Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 52 – Hyacinthus killed by a discus

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), The Death of Hyacinthus (c 1752-53), oil on canvas, 287 × 232 cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

In Ovid’s previous story in Book 10 of his Metamorphoses, Cyparissus was transformed into a cypress tree in recognition of his grief when he accidentally killed his ‘pet’ stag. The next story concerns another young man with whom Apollo was enamoured: Hyacinthus.

The Story

Orpheus, taking the narration, tells first very briefly of Jupiter’s shameful passion for the Trojan prince, Ganymede, and how the god – in the form of an eagle – abducted him to Olympus, where the young man became his cupbearer, to Juno’s evident displeasure.

This leads Orpheus onto another shameful passion, that of Apollo for the young Spartan, Hyacinthus. One midday, Apollo and Hyacinthus undressed (as they were wont to do prior to athletics), oiled their limbs, and threw the discus together. Apollo used his divine powers to throw it high through the clouds.

As the discus was falling, Hyacinthus ran out to catch it, not thinking of its likely speed and energy. The discus ricocheted from the hard earth and struck him in the face, inflicting a mortal wound. The youth went white as he bled from his wounds, and Apollo blanched too as he tried to arrest Hyacinth’s haemorrhage.

Apollo lamented the youth’s imminent death, accepting responsibility for it:
“The lyre struck by my hand, and my true songs
will always celebrate you. A new flower
you shall arise, with markings on your petals,
close imitation of my constant moans:
and there shall come another to be linked
with this new flower, a valiant hero shall
be known by the same marks upon its petals.”
And while Phoebus, Apollo, sang these words
with his truth-telling lips, behold the blood
of Hyacinthus, which had poured out on
the ground beside him and there stained the grass,
was changed from blood; and in its place a flower,
more beautiful than Tyrian dye, sprang up.
It almost seemed a lily, were it not
that one was purple and the other white.
But Phoebus was not satisfied with this.
For it was he who worked the miracle
of his sad words inscribed on flower leaves.
These letters AI, AI, are inscribed
on them. And Sparta certainly is proud
to honor Hyacinthus as her son;
and his loved fame endures; and every year
they celebrate his solemn festival.

So the blood of Hyacinthus became the purple hyacinth flower, and was commemorated in the festival of Hyacinthia.

The Paintings

I have already looked in this article at paintings of the abduction of Ganymede, in far greater detail than Ovid accords this story here. I will instead look exclusively at the story of Hyacinthus, which has not been depicted much, but has resulted in some superb narrative paintings.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Death of Hyacinth (1636), oil on panel, 14.4 × 13.8 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens made one of his wonderful oil sketches of The Death of Hyacinth in his retirement, in 1636, which captures the scene vividly, as Hyacinthus’ head rests against the fateful discus. But Rubens did not apparently make a finished painting from that.

Jan Cossiers (1600–1671), The Death of Hyacinth (1636-38), oil on canvas, 97 × 94 cm, Palacio Real de Madrid (Palacio de Oriente), Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

It was Jan Cossiers, then assisting Rubens in some of his remaining projects, who made a finished version of The Death of Hyacinth (1636-38) from the oil sketch. Under the dying youth’s right shoulder, there are perhaps the first signs of plants growing in his blood, although they are not recognisable as hyacinths yet.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), The Death of Hyacinthus (c 1752-53), oil on canvas, 287 × 232 cm, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

The most complete narrative painting of this story must be Tiepolo’s magnificent The Death of Hyacinthus (c 1752-53). Tiepolo has been inspired by an Italian translation of the Metamorphoses from 1561, which changed the discus into a tennis ball (actually from the popular game of pallacorda).

The classical story is told in the right foreground, with the pale Hyacinthus visibly bruised on his cheek, but hardly in the throes of death. Apollo is swooning above him, and the Cupid to the right also seems to have suffered some facial injury, perhaps in sympathy. Above that group is a grinning Pan, in the form of a Herm, and a brightly coloured parrot, who seems to have escaped from another story.

On the left of the painting are a motley group of witnesses, wearing the most extraordinary headgear and clothing. Tiepolo does manage to show some hyacinth flowers, at the right bottom corner, at the foot of which are the racquet and balls. The colour of those flowers is far from that of Tyrian purple, as given in the text, but may of course have faded over time.

For completion, Tiepolo tucks some cypress trees in the background, alluding both to the previous story of Cyparissus, and Apollo’s grief.

Jean Broc (1771–1850), The Death of Hyacinth (1801), oil on canvas, 175 x 120 cm, Musée Sainte-Croix, Poitiers, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean Broc’s The Death of Hyacinth (1801) is a dramatically-lit and overtly homoerotic interpretation, which includes the discus at the lower left, and some hyacinth flowers at the lower right.

There is still controversy, though, over whether the flowers which arose from the blood of Hyacinthus were actually intended to be hyacinths. As no one seems to have come up with a more plausible alternative, and none of the paintings here shows them particularly well, I’d like to end with one of the best floral still life paintings of hyacinths.

Alfrida Baadsgaard (1839-1912), Still Life with Hyacinths and Butterfly (date not known), oil on canvas, 58 × 47.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Alfrida Baadsgaard (1839-1912) was a particularly talented floral artist and author, and her undated Still Life with Hyacinths and Butterfly gives you a good choice of colours. All we need do then is add a few to the foot of Tiepolo’s wickedly humorous painting.

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.