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Castor and Pollux

May - 15 - 2013

Grupo de San IldefonsoHistory and Myth

In Greek mythology Castor and Pollux were brothers of Helen of Troy, the ‘face that launched a thousand ships’. They brought forth favourable winds for those who made sacrifice to them. The Romans considered Castor and Pollux the patron gods of horses and of the Roman social order of mounted knights, called equites.  Like many of the Gods they have complex back stories and lives, as well as controversial connections. As Immortals they would usually have the ability to live forever.


The Castor and Pollux group (also known as the San Ildefonso Group, after San Ildefonso in Segovia, Spain, the location of the palace of La Granja at which it was kept until 1839) is an ancient Roman sculptural group of the 1st century AD, now in the Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Drawing on 5th- and 4th-century BC Greek sculptures in the Praxitelean tradition, such as the Apollo Sauroctonos and the “Westmacott Ephebe”, and without copying any single known Greek sculpture, it shows two idealised nude youths, both wearing laurel wreaths. The young men lean against each other, and to their left on an altar is a small female figure, usually interpreted as a statue of a female divinity. She holds a sphere, variously interpreted as an egg or pomegranate. The group is 161 cm high and is now accepted as portraying Castor and Pollux.

Sketch of Castor and Pollux

Poussin’s pen and brown-wash sketch of this group (c. 1628).

Its findsite is unknown, but by 1623 it was in the Ludovisi collection at the Villa Ludovisi in Rome, where the Ludovisi restorer, the sculptor Ippolito Buzzi (1562–1634), restored it that year. Nicolas Poussin (illustration, left) saw it in the Ludovisi collection or in that of Cardinal Camillo Massimo, who owned it later. Poussin’s sketch was not intended as a faithful representation of the sculpture, but to be stored and referred to, as part of his visual repertory of antiquities, which was extensive and which made its presence felt in most of his paintings. In his sketch of the San Ildefonso group Poussin has made minor adjustments to the poses, but his major change is in transforming the lithe adolescents into more muscular athletes or heroes.
Its reputation soon spread and shortly after 1664 it was acquired by Queen Christina of Sweden to join the large art collection that she gathered during her stay in Rome. The ancient sculptures in that collection were transferred to the Odescalchi who, in 1724, offered this group to Philip V of Spain. Philip’s second wife Isabella Farnese (from the Farnese of Parma, which had a history of sculpture collecting) acquired it at above-market price for him and had it sent to the Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso (Segovia). From there it came into the Prado (catalogue number Catalogue Nr. E.28).

The erroneous identification with Antinous generated high interest in the sculpture, with large numbers of copies being produced, largely made in Italy and Northern Europe and based on plaster casts rather than made in Spain and based on the original there. These inevitably stoked the interest by obscuring the fact that the Antinous head was in fact a restoration, instead smoothing the two into a meaningful whole (as did the casts on which they were based).

Although many cultures saw Castor and Pollux as twins, early Christians sometimes called them David and Jonathan, whereas the Arabs knew them as peacocks. Perhaps the most unexpected connotation for the twins (along with the rest of Gemini) was as a “pile of bricks” as reported by Richard Hinckley Allen. Apparently the pile of bricks stood for the foundation of Rome, and in that context Castor and Pollux were associated with Romulus and Remus, the city’s legendary twin founders.

Castor is six stars in one

Castor, one of two bright stars in the constellation Gemini, is a famous multiple star system. It contains three pairs of binary stars all revolving in a complex way around a common center of mass. In other words, the single bright light we see as Castor is really six stars in one.

How to see it

The single point of light we call Castor appears as one of two bright stars in the constellation Gemini the Twins. It appears as a prominent white star, noticeable for its nearness to its brother star, Pollux in Gemini. No other two such bright stars appear so close together on our sky’s dome.

Castor and Pollux are sometimes called the “twin” stars, but you can tell them apart easily. The brighter and more golden star is Pollux. The fainter, whiter star is Castor.

These two stars of nearly equal brightness in Earth’s sky are not really related in space, and Pollux is not one of the six stars in the Castor system. At 34 light-years, Pollux is closer than Castor (52 light-years). Thus Pollux and Castor aren’t gravitationally bound, but only near each other along our line of sight. Plus they are different kinds of stars. But their proximity in our sky makes them easy to spot.

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