Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 15 – Pyramus and Thisbe

Abraham Hondius (1631–1691), Pyramus and Thisbe (1660-75), oil on canvas, 69 x 80.7 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

The fourth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses starts with the introduction of a team of narrators, the daughters of Minyas, who take it in turns to tell us stories within their story. These women provide a narrative link with the end of the previous book, in that they live close to the city of Thebes, and like the unfortunate Pentheus, they refuse to worship Bacchus.

Their first story is novel to the Metamorphoses, and is not a Greek myth; although Ovid cites it as a Babylonian legend, it is now thought to have originated in southern Anatolia, modern Turkey. It is also one of the first stories to end with the suicide of frustrated lovers, and in the Western canon is seen as the ultimate ancestor of major narrative works including Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and appears in the play within Act 5 of his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Story

Ovid introduces the daughters of Minyas by establishing their lack of respect for the new cult of Bacchus, and gives a short hymn of praise to the god. Although the women of Thebes are out honouring the god, the daughters of Minyas ignore the festival, and carry on working at their spinning. To pass the time when they are at work, they each in turn tell a story.

The first of the daughters teases the reader with the outlines of three stories which she decides not to tell, all of which involve transformations:

  • Dercetis of Babylon, who developed scaly limbs and lived in a lake,
  • the daughter of Dercetis, who grew wings and lived on a tower, and
  • an unnamed Naiad, who tranformed men into fish, and was eventually turned into a fish herself.

She then tells the story of how the white fruit of a tree was turned red: that of Pyramus (the man) and Thisbe (the woman).

The coupled lived in the city of Babylon, in houses which shared a common wall. They fell in love with one another, but their fathers refused to let them marry. They communicated through a crack in the party wall between the two houses, talking together until nightfall. They resolved to meet outside the city, at the tomb of Nisus, after dusk, under a mulberry tree with its white fruit.

Thisbe arrived first, but while she was sitting under the mulberry tree, a lioness came to drink at the nearby spring, her face still covered in blood from her recent kill. Thisbe fled to hide in a cave, leaving her shawl on the ground, which was then torn by the lioness as she walked away from the spring, leaving blood on the material.

Pyramus arrived after the lioness had gone, but saw her footprints, and discovered the bloody and torn shawl by the mulberry tree. He immediately presumed that Thisbe had been killed by the creature, and blamed himself for putting her at risk. Draping the shawl over the tree, he kissed it, then killed himself by thrusting his sword into his side. This caused his blood to spurt high in jets, which coloured the mulberry fruit hanging there.

Thisbe then tentatively left the cave, and made her way back to the mulberry tree, which she found hard to recognise because she could not see its white fruit. She there discovered her dying lover, lifted him up, and kissed him. As he died, she blamed herself for his death, and decided to join him in that death. She took his sword, placed its point below her chest, and fell onto it.

In her last words, Thisbe asked that the couple should share the same tomb, so that they could finally rest together, and that the fruit of the mulberry tree should forever bear the mark of their deaths:
“And, O thou tree of many-branching boughs,
spreading dark shadows on the corpse of one,
destined to cover twain, take thou our fate
upon thy head; mourn our untimely deaths;
let thy fruit darken for a memory,
an emblem of our blood.” No more she said;
and having fixed the point below her breast,
she fell on the keen sword, still warm with his red blood.

Both of these wishes were respected: their parents put their ashes together in the same urn, and the gods transformed the mulberry fruit from white to red.

The Paintings

Ovid tells this tragic love story between humans – the gods are barely mentioned for once – in very visual terms, but sets its climax at night. That coupled with its gruesome conclusion may have deterred the patrons of the great Masters from commissioning it in paint. Several of those masters seem to have been working on paintings of the story – Rembrandt, for example, left some drawings – but few finished paintings remain. This compares with the long list of poems, plays, books, and operas which tell the tale.

Most of the surviving paintings were made before 1750, and very few after 1850.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Thisbe (The Listener) (1909), oil on canvas, 97 × 59 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The exceptions to this are artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement: John William Waterhouse’s Thisbe, inevitably also known as The Listener, (1909) shows her listening at the party wall, and alludes to the daughters of Minyas in showing Thisbe’s spinning gear. Its only reference to the tragic outcome is a red and white shawl, screwed up in the far corner of the room. Edward Burne-Jones also made some illustrative drawings for the story.

Abraham Hondius (1631–1691), Pyramus and Thisbe (1660-75), oil on canvas, 69 x 80.7 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Among those depictions from an earlier era, Abraham Hondius’ Pyramus and Thisbe (1660-75) stands out in coming closest to Ovid’s account. Set at night, the artist shows us the spilt blood, and more spurting from Thisbe as she impales herself on Pyramus’s sword. Behind and to the right of her the lioness is shown making away, with red and reddened garments strewn in the foreground.

Hondius even manages to include some mulberries, hanging at the top right, their berries still white.

Jasper van der Laanen (fl. 1607–1624) (attr), Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe (c 1615), oil on copper, 28 x 40 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This combined landscape attributed to Jasper van der Laanen, Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe probably from around 1615, is another faithful account. Pyramus has not quite expired, and still clutches the blood-stained shawl, as Thisbe is about to fall on his sword, wiping the tears from her eyes. The lioness is more distant, and the mulberry fruit has already changed colour to red, above Thisbe’s head.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Landscape during a Thunderstorm with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651), oil on canvas, 274 × 191 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

My favourite painting of this story, and surely its most famous, is Poussin’s Landscape during a Thunderstorm with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651), which succeeds in telling the story and being one of his finest landscapes.

Before looking at his narrative, it is worth appreciating its setting. The city of Babylon is in the distance, along a picturesque and pastoral valley. But the peacefulness of this landscape has been transformed by the sudden arrival of a thunderstorm: the gusty wind is already bending the trees, and near the centre of the view has broken a large branch with its force. Two bolts of lightning make their way to the hills below.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Landscape during a Thunderstorm with Pyramus and Thisbe (detail) (1651), oil on canvas, 274 × 191 cm, Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

In the foreground, there is frantic activity in response not only to the storm, but to the lioness which is attacking a horse, whose rider has fallen. An adjacent horseman is about to thrust his spear into the back of the lioness, while another, slightly further ahead, is driving cattle away from the scene. Others on foot, and a fourth horseman, are scurrying away, driven by the combination of the lioness and the imminent storm.

In the foreground, Pyramus lies dying, his sword at his side, and his blood flowing freely on the ground, down to a small pond. Thisbe has just emerged from sheltering in the cave, has run past the bloodied shawl at the right, and is about to reach the body of her lover. She is clearly distraught. The only element from Ovid’s story which this painting apparently lacks is the mulberry tree with its fruit.

Although there isn’t a brilliant Rubens, or an insightful Rembrandt, nor a work by any of the great narrative painters of the nineteenth century, I think that Ovid’s story has been well told in these paintings.

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.