Many classical myths must have seemed far-fetched even to the ancient Greeks and Romans. There is none so extraordinary as that told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses of the love affair between Jupiter and Semele. When I recently wrote about it in my series on Gustave Moreau, I wanted to discover who else had painted this story, and how they managed to tell it.
The best-known, but by no means the only, account is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 3.
Jupiter, the king of the gods according to classical Roman mythology, was notoriously promiscuous, and his wife Juno was forever having to deal with his adulterous wanderings. One day, when he was flying around earth as an eagle, he saw Semele, a priestess of Jupiter, when she was swimming in a river to cleanse herself of sacrificial blood, and fell in love with her. As a result of the affair that developed, Semele became pregnant.
When Juno suspected the affair, she disguised herself as an old crone and befriended Semele to discover the whole truth, and to sow doubt in Semele’s mind about her lover’s true identity. This led Semele to ask Jupiter to grant her a wish. He inevitably agreed, and she asked him to reveal himself in his full glory, so as to prove his divinity.
Jupiter realised that this would put Semele at risk: being the god of the sky and thunderstorms, she would almost certainly be killed by his thunderbolts. But she insisted, so he gathered his weakest thunderbolts and smallest storms, and revealed himself to her. Unfortunately Semele was immediately consumed in flames from Jupiter’s lighting, and died. In Brookes More’s translation at Perseus:
her mortal form could not endure the shock
and she was burned to ashes in his sight.
An unformed babe was rescued from her side,
and, nurtured in the thigh of Jupiter,
completed Nature’s time until his birth.
Thus Jupiter seized the unborn baby from her side, and continued the pregnancy by sewing that foetus into his thigh. Months later, the baby was born, and became Bacchus, who later rescued Semele from the underworld, and had her installed as a goddess on Mount Olympus.
Semele’s extraordinary story has even formed the basis of three operas named after her, the last and most famous composed by Handel.
There are other scenes from the story of Jupiter and Semele which have been the subject of paintings, but they can be hard to identify. For example, several works show an old crone, who could be Juno, talking with a young nude woman, who could be Semele, sometimes with an eagle (Jupiter’s attribute) nearby. But there are other myths which they could be depicting too.
Its most distinctive and climactic scene must be that of the combustion of the pregnant Semele, rescue of the unborn Bacchus, and Jupiter’s surrogate pregnancy.
Dosso Dossi’s Jupiter and Semele, from about 1525, is the earliest painting that I have been able to find. The couple are seen among the clouds, he naked apart from a red cloth covering his left leg, she oddly fully clothed, in a reversal of normal artistic preference. He holds a thunderbolt in his right hand, above Semele’s head, but there are no signs of her bursting into flames, nor of the extraction of Bacchus.
There is also a collection of interesting objects at the lower right, including what appears to be a small tortoise, as a sign of love and fertility, perhaps. There is also a set of keys, and a bag which is tied at its neck.
Giulio Romano and his workshop’s The Birth of Bacchus (c 1535) is a wonderful and quite revealing depiction of contemporary midwifery practice. Jupiter, at the upper right, seems to be fleeing the scene, thunderbolts in his right hand, and Juno, at the upper left, seems puzzled and upset.
Down on earth, Semele has just been delivered of a baby boy, Bacchus, and her four attending midwives are caring for the baby, busy with the traditional towels and water as they do. However, above Semele’s abdomen and right thigh there are flames rising, and smoke. She looks up at Jupiter, in distress if not horror. Jupiter is not stopping to take on any surrogate pregnancy, though, and Bacchus looks fairly full-term too, hardly in need of further gestation.
This painting is believed to have been one of a series of ‘erotic’ works for the Duke of Mantua, which were designed by Giulio Romano and largely painted by the members of his workshop.
Tintoretto’s Jupiter and Semele (1545) shows an earlier moment in the story. Semele, who does at least look pregnant, is reclining naked under a red tent. Jupiter has evidently just revealed himself, and rolls of cloud are rushing out from him. There are flames licking at Semele’s tent, and around the clouds which surround Jupiter, but no sign of them touching Semele yet, nor causing her any distress or concern. The danger may be imminent, but it has not yet struck.
Tintoretto is believed to have painted this to go on the front of a cassone (chest), or on panelling in a room.
Moving forward almost a century, Peter Paul Rubens’ oil sketch of The Death of Semele from about 1620 reveals Semele in obvious distress, and pregnant, on a bed. Jupiter grasps his thunderbolt in his right hand, as a dragon-like eagle swoops in through the window. There is no clear connection between Semele’s alarm and Jupiter’s presence, nor any sign of hazard from the thunderbolt.
Pietro della Vecchia takes a very similar approach in his Jupiter and Semele of about 1640, although Semele’s pregnancy is not revealed, and there is no sign of any eagle.
Luca Ferrari’s Jupiter and Semele from about 1640 restores the eagle, which appears to be carrying Jupiter. Although he opens his composition up, and adds some bedside accessories, the viewer is none the wiser.
Bon Boullogne’s Semele, which was painted between 1688-1704, comes closer to the climax of the story. Semele lies on a bed beside a Roman herm (statue). Her left hand has been struck by a small thunderbolt and has started to burn. Above her, Jupiter is making off with a large infant – not just full-term but far older, it would appear – while Juno, with an accompanying peacock, is in the distance, at the top right of the painting.
The young Bacchus is shown as being more than half the height of Semele, which suggests that he may have intended some sort of multiplex narrative, where the upper scene with the gods takes place considerably later than the lower scene with Semele.
Sebastiano Ricci’s Jupiter and Semele of 1695 returns to an earlier moment, with Semele resting on a couch, her back to the viewer, and facing Jupiter. He has revealed himself in an impressively cloudy and stormy setting, and holds an arrow-like thunderbolt in his right hand. In the foreground is Jupiter’s eagle, and a cowering Cupid who looks very anxious. Although smoke is emerging from a pot, there are no signs of Semele being under threat.
Paolo Pagani’s Jupiter and Semele from about 1700 seems even further removed from any threat to Semele. She lies back displaying her body to the viewer, with no signs of pregnancy, and a strange grimace which is hard to read because of her position. Jupiter has arrived in the midst of thunderclouds, holding a thunderbolt in his right hand, and Semele’s right arm with his left hand. Flames are licking around his left foot, which is perilously close to Semele. Under Jupiter is his large black eagle.
After nearly two centuries of a steady trickle of paintings showing this story, there is a long gap, during which few, if any, significant paintings tackle it. The narrative then re-appears in Gustave Moreau’s last great masterwork.
Moreau worked out the central section of the final painting in Jupiter and Semele, over the period 1889-95. Semele has not yet been harmed by thunderbolts, but the foetal Bacchus appears to be resting against her, and Jupiter has assumed his divine form. At the foot of the painting is Jupiter’s attribute of an eagle.
That composition then formed the centrepiece of his large finished painting, also titled Jupiter and Semele (1895). Jupiter now sits on a massive throne, with Semele draped over his right thigh. Surrounding the couple is one of the most iconographically-rich canvases in the history of art, a dense confluence from many cultures across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and into India.
At its heart, Jupiter rests his left forearm on Apollo’s lyre. His right hand holds a lotus flower, and he looks straight ahead with his eyes wide open. Behind his left shoulder is the image of a female deity, perhaps his wife Juno.
Semele is statuesque, her arms cast back in shock. Her left side is covered in blood, presumably from where the foetus has been extracted, although in this version no foetus is visible. Her hair flows off in a long, thick tress, decorated like a peacock’s feathers. She shows no signs of catching fire yet. Below her is a winged Cupid, its face buried in its forearms, in grief at Semele’s imminent doom.
The extraordinary climax of the story of Jupiter and Semele, involving her destruction by fire, the removal from her “side” of the foetal Bacchus, and his implantation into Jupiter’s thigh, was told very clearly by Ovid. Despite a succession of attempts to depict it in a painting, no artist seems to have tried to depict that scene in its entirety.
Several of the painted accounts have substituted a quite different story, in which Semele was delivered of a full-term (or even older!) infant Bacchus, who was then removed by Jupiter, leaving Semele to burn alone. Few have given any visual clues to Semele being, or having been, pregnant, although most of the painters would have had first hand experience of the stigmata of pregnancy.
One plausible explanation is that Ovid’s story was simply too unreal to attempt to paint. Even in the early Renaissance, patrons would surely have recognised the physical absurdity of its climax.
Another interesting observation is that, after about 1700, very few paintings were made of this story, even during the revival of interest in related themes in the nineteenth century. This may reflect a decline of interest in such a strange story with the advent of the Englightenment, perhaps.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922. Book 3, ll 251-313. Available online here. I wish to thank Tufts’ superb Perseus resource for the quotation above.