floralia. This Roman festival started on the 28th of April and ended on the 3rd of May.
Meleager and Atalanta
Have you ever heard the story of Calydon's boar hunt?
In this Greek myth, several heroes came together to fight a monstrous boar. Atalanta was the first to hit the beast with an arrow in the back, and Meleager – son of Oeneus, king of Calydon – eventually struck the fatal blow. After killing it, Meleager offers the boar's hide to Atalanta.
This story had a tragic ending: the other characters were unhappy that the prize was given to Atalanta, a woman. Among the disgruntled were Meleager's uncles, brothers of his mother, Althaea. Amid several arguments and confrontations, Meleager ends up killing his uncles. As described by Ovid in his 'Metamorphoses', Althaea decides to avenge her brothers. At his birth, the Parcae (deities who controlled the destinies of mortals) granted Meleager the same longevity as a piece of wood. After much consideration, Althaea decides to burn the magic firebrand and make it disappear, thus killing her own son. She then commits suicide.