Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 24 – The rape of Proserpine

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Abduction of Proserpina (c 1631), oil on oak panel, 84.8 x 79.7 cm, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Minerva is with the nine Muses on Helicon. She has just been told the story of their contest with the Pierides, and the Muses offer to repeat the stories which Calliope had sung so successfully in that challenge. The first of these is one of the longest in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and tells of the rape of Proserpine.

The Story

Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, introduces and praises Ceres, goddess of the harvest, then abruptly takes us to the triangular island of Sicily, where Mount Etna is an active volcano, and much of her story is set. Living in fear of Etna’s eruptions is Pluto, the king of Hades, the underworld, who has left his dark kingdom, and is riding in his chariot to check that all remains well.

Venus sees Pluto, and decides to get her son Cupid to make him fall in love with Proserpine (Greek Persephone), the young daughter of Ceres. Cupid selects his finest arrow, which strikes Pluto in the heart. Meanwhile Proserpine is playing and picking flowers by Lake Pergus, an idyllic spot:
“While Proserpine once dallied in that grove,
plucking white lilies and sweet violets,
and while she heaped her basket, while she filled
her bosom, in a pretty zeal to strive
beyond all others; she was seen, beloved,
and carried off by Pluto — such the haste
of sudden love.
“The goddess, in great fear,
called on her mother and on all her friends;
and, in her frenzy, as her robe was rent,
down from the upper edge, her gathered flowers
fell from her loosened tunic. — This mishap,
so perfect was her childish innocence,
increased her virgin grief. —
“The ravisher urged on his chariot, and inspired his steeds;
called each by name, and on their necks and manes
shook the black-rusted reins.”

As Pluto makes off with the young girl in his chariot, they pass a pool where the nymph Cyane lives. She tries to stop them, but Pluto opens up a cleft in the ground, and drives quickly through it down to his kingdom. Cyane is heartbroken:
But now
the mournful Cyane began to grieve,
because from her against her fountain-rights
the goddess had been torn. The deepening wound
still rankled in her breast, and she dissolved
in many tears, and wasted in those waves
which lately were submissive to her rule.
“So you could see her members waste away:
her hones begin to bend; her nails get soft;
her azure hair, her fingers, legs and feet,
and every slender part melt in the pool:
so brief the time in which her tender limbs
were changed to flowing waves; and after them
her back and shoulders, and her sides and breasts
dissolved and vanished into rivulets:
and while she changed, the water slowly filled
her faulty veins instead of living blood —
and nothing that a hand could hold remained.

Cyane – whose name means the blue colour that we know as cyan – has melted away in her tears of grief.

Ceres has missed her daughter, and starts searching the world for her. As it is getting dark, she looks for somewhere to rest:
“Wearied with labour she began to thirst,
for all this while no streams had cooled her lips;
when, as by chance, a cottage thatched with straw
gladdened her sight. Thither the goddess went,
and, after knocking at the humble door,
waited until an ancient woman came;
who, when she saw the goddess and had heard
her plea for water, gave her a sweet drink,
but lately brewed of parched barley-meal;
and while the goddess quaffed this drink a boy,
of bold and hard appearance, stood before
and laughed and called her greedy. While he spoke
the angry goddess sprinkled him with meal,
mixed with the liquid which had not been drunk.
“His face grew spotted where the mixture struck,
and legs appeared where he had arms before,
a tail was added to his changing trunk;
and lest his former strength might cause great harm,
all parts contracted till he measured less
than common lizards. While the ancient dame
wondered and wept and strove for one caress,
the reptile fled and sought a lurking place. —
His very name describes him to the eye,
a body starred with many coloured spots.”

For his rudeness to the goddess, the boy has been transformed into a spotted newt.

Ceres continues the search for her missing daughter. She reaches Cyane’s pool, but after her transformation that nymph is unable to tell her what happened. Guessing that her girl had been abducted, Ceres tears her hair and clothing. The harvest of Sicily is destroyed in that grief.

At last, Arethusa tells Ceres of Pluto’s abduction of her daughter. Ceres goes straight to Jupiter, Proserpine’s father, and pleads the case that the girl should be freed from Hades. Jupiter agrees on the condition – which is set by the Fates – that Proserpine has not eaten whilst in the underworld. Sadly, that proves not to be the case:
“Not so the Fates
permit. — The virgin, thoughtless while she strayed
among the cultivated Stygian fields,
had broken fast. While there she plucked the fruit
by bending a pomegranate tree, and plucked,
and chewed seven grains, picked from the pallid rind;
and none had seen except Ascalaphus—
him Orphne, famed of all Avernian Nymphs,
had brought to birth in some infernal cave,
days long ago, from Acheron’s embrace—
he saw it, and with cruel lips debarred
young Proserpine’s return. Heaving a sigh,
the Queen of Erebus, indignant changed
that witness to an evil bird: she turned
his head, with sprinkled Phlegethonian lymph,
into a beak, and feathers, and great eyes;
his head grew larger and his shape, deformed,
was cased in tawny wings; his lengthened nails
bent inward; — and his sluggish arms
as wings can hardly move. So he became
the vilest bird; a messenger of grief;
the lazy owl; sad omen to mankind.”

Ascalaphus is transformed into a screech-owl for being sole witness to Proserpine’s nibbling at a pomegranate. The daughters of Achelous, water-nymphs who were playing with Proserpine when she was abducted by Pluto, are tranformed into the Sirens, half-woman and half-bird, for their inattention to her care.

Jupiter is forced to compromise over the fate of Proserpine:
“But Jupiter,
the mediator of these rival claims,
urged by his brother and his grieving sister,
divided the long year in equal parts.
Now Proserpina, as a Deity,
of equal merit, in two kingdoms reigns: —
for six months with her mother she abides,
and six months with her husband. — Both her mind
and her appearance quickly were transformed;
for she who seemed so sad in Pluto’s eyes,
now as a goddess beams in joyful smiles;
so, when the sun obscured by watery mist
conquers the clouds, it shines in splendour forth.”

Thus it is Proserpine’s half-year spent with her mother Ceres during which the land is fertile and food can be grown; when she returns to Pluto in Hades, the earth lies barren through the winter.

The Paintings

For such a vile rape of a young girl, Ovid’s account is long, relatively sensitive, and dramatic; it has inspired many paintings, of which I show here a small selection of the finest and most significant.

Artist not known, Hades Abducting Persephone (c 340 BCE), wall painting in the small royal tomb at Verghina (Vergina), Macedonia, Greece. Image © Yann Forget under CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This story has been popular among artists since classical times. In a small royal tomb found at Vergina in Macedonia, there is a superb wall-painting of Hades Abducting Persephone which dates from 340 BCE. The view above shows the whole of Pluto’s chariot, with its horses, while the detail below shows Proserpine being carried by Pluto within, with sophisticated modelling of the heads and fabrics.

Artist not known, Hades Abducting Persephone (detail) (c 340 BCE), wall painting in the small royal tomb at Verghina (Vergina), Macedonia, Greece. Wikimedia Commons.
Niccolò dell’Abbate (1510–1571), The Rape of Proserpine (c 1570), oil on canvas, 196 x 220 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Niccolò dell’Abbate’s The Rape of Proserpine (c 1570) gives a fine account of Ovid’s story using multiplex narrative. Under ink-black clouds associated with Hades, Pluto is seen carrying Proserpine up a hill. At the far right, he is about to drive his chariot into a huge cavern, which will take them down into the underworld.

In the foreground, Cyane is by her pool, and about to literally dissolve into tears in its water. Six other nymphs, the daughters of Achelous, are also protesting at the girl’s abduction.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Abduction of Proserpina (c 1631), oil on oak panel, 84.8 x 79.7 cm, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt’s The Abduction of Proserpina (c 1631) is probably the earliest real masterpiece to show this story, although he deviates significantly from Ovid’s version. Pluto is trying to drive his chariot away, with Proserpine inside it. She is putting up fierce resistance, though, and trying to fend him off.

Hanging on to the hem of Proserpine’s floral dress is a woman who should perhaps be her mother Circe, but bears the crescent moon normally associated with Diana. Pluto’s chariot is being drawn by two black horses, through an ethereal almost fluid carpet of flowers. The horses and chariot are about to disappear into a black cleft in the earth, and make their descent to the underworld.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Rape of Proserpina (1636-38), oil on canvas, 180 × 270 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens also shows a composite story, in his superb The Rape of Proserpina (1636-38). Pluto’s face looks the part, his eyes bulging and staring at Minerva, who is trying to stop the girl from being abducted. Below the chariot, the basketful of flowers which Proserpine had been picking is scattered on the ground.

Rubens shows irresistable movement to the right, as Pluto struggles to lift the girl into his chariot. Two winged Cupids are preparing to drive the black horses on, once the couple are secured inside.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610) and Workshop, Ceres at Hecuba’s Home (c 1605), oil on copper plate, 30 × 25 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Few artists have been diverted by the side-stories offered here by Ovid. Adam Elsheimer, though, depicted Ceres at Hecuba’s Home in about 1605: this is believed to be a copy made in his workshop of his original. The young boy is mocking Ceres slaking her thirst during her search for the missing Proserpine; for that, he is about to be turned into a newt.

Paintings showing the abduction of Proserpine inevitably became far less frequent during the eighteenth century. But in the nineteenth, more sensitive approaches started to appear.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882), Proserpine (1882), oil on canvas, 78.7 × 39.2 cm, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In the late years of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s career, he became quite obsessed with Proserpine, and from 1871 made at least eight paintings of her. The image above show his last, Proserpine, which he completed shortly before his death in 1882. She stares into the distance, clutching her partly-eaten pomegranate, an oil lamp guttering below. The verses at the top right read:

Afar away the light that brings cold cheer
Unto this wall, – one instant and no more
Admitted at my distant palace-door.
Afar the flowers of Enna from this drear
Dire fruit, which, tasted once, must thrall me here
Afar those skies from this Tartarean gray
That chills me: and afar, how far away,
The nights that shall be from the days that were.

Afar from mine own self I seem and wind
Strange ways in thought, and listen for a sign:
And still some heart unto some soul doth pine,
(Whose sounds mine inner sense is fain to bring,
Continually together murmuring,)
“Woe’s me for thee, unhappy Proserpine”!

George Wilson (1848-1890), The Spring Witch (c 1880), oil on canvas, 106.7 × 80 cm, Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, DE. Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time, an almost unknown Pre-Raphaelite, George Wilson, painted two works derived from the myth. His Rape of Proserpine is in a private collection and I have been unable to locate a usable image of it, but The Spring Witch (c 1880) was inspired by Jupiter’s compromise in which she spent half her life in Hades, and half above.

Wilson shows Proserpine when she has just emerged from the underworld, to start her six months sojourn with her mother. She holds a fateful pomegranate in her left hand, from which a magical fibrous band emerges to wind around her body.

These are wonderful paintings of a story which is horrific even for a classical myth. There’s something truly magical about Rembrandt’s, though, which I think sets it apart. That deep blue night sky, the fluid carpet of flowers, and the forward rush of the fierce lion on the front of Pluto’s chariot: I haven’t seen another Rembrandt quite like it.

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.