Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 19 – Cadmus and Harmonia

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Cadmus and Harmonia (1877), oil, dimensions not known, The De Morgan Collection, England. Wikimedia Commons.

With the disposal of Athamas, Ino, and their children, the house of Cadmus, founder-king of Thebes, is finished. Ovid rounds it off with a short but touching myth which sees an end to Cadmus’ dynasty.

It is worth noting that, although Ovid names Cadmus’ wife as Harmonia, in other sources she is Hermione, and is frequently referred to as that during and after the Renaissance.

The Story

Cadmus and his faithful wife Harmonia leave the city of Thebes, which he had founded. They travel until they eventually reach Illyria on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea (roughly the former Yugoslavia), where they talk about earlier times. Cadmus wonders whether the fearsome dragon which he had killed in order to found the city had in fact been sacred. He calls on the gods to avenge its death, if that had been the case:
“Was that a sacred dragon that my spear
impaled, when on the way from Sidon’s gates
I planted in the earth those dragon-teeth,
unthought-of seed? If haply ’tis the Gods,
(whose rage unerring, gives me to revenge)
I only pray that I may lengthen out,
as any serpent.” Even as he spoke,
he saw and felt himself increase in length.
His body coiled into a serpent’s form;
bright scales enveloped his indurate skin,
and azure macules in speckled pride,
enriched his glowing folds; and as he fell
supinely on his breast, his legs were joined,
and gradually tapered as a serpent’s tail.

Just before his upper body and head are transformed into the snake, and still with tears streaming down his cheeks, he embraces his wife one last time. As his transformation completes, and Harmonia finds herself wrapped in his coils, she calls on the gods to transform her too. And they do.

To the amazement of those around, the two snakes slither off into a nearby wood. Having been good people, they are neither venomous nor do they bite. So ends the house of Cadmus.

The Paintings

Perhaps uniquely among the many substantial myths in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, there appears to be just one painting in the history of Western art which tells this story, despite its very visual nature. However, several drawings and prints have been made of it, and I start with a fine item of Faenza maiolica.

Virgiliotto Calamelli (1531-1570), Cadmus and Harmonia (c 1560), Faenza maiolica ceramic, dimensions not known, Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche, Faenza, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Virgiliotto Calamelli’s ceramic telling of Cadmus and Harmonia from around 1560 is a brilliant depiction of Ovid’s story. He chooses a later moment, in which Cadmus’ transformation is complete, and Harmonia’s has reached her abdomen.

Crispijn van de Passe the Elder (1589-1637), Cadmus and Harmonia Changed into Snakes (1602-07), engraving, 8.4 x 13.2 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Courtesy of The Rijksmuseum.

I’m not sure where Crispijn van de Passe the Elder sourced his engraving of Cadmus and Harmonia Changed into Snakes (1602-07), but it is essentially the same as Calamelli’s plate. The town on the left is a bit more extensive, and the gods have been added in the clouds above, but even the intertwined coils of snake are a perfect match.

For over two centuries, the story vanished without trace from the visual arts, before it was revived and revisualised by Evelyn De Morgan.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), Cadmus and Harmonia (1877), oil, dimensions not known, The De Morgan Collection, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Evelyn De Morgan’s Cadmus and Harmonia was painted in 1877, after she had returned from a visit to Italy. What inspired her to paint this unique work is obscure, but it was exhibited with the following quotation from an English translation of Metamorphoses:
With lambent tongue he kissed her patient face,
Crept in her bosom as his dwelling place
Entwined her neck, and shared the loved embrace.

De Morgan was certainly very familiar with classical myths, which were a frequent source for her paintings. She was influenced by Edward Burne-Jones, taught by her uncle John Roddam Spencer Stanhope, and at the Slade by Sir Edward Poynter: all three had extensive knowledge of classical myths, and Poynter’s was deep to the point of being quite esoteric.

It has been suggested that Harmonia is here reminiscent of Botticelli’s Venus, a painting which De Morgan knew well, as she had copied it when she was a student. She certainly doesn’t seem to have been influenced by any earlier image of the story, but her Harmonia is certainly not the older woman that Ovid describes.

Evelyn De Morgan’s painting may be one of a kind, but does the job perfectly.

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.