Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 8 – Turned into stone, Mercury and Aglauros

Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre (1714–1789), Mercury, Herse and Aglaurus (1763), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Having considered the consquences of gossip and telling tales about others, Ovid turns in the later sections of Book 2 of his Metamorphoses to consider related sins. He leads into this with a short story about Mercury’s theft of Apollo’s herd of cattle resulting in Battus being turned to stone, then tells the last complete myth in this book, of Mercury’s love for Herse leading to her sister Aglauros suffering the same transformation.

The Story

Apollo has a herd of cattle, but instead of watching them carefully, he has fallen in love and is more interested in playing his reed pipes. The herd wanders off to Pylos, Mercury spots them, and seizes the opportunity to drive them into a wood. The only witness to this is an old man named Battus. Mercury takes him aside and gives him a cow in return for his silence about the theft.

Mercury then goes away, and returns in disguise. He offers Battus a cow and bull if he gives him information about the missing herd. Battus immediately tells him where they are, so Mercury transforms him to stone:
And, laughing, Mercury said,
“Thou treacherous man to me dost thou betray
myself? Dost thou bewray me to myself?”
The god indignant turned his perjured breast
into a stone which even now is called
“The Spy of Pylos,” a disgraceful name,
derived from days of old, but undeserved.

Mercury flies off, to witness the crowds attending the festival of Apollo. Among them, he sees a beautiful young woman, Herse, who takes his fancy. He flies down to her house, which has three bedrooms decorated with ivory and tortoiseshell, for each of the three daughters of Cecrops, Herse, Aglauros, and Pandrosos.

When he arrives at the house, Aglauros is the first to greet him. Mercury explains who he is, and tells her that he has come to visit and marry her sister Herse. Ovid here reminds us that it was Aglauros who had earlier broken Minerva’s instruction to not open the basket containing Ericthonius. As Aglauros now asks Mercury to pay her a fortune to let him in to visit her sister Herse, Minerva sees the opportunity to get revenge on Aglauros by putting envy into her heart.

Mercury now courts Herse, with jealousy brewing in her sister Aglauros’ heart. Aglauros then sits herself outside Herse’s door, and refuses to move to allow Mercury past:
“Enough,” she said, “I will not move from here
until thou hast departed from my sight.”
“Let us adhere to that which was agreed.”
Rejoined the graceful-formed Cyllenian God,
who as he spoke thrust open with a touch
of his compelling wand the carved door.
But when she made an effort to arise,
her thighs felt heavy, rigid and benumbed;
and as she struggled to arise her knees
were stiffened? and her nails turned pale and cold;
her veins grew pallid as the blood congealed.
And even as the dreaded cancer spreads
through all the body, adding to its taint
the flesh uninjured; so, a deadly chill
entered by slow degrees her breast, and stopped
her breathing, and the passages of life.
She did not try to speak, but had she made
an effort to complain there was not left
a passage for her voice. Her neck was changed
to rigid stone, her countenance felt hard;
she sat a bloodless statue, but of stone
not marble-white — her mind had stained it black.

For her obstruction of Mercury, and her festering jealousy, Mercury transforms Aglauros into stone. This leads us into the final section of Book 2, the start of the story of the rape of Europa.

The Paintings

The first brief story of Battus being turned to stone seems to have been little-painted, but that of Mercury, Herse and Aglauros has been quite a popular theme. Sadly, paintings by Poussin, JMW Turner and other major narrative artists seem not to be available as usable images. Perhaps the most famous depiction, by Veronese, is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, in the University of Cambridge, which does not permit free use of its images. You can, though, see the painting here.

Veronese shows Mercury, with his distinctive winged hat, trying to push his way past Aglauros, who is guarding the doorway to Herse. He has altered the composition to place both women in the same room, and does not try to show Aglauros changing into stone.

Jan Baptist Huysmans (1654–1716) and Jan Erasmus Quellinus (1634–1715), Mercury Turns the Jealous Aglaurus into Stone (c 1700), oil on canvas, 122 x 102 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Marseille, Marseille, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Huysmans and Quellinus, in their Mercury Turns the Jealous Aglauros into Stone (c 1700), cram the action into the relatively small entrance of their inventive image of the Cecrops house. It is hard to know who is doing what, or to whom, but Mercury appears to be standing inside the threshold, with Aglauros running towards him from outside. Herse sits and watches from a window at the left.

Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre (1714–1789), Mercury, Herse and Aglaurus (1763), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Pierre’s Mercury, Herse and Aglauros of 1763 is much clearer, and devotes the whole of the canvas to the figures and their story. Mercury has just arrived at the right, amid a cloud of smoke. Aglauros is falling at the right, under Mercury’s caduceus, and is presumably in the process of being transformed into stone, although there are no visible signs of that.

Jacob Pynas (1592/1593–c 1650), Mercury and Herse (c 1618), oil on copper, 21 x 27.8 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Few of the remaining paintings seem intended to show this myth in narrative form. Many simply show Mercury flying near a group of women, presumably the Cecrops sisters, set in a landscape. Jacob Pynas’ Mercury and Herse (c 1618) is a tiny work in oil on copper which does that, and is among the better of the group.

Hendrick van Balen the Elder (1573–1632) (attr), Herse and her Sisters with Mercury (c 1600-32), oil on panel, 29.2 x 21 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

A few show an earlier scene in the narrative, such as Hendrick van Balen the Elder’s Herse and her Sisters with Mercury (c 1600-32). This uses a form of multiplex narrative: at the right, Mercury is seen negotiating his way past Aglauros. The majority of the painting shows the sisters preparing Herse to welcome Mercury in her best sandals and finest clothes.

Overall, I would choose the Veronese for its skilful narrative, and showing the climax of this moralising tale of the envy of Aglauros.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.