There’s more to classical Greek and Roman myths than rape, murder, and metamorphoses. Sometimes they tell touching stories of true love, like that of Acontius and Cydippe. You will not have heard of them, because their story is tucked away in a couple of imagined letters in Ovid’s Heroides (letters 20 and 21), and in his Art of Love (1, from line 457 on).
Acontius was a young man from the lovely Greek island of Keos, who fell hopelessly in love with the beautiful young woman Cydippe. Sadly, she was of higher social standing than he was, and such a marriage was unthinkable to her family. He came up with an ingenious plan to trick her into making a commitment to him: he wrote the words I swear before Diana (Artemis) that I will marry only Acontius on an apple.
He then approached Cydippe when she was in the temple of Diana, and threw the inscribed apple in front of her. Her nurse picked it up, and handed it to Cydippe to read his words aloud before the altar, so binding her to the vow. She then seemingly overlooked this inadvertent commitment that she had made.
But Cydippe’s family had other ideas, and found her a prospective husband of appropriate status. Shortly before the couple were due to marry, Cydippe fell ill with a severe fever, and the proceedings were postponed. After she recovered, another attempt was made to marry the couple, but again Cydippe fell ill just before the ceremonies, and so a third time the wedding had to be called off.
Unsure of what to do next, Cydippe’s parents consulted the oracle at Delphi, who told them the whole story. Recognising the strength of the vow that she had made, Cydippe and her parents finally accepted the match, and Acontius and Cydippe married with their blessing.
I felt sure that some artist would have depicted some of that story, but my reference sources only pointed to poetry and operas. These include an allusion in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, verse by Edward Bulwer Lytton and the artist and designer William Morris. There had been no less than six operas written about the story, including Hoffman’s Acontius und Cydippe, first performed in 1709.
Eventually, I found two paintings, both of which have strange histories.
The wonderful Swiss painter Angelica Kauffman exhibited a painting titled Acontius and Cydippe at the Royal Academy in London in 1771. Like so many of her paintings, it was very popular, but now appears to have been lost. A copy was made by someone from her circle, and that has survived, although it was earlier thought to be of Orestes and Iphigenia.
This surviving version of Acontius and Cydippe Before the Altar of Diana shows Cydippe with Acontius behind her, armed with his inscribed apple. There is no nurse shown, though.
Kauffmann’s painting was engraved, and the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm has what I understand to be a hand-coloured print made by the Swedish painter Johan Fredrik Martin.
These are fine narrative works which do the story justice, but I then stumbled across a painting of Cydippe in the Rijksmuseum, by a little-known Dutch artist Paulus Bor.
His Cydippe with Acontius’s Apple is undated, but probably from around 1630-40. It puts a very different slant on the story: here, Cydippe leans on the altar, alone, the inscribed apple held up in her right hand. But she is not reading Acontius’ words: she has clearly already said those out aloud, and now seems to be thinking through the vow she has just made.
Bor paints the details of the altar exquisitely. Cydippe’s dress may be anachronistic, but Bor brings in the skull of a sacrificed goat and festoons of flowers.
Apparently Bor is known for his early Caravaggism and late classicism, for unusual compositions and mysterious subjects.
His Ariadne (1630-35) is still reminiscent of Caravaggio, and certainly mysterious. When Theseus came to Crete to kill the Minotaur, she helped him by giving him a ball of golden thread, which he used to retrace his route out of the labyrinth after he had killed the Minotaur (her half-brother). Ariadne fell in love with Theseus, and the couple eloped to Naxos, where he abandoned her.
This can only show Ariadne on Naxos, immediately after she has been abandoned, still clutching the thread by which she thought she had tethered Theseus, which now hangs at a loose end. On the wall above her are sketches she has made of her lover. She looks even more deeply lost in thought, and gloomy, than Cydippe.
Ovid includes an imaginary letter from her to Theseus in his Heroides (letter 10).
Even more puzzling at first sight is Bor’s portrait of Medea.
The Disillusioned Medea (The Enchantress) (c 1640), in the Met in New York, appears unique among the images of the enchantress who used her magic to support Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece. She fell in love with Jason, married him on his voyage home, and bore him two children. Ten years later, Jason divorced her for the King of Corinth’s daughter Glauce.
This was too much for Medea, who sent Glauce a poisoned wedding dress which killed her, and her father, horribly. She then killed her two children, and fled to Athens, where she had a child by King Aegeus. Ovid includes an imaginary letter from her to Jason in his Heroides (letter 12).
Medea sits, her face flushed, resting her head on the heel of her right hand. In her left, she holds a wand made from bamboo or rattan. The wand appears poised, ready for use as soon as she has worked out what to do next. Behind her is a small altar, very similar to Diana’s in Bor’s painting of Cydippe, and Walter Liedtke has identified the statue at the left as Diana.
Liedtke has proposed that the many common features of Bor’s Cydippe with Acontius’s Apple and The Disillusioned Medea (The Enchantress) make it most probable that they were painted as a pair, to hang together, as two women from the Heroides. The altars to Diana, the figures’ poses, even the gold tassles on red cushions make this most likely. But where, then, does Ariadne fit in?
Three women, two of them abandoned by their lovers, the third wondering what to do about her vow of marriage – all from Ovid’s Heroides. I wonder if Bor painted any others from that book? Perhaps those paintings are not as mysterious as they may seem.