Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 43 Philemon and Baucis, virtue rewarded

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), Baucis and Philemon (detail) (1658), oil on panel mounted on panel, 54.5 × 68.5 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

The river god Achelous is hosting a banquet, his guests being Theseus, Ixion’s son, Lelex, and others. Once Achelous has told the story of the nymphs who were turned into the Echinades, Lelex starts telling the next, of Philemon (the husband) and Baucis (his wife). This is one of Ovid’s most touching myths, which doesn’t appear in any other source.

The Story

Ixion’s son claims that Achelous made the gods appear too great. Lelex therefore tells his story to prove that whatever the gods will to happen will take place.

He says that, in Phrygia (now west central Anatolia, in Turkey), there is a place where an oak and a lime tree grow side by side. Near there is a marsh, where once the land was habitable. Lelex’s story explains how those came to be.

One day, Jupiter and his son Mercury were walking on the earth, and were in Phrygia. When they grew tired and wanted to rest, they tried a thousand homes, but every one rejected the visitors, until they came to a poor thatched cottage. There they met the elderly Philemon and Baucis, who had married in their youth, and lived good and pious lives together ever since. The couple welcomed the gods into their tiny and humble home.

Philemon and Baucis waited on their guests’ every needs, lighting a fire, providing them with warm water to bathe their feet, then serving them food and wine; the latter was strange, because as fast as they could pour wine into their guests’ beechwood goblets, the pitcher of wine refilled. They tried to catch the goose which guarded their cottage, to kill and cook it for their guests, but it ran to the safety of a guest’s lap.

The gods then revealed their divinity, and told their hosts that those who had shunned them would pay for their wickedness, but the old couple would be spared. Jupiter and Mercury then took them outside, and led them up the nearby mountain. When close to the top, Philemon and Baucis looked back to see all the land below was flooded, except for their tiny cottage, which had been transformed into a temple, with a roof of gold.

Jupiter then asked the couple what they most wanted. After a moment’s consultation, they agreed that they wanted to be the priests of that temple, and that, when their time came, they should both die together. This was granted, and later, when they were even older, they noticed that they were both turning into trees:
“At once their wishes were fulfilled. So long
as life was granted they were known to be
the temple’s trusted keepers, and when age
had enervated them with many years,
as they were standing, by some chance, before
the sacred steps, and were relating all
these things as they had happened, Baucis saw
Philemon, her old husband, and he, too,
saw Baucis, as their bodies put forth leaves;
and while the tops of trees grew over them,
above their faces, — they spoke each to each;
as long as they could speak they said, ‘Farewell,
farewell, my own’ — and while they said farewell;
new leaves and branches covered both at once.
The people of Tyana still point out
two trees which grew there from a double trunk,
two forms made into one. Old truthful men,
who have no reason to deceive me, told
me truly all that I have told to you,
and I have seen the votive wreaths hung from
the branches of the hallowed double-tree.
And one time, as I hung fresh garlands there,
I said, ‘Those whom the Gods care for are Gods!
And those who worshipped are now worshipped here.’”

So they were transformed into an intertwining pair of trees, one an oak, the other a lime (linden).

The Paintings

Relatively few artists have tried to paint this delightful story, even though it might seem amenable to a Christian twist. However, it has attracted the attention of some of the greatest masters of narrative painting. If you wish to see a more comprehensive collection of paintings of this myth, see my earlier article.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), Jupiter and Mercury with Philemon and Baucis (1609-10), oil on copper, 16.5 x 22.5 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Wikimedia Commons.

Adam Elsheimer’s exquisite oil on copper painting of Jupiter and Mercury with Philemon and Baucis (1609-10) shows Philemon (right) and Baucis (centre right) giving their hospitality generously to Jupiter (left) and Mercury (centre left), in their tiny, dark cottage. All four are depicted in more contemporary dress, although Mercury’s winged helmet is an unmistakeable clue as to his identity.

Their modest stock of food is piled in a basket in the right foreground, and the goose is just distinguishable in the gloom at the lower edge of the painting, below Mercury’s feet.

David Rijckaert (III) (1612–1661), Philemon and Baucis Giving Hospitality to Jupiter and Mercury (date not known), oil on panel, 54 x 80 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

David Rijckaert’s undated painting of Philemon and Baucis Giving Hospitality to Jupiter and Mercury provides the basis of what has become the most popular depiction: Mercury (left) and Jupiter (left of centre) seated at the table, with Philemon (behind table) and Baucis (centre) waiting on their every need, ensuring that they eat and drink their fill. Baucis has almost caught the evasive goose, and an additional person is shown in the background preparing and serving food for the gods.

Rijckaert adds some subtle details such as Jupiter’s eagle perched in the rafters.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), Baucis and Philemon (1658), oil on panel mounted on panel, 54.5 × 68.5 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Courtesy of The National Gallery of Art, via Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt’s Baucis and Philemon (1658) is one of his late works, and shows Jupiter (looking decidedly Christlike) and Mercury (the younger, almost juvenile, figure) sat at the table of a very dark and rough cottage, lit by a lamp behind Mercury. This dramatic lighting is precursor to similar effects in his later Ahasuerus and Haman (1660) and Conspiracy of the Batavians (1661-2), shown and discussed here.

Philemon and Baucis are crouched, chasing the evasive goose towards Jupiter. A humble bowl of food is in the centre of the table, and there is a glass of what appears to be beer. As is usual in Rembrandt’s narrative paintings, he dresses them in contemporary rather than historic costume.

Although Rembrandt created many wonderfully narrative paintings, he seldom showed stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He has made the painting using rough brushstrokes and highly gestural marks of paint, as roughly hewn as the cottage which it depicts. It is not just an outstanding account of this myth, but one of his finest narrative paintings.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Stormy Landscape with Philemon and Baucis (c 1625?), oil on oak, 146 × 208.5 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens’ Stormy Landscape with Philemon and Baucis (c 1625?) is one of the few paintings to show a broader view of a later moment in Ovid’s story. His dramatic landscape shows stormclouds building over the hills, a raging torrent pouring down the mountainside, dragging large trees and animals in its swollen waters, and the four figures on a track at the right. Philemon and Baucis are struggling up the track with their sticks, Jupiter points to a rainbow formed over a waterfall at the lower left corner, and Mercury is all but naked.

These are four superb narrative paintings which do one of Ovid’s best and most human stories justice. Even so, one stands out for me as being one of my favourite paintings out of the whole of this series so far: Rembrandt’s. It seems such a shame that he painted myths from Metamorphoses so infrequently.

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.