Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 68 – The death of Memnon and flight of Aeneas

Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787), Aeneas Fleeing from Troy (1753), oil on canvas, 76.7 × 97 cm, Galleria Sabauda, Turin, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

With the main Greek fleet homeward bound, Ovid tells a brief tale about the death of Memnon, one of Achilles’ victims, and starts the next major cycle of stories about Aeneas.

The Story

The goddess Aurora joins in the lament over the destruction of Troy. She not only had supported the Trojan cause, but her son Memnon had been killed by Achilles in combat. She was stricken with grief, and couldn’t bear to watch his cremation on his funeral pyre. She knelt before Jupiter and begged him that her dead son might be granted an honour.

Jupiter agreed, and the smoke from Memnon’s pyre darkened the whole sky, as might have happened during a major volcanic eruption. That smoke was then transformed into a flock of birds:
Immediately the high-wrought funeral-pile
of Memnon fell down with its lofty fire,
and volumes of black smoke obscured the day,
as streams exhaling their dense rising fogs,
exclude the bright sun from the land below.
Black ashes fly and, rolling up a shape,
retain a form and gather heat and life
out of the fire. Their lightness gave them wings,
first like a bird and then in fact a bird.
The wings move whirring. In the neighboring air
uncounted sisters, of one birth and growth
together make one noise. Three times they flew
around the funeral pile; and thrice the sound
accordant of their fluttering wings went swift
upon the soft breeze. When they turned about,
their fourth flight in the skies divided them.
As two fierce races from two hostile camps,
clash in their warfare, these bird-sisters with
their beaks and crooked claws clashed, passionate,
until their tired wings and opposing breasts
could not sustain them. And those kindred-foes
fell down a sacrifice, memorial,
to Memnon’s ashes buried in that place.

Those birds are Memnonides, after Memnon.

Ovid then assures us that the Fates didn’t completely crush the hopes of Troy in its destruction: from within the burning ruins, the hero Aeneas is fleeing, his aged father on his shoulders, and with his son Ascanius:
The Fates did not allow the hope of Troy
to be destroyed entirely with her walls.
Aeneas, the heroic son of Venus,
bore on his shoulders holy images
and still another holy weight, his sire,
a venerable burden. From all his wealth
the pious hero chose this for his care
together with his child, Ascanius.
Then with a fleet of exiles he sails forth,
he leaves Antandrus, leaves the wicked realm
and shore of Thrace now dripping with the blood
of Polydorus. With fair winds and tide
he and his comrades reach Apollo’s isle.

This opens Ovid’s treatment of the story of Aeneas, as told briefly in Homer’s Iliad, and in great detail in Virgil’s Aeneid.

The Paintings

The story of Memnon and the Memnonides doesn’t appear to have attracted the brush of any artists, although some huge Egyptian statues traditionally thought to be of Memnon have been painted in the nineteenth century. Memnon is claimed to have been African, and brought his army of “Aethiopians” with him to fight the Greeks, alongside the Trojans.

Bernard Picart (1673–1733), Memnon, son of Eos and Tithonus (date not known), engraving, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Bernard Picart’s engraving from the early eighteenth century of Memnon, son of Eos and Tithonus shows a young warrior in Egypt, looking into Aurora’s dawn light. He may be sat on his own sarcophagus too.

The two colossi at Al Bairat near Luxor in Egypt were known in classical times, and became quite popular motifs for ‘orientalist’ artists in the nineteenth century, several of whom showed them in dramatic lighting. I have chosen three paintings which I think are among the best.

Gustav W. Seitz (1826-?), Egypt: the Statues of Memnon (date not known), colour lithograph of original watercolour, 26.2 x 37.7 cm, The Wellcome Library (no. 40355i), London. Image courtesy of and © The Wellcome Trust, via Wikimedia Commons.

Gustav W. Seitz’s Egypt: the Statues of Memnon, seen here as a colour lithograph of his original watercolour, is highly atmospheric, and an excellent demonstration of the moon illusion.

Charles Vacher (1818-1883), The Statues of the Memnons (1864), watercolour on paper, 43.2 x 99 cm, The Wellcome Library (no. 45057i), London. Image courtesy of and © The Wellcome Trust, via Wikimedia Commons.

The colours in Charles Vacher’s watercolour of The Statues of the Memnons (1864) are superb.

Albert Zimmermann (1808–1880), The Memnon Statues (date not known), oil on wood, 25.5 x 52.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, Albert Zimmermann’s oil painting of The Memnon Statues captures the heat haze, and a snake moving through the water.

There is no shortage of paintings of Aeneas bearing his father Anchises on his back, as they flee the ruins of Troy.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), Aeneas Saving Anchises from Burning Troy (date not known), gouache on paper, 14.3 × 9.7 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Unusually, one of Adam Elsheimer’s paintings of Aeneas Saving Anchises from Burning Troy was made in gouache. Of all the depictions, this seems to be the only one based on a reconstruction with models, as the method of carrying is not only feasible, but practical. Note the way in which Aeneas is grasping a robe acting as his father’s seat, and Anchises has interlocked his fingers on his son’s forehead.

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), The Burning of Troy (c 1600-01), oil on copper, 36 x 50 cm, , Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

That doesn’t, though, appear to have been a study for Elsheimer’s finished work The Burning of Troy (c 1600-01) painted in oil on copper. The pair, with young Ascanius and his mother to the right, are seen in the left foreground. Elsheimer’s backdrop of the burning city includes the Trojan Horse, to the left of the upper centre, and hints with subtlety at the vast tragedy taking place.

Simon Vouet (1590-1649), Aeneas and his Father Fleeing Troy (c 1635), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA. Image by Wmpearl, via Wikimedia Commons.

Simon Vouet’s Aeneas and his Father Fleeing Troy from about 1635 shows the family group in close-up. From the left are Creusa, Aeneas’ wife who died before she could leave the city, Aeneas, Anchises, and a very young Ascanius, the son of Aeneas and Creusa. This is the start of their flight, as Aeneas and Creusa are persuading Anchises to let Aeneas carry him to safety.

Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787), Aeneas Fleeing from Troy (1753), oil on canvas, 76.7 × 97 cm, Galleria Sabauda, Turin, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Pompeo Batoni’s Aeneas Fleeing from Troy (1753) shows the family as they leave the burning city behind them. Creusa is already falling slightly behind, and looks particularly distressed. Oddly, Ovid does not mention her fate in the Metamorphoses, although it is covered in detail in Virgil’s Aeneid.

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.