Apollo was the god of archery, arts and is often equated with civilisation and culture. The story goes that Apollo saw cupid playing with arrows and started mocking him, telling cupid that little boys had no business playing with toys of war. Cupid, understandably got angry and replied: “Your arrows may strike all things else, Apollo, but mine shall strike you.” He then grabbed two arrows, one to make people fall in love, and on to repel love. Cupid hit Apollo with the arrow to initiate love, and the nymph Daphne with one the one to repel it. Apollo fell madly in love with Daphne, but she didn’t like the idea of love. She had heaps of suitors but didn’t give any the time of day, and asked her father to allow her to be single and remain unmarried.
For a while Apollo admired her from afar but one day after seeing her in the woods he began to follow her. Daphne spotted him and started to run away-and Apollo started chasing her. Seeing that she was loosing the race, she asked her father Peneus to save her from Apollo’s touch. Her plea was answered and almost instantly her limbs started turning into bark. Slowly the nymph was transformed into a tree. Apollo was stunned, he went forward and gently kissed the tree. There he pledged that if he could not have Daphne as a wife he would be the patron of her tree. He also cast a spell on the tree ensuring that it would always be green, that its leaves would never decay-just as Daphne’s beauty would never decay. Daphne had transformed into the laurel tree-which is why Apollo is always seen wearing a laurel crown. The Caesars of Rome all crowned themselves with laurels in tribute to Apollo and his lost love.
Bernini's sculpture captures Daphne's transformation with intense emotion and drama by portraying the different stages of her changes.