Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 69 – Aeneas on Delos

Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682), Landscape with Aeneas at Delos (detail) (1672), oil on canvas, 99.6 x 134.3 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

During the escape of Aeneas and his family from the burning ruins of Troy, his wife Creusa went missing. Without her, the hero, his young son Ascanius, and aged father Anchises reached a fleet of vessels containing those fleeing Troy, and set sail across the Mediterranean. They soon arrived at Delos.

The Story

Delos is the site of a temple to Apollo, whose priest, also the ruler of the island, is Anius. He shows Aeneas, Anchises and Ascanius the temple and city, and the two trees which the goddess Latona (Greek: Leto) had held onto when she gave birth to the twin deities Apollo and Diana.

Anius then entertains his guests to a feast in their honour. Anchises, an old friend of the king, asks what happened to Anius’ four daughters and one son. Anius replies that he is now almost childless, with his son far away on the island of Andros, and his daughters taken from him by Agamemnon.

Bacchus (Liber) had given his girls the remarkable gift that whatever they touched was transformed into food, wine, and oil:
The Delian god gave to my son the art
of augury; and likewise, Liber gave
my daughters precious gifts exceeding all
my wishes and belief: since, every thing
my daughters touched assumed the forms of corn,
of sparkling wine, or gray-green olive oil.
Most surely, wonderful advantages.
Soon as Atrides, he who conquered Troy
had heard of this (for you should not suppose
that we, too, did not suffer from your storms)
he dragged my daughters there with savage force,
from my loved bosom to his hostile camp,
and ordered them to feed the Argive fleet,
by their divinely given power of touch.

When the girls tried to escape, they were held captive:
Strong chains were brought to hold my daughters’ arms.
Both lifted suppliant hands, which still were free,
to heaven and cried, ‘O, Father Bacchus! give
us needed aid!’ And he who had before
given them the power of touch, did give them aid —
if giving freedom without human shape
can be called giving aid. — I never knew
by what means they lost shape, and cannot tell;
but their calamity is surely known:
my daughters were transformed to snow-white doves,
white birds of Venus, guardian of your days.

So they were transformed into white doves. Anius and his guests continue to tell tales before retiring to sleep for the night. Then in the morning, Aeneas goes to the oracle of Phoebus, who cryptically tells him to seek his ancient mother, and head for ancestral shores. They then exchange gifts, including a decorated krater (wine bowl) which tells another story.

The image on the krater shows the death of Orion’s daughters in Thebes. Their funeral procession took the bodies to the great square, for their cremation on pyres:
Then from the virgin ashes, lest the race
should die, twin youths arose, whom fame
has named Coroni and they shared
in all the rites becoming for their mothers’ dust.
Even so in shining figures all was shown
inscribed on ancient bronze. The top rim, made
quite rough, was gilded with acanthus leaves.
Presents of equal worth the Trojans gave:
a maple incense casket for the priest,
a bowl, a crown adorned with gold and gems.

After that, Aeneas and his companions sail on to Crete.

The Paintings

These stories have featured in very little art, apart from one early landscape masterpiece.

Johann Wilhelm Baur (1600-1640), Aeneus Meets Anius (c 1639), engraving for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Johann Wilhelm Baur’s engraving of Aeneus Meets Anius (c 1639), for an illustrated edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, might appear generic, but is actually carefully composed. Aeneas stands upright, his spear almost vertical, in its centre. To the right his father Anchises embraces his old friend Anius, and to the left is the young Ascanius. In the right background is the city, with its imposing temple at the edge.

Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682), Landscape with Aeneas at Delos (1672), oil on canvas, 99.6 x 134.3 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

The landscape masterpiece, a singular painting in every respect, is Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Aeneas at Delos (1672). This was the first of half a dozen works which Claude painted in the final decade of his life, based primarily on Virgil’s account in the Aeneid. Its meticulous details are supported by a coastal landscape of great beauty.

The twin trees at its centre, an olive and palm according to myth, are those which Latona held when she gave birth to Apollo and Diana, and now provide shade for a shepherd and his flock of sheep.

Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682), Landscape with Aeneas at Delos (detail) (1672), oil on canvas, 99.6 x 134.3 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

The king and priest Anius is at the left of the group, wearing priestly white, and pointing out those twin trees to his guests. To his right is Anchises in blue, then Aeneas holding his spear, and his young son Ascanius, with a suitably shorter spear in his right hand.

Claude’s fine details tell further stories too.

Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682), Landscape with Aeneas at Delos (detail) (1672), oil on canvas, 99.6 x 134.3 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

The relief at the top of the temple, immediately below a couple of casual onlookers, tells the story of Latona’s twins killing the giant Tityus (Tityos), who had tried to rape their mother. Tityus is seen at the right of the relief, fallen down and wounded by the arrows of Diana (centre) and Apollo (left). Similarly to the Titan Prometheus, Tityus was sentenced to spend his time in the Underworld with two vultures feeding on his liver, which regenerated each night.

The story of Latona and the early life of Apollo and Diana, as infants, was told back in Book 6 of the Metamorphoses, where the offending Lycians were turned into frogs. As a reminder, below is one of the paintings showing Latona and her babies there.

Gabriel Guay (1848–1923), Latona and the Peasants (1877), oil, dimensions not known, Château du Roi René, Peyrolles, Provence, France. Wikimedia Commons.

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.