There is a deep and fundamental difference between the role of the classical Roman and Greek gods, and those of the major monotheistic religions. For the Romans and Greeks, their gods were the means of explaining many of the difficulties in daily life, and a way of blaming forces beyond their control. The classical gods were immortals often behaving badly, sometimes very badly indeed. In contrast, the earthly prophets and (single) gods of the Jewish faith, Islam, and many flavours of Christianity act as role models, to which humans are intended to aspire.
This is most evident when you read anthologies of classical myths, of which the greatest to survive is surely Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Almost every page details a god raping, torturing, or destroying, sometimes all three in rapid succession, and usually on some fairly petty pretext. But there are exceptions, and this article looks at one of the most moralistic myths included by Ovid, that of Philemon and Baucis, which is bundled with yet another myth of a great flood.
The story of Philemon (husband) and Baucis (wife) is told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book 8, but unusually nowhere else in the surviving classical literature.
This pious elderly couple live in a town in Phrygia, now west central Anatolia, in Turkey. One day, two ordinary peasants walked into the town, looking for somewhere to stay for the night. Everyone else rejected them, but when they asked this couple, who among the poorest inhabitants and had but a simple rustic cottage, they were welcomed in.
Philemon and Baucis served their guests food and wine; the latter was strange, because as fast as Baucis could pour wine into her guests’ beechwood goblets, the pitcher of wine refilled. Philemon tried to catch the goose which guarded their cottage, to kill and cook it for their guests, but it ran to the safety of a guest’s lap. Realising that they were entertaining gods, the couple raised their hands in supplication and craved indulgence for their humble cottage and fare.
Revealing themselves as the gods Jupiter/Zeus and Mercury/Hermes, the guests told them not to kill the goose, but to leave the town, as it was about to be destroyed, together with all those who had not offered them hospitality. The gods then took the couple out to climb a mountain, telling the couple not to look back until they had reached the top. Once at the summit, they turned to see the town obliterated by a flood; their cottage had been spared, though, turned into a temple, and Philemon and Baucis were made its guardians.
The couple finally asked the gods that, when it came to the time for one of them to die, they should both die together. When that happened, they were then metamorphosed into an intertwining pair of trees, one an oak, the other a lime (linden).
This is a rambling story which never really reaches a climax, nor does it have particular moments of peripeteia. This makes it a tough challenge to depict in a single painting.
Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), in his small oil on copper painting Jupiter and Mercury with Philemon and Baucis (1609-10), shows Philemon (right) and Baucis (centre right) giving their hospitality generously to Jupiter (left) and Mercury (centre left), in their tiny, dark cottage. All four are depicted in more contemporary dress, although Mercury’s winged helmet is an unmistakeable clue as to his identity.
Their modest stock of food is piled in a basket in the right foreground, and the goose is just distinguishable in the gloom at the lower edge of the painting, below Mercury’s feet.
Rubens (1577–1640), in his Stormy Landscape with Philemon and Baucis (c 1625?), attempts a broader view of a later moment to tell more of the story. His dramatic landscape shows stormclouds building over the hills, a raging torrent pouring down the mountainside, dragging large trees and animals in its swollen waters, and the four figures on a track at the right. Philemon and Baucis are struggling up the track with their sticks, Jupiter points to a rainbow formed over a waterfall at the lower left corner, and Mercury is all but naked.
Sadly at present this wonderful painting is undergoing extensive conservation work: painted on oak planks, the lines in its paint layer shows where it has opened up at their joints.
Rijckaert (III) (1612–1661), in his Philemon and Baucis Giving Hospitality to Jupiter and Mercury, gives what has become the most popular depiction: Mercury (left) and Jupiter (left of centre) seated at the table, with Philemon (behind table) and Baucis (centre) waiting on their every need, ensuring that they eat and drink their fill. Baucis has almost caught the evasive goose, and an additional person is shown in the background preparing and serving food for the gods.
Rembrandt’s (1606–1669) Baucis and Philemon (1658) is one of his late works, but was not included in the recent exhibition of those, presumably because it has been undergoing conservation work in The National Gallery of Art.
It shows Jupiter (looking decidedly Christlike) and Mercury (the younger, almost juvenile, figure) sat at the table of a very dark and rough cottage, lit by a lamp behind Mercury. This dramatic lighting is precursor to similar effects in his later Ahasuerus and Haman (1660) and Conspiracy of the Batavians (1661-2), shown and discussed here.
Philemon and Baucis are crouched, chasing the evasive goose towards Jupiter. A humble bowl of food is in the centre of the table, and there is a glass of what appears to be beer. As is usual in Rembrandt’s narrative paintings, he dresses them in contemporary rather than historic costume.
Although Rembrandt created many wonderfully narrative paintings, he seldom showed stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He has made the painting using rough brushstrokes and highly gestural marks of paint, as roughly hewn as the cottage which it depicts. It is not just an outstanding account of this myth, but one of his finest narrative paintings, and I wonder whether it might have influenced Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885).
Loth (1632–1698), in his Jupiter and Mercury with Philemon and Baucis (c 1659-62), appears to have reworked the narrative from Ovid’s original. While Baucis and Philemon are waiting on their guests, with Philemon holding the jug containing wine, Mercury (in the centre) appears to be remonstrating with Jupiter (right), holding out his right index finger and pointing it at the other god. The evasive goose is shown behind Mercury’s back, apparently about to peck his left hand. The whole scene seems to be set in a well-lit area, perhaps outside the cottage in daylight.
This painting from the circle of Appiani (1754–1817), possibly by Stefano Tofanelli (1752-1812) or Pietro Benvenuti (1769-1844), shows Jupiter and Mercury with Philemon and Baucis in less straitened circumstances. Jupiter (left) holds a glass of wine in his left hand, and Mercury (centre) is both eating grapes and looking longingly at a fresh bowl of fruit which Philemon (right) is just about to place on the table. Baucis (front right) is looking at Jupiter, and holding out her right hand, as if to refill his glass.
The background shown is that of a sizeable Roman or Greek town, with mountains in the distance.
This is a complex and demanding story to tell in a single painting. Only Rubens makes a determined attempt to include the flood, with other depictions focussing on entertainment of the two gods in the couple’s cottage, the key to the moral of the story. There are moments of peripeteia, including the invitation of the guests by Philemon and Baucis, their revelation as gods, and the events seen and foreseen from the peak of the mountain. However none of these is particularly strong, or provides a suitable opportunity to include references to the early part of the story, or to its eventual conclusion.
Consensus among these artists, and in more recent depictions, is to show the couple entertaining their guests, which Rembrandt has turned into an exceptional but surprisingly little-known painting. What it lacks in traditional narrative form – for example, visual reference to future events or changed fortune – is more than compensated for by the eloquence of its execution.
Barolsky P (2014) Ovid and the Metamorphoses of Modern Art from Botticelli to Picasso, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 19669 6.