As Ovid nears the end of Book 13 of his Metamorphoses, Aeneas and his companions are in transit across the Mediterranean towards Italy and destiny. The poet rushes them through a rapid succession of adventures, told in detail in Virgil’s earlier Aeneid, before bringing them to Sicily for the closing stories in this book.
Ovid summarises much of the Aeneid in just a few lines, which take Aeneas from Crete through Ithaca, Samos, Dodona, and Phaeacia, to land on Sicily, where Scylla and Charybdis threaten the safety of mariners. Scylla is combing the hair of Galatea, as the latter laments her tragic love-life. Wiping tears from her eyes, Galatea then tells us her story.
When he was only sixteen, Galatea had fallen in love with Acis, the son of the river nymph Symaethis, but the Cyclops Polyphemus fell in love with her. The latter did his best to smarten his appearance for her, though he remained deeply and murderously jealous of Acis.
Telemus, a seer, visited Sicily and warned Polphemus that Ulysses would blind his single eye (told in a separate story of Homer’s Odyssey). This inevitably upset the Cyclops, who climbed a coastal hill and sat there, playing his reed pipes. Meanwhile, Galatea was lying in the arms of her lover Acis, hidden behind a rock on the beach.
Polyphemus then launched into a long soliloquy imploring Galatea to come to him and spurn Acis. When he saw the two lovers together, Polyphemus grew angry, and shouted loudly at them that that would be their last embrace. Galatea dived into the sea:
My loved one, Acis turned his back and fled
and cried out, ‘Help me Galatea, help!
O, let your parents help me, and admit
me safe within their realm; for I am now
near my destruction!’ But the Cyclops rushed
at him and hurled a fragment, he had torn
out from the mountain, and although the extreme
edge only of the rock could reach him there.
It buried him entirely.
Then I did
the only thing the Fates permitted me:
I let my Acis take ancestral power
of river deities. The purple blood
flowed from beneath the rock, but soon
the sanguine richness faded and became
at first the color of a stream, disturbed
and muddied by a shower. And presently
it clarified. — The rock that had been thrown
then split in two, and through the cleft a reed,
stately and vigorous, arose to life.
And soon the hollow mouth in the great rock,
resounded with the waters gushing forth.
And wonderful to tell, a youth emerged,
the water flowing clear about his waist,
his new horns circled with entwining reeds,
and the youth certainly was Acis, though
he was of larger stature and his face
and features all were azure. Acis changed
into a stream which ever since that time
has flowed there and retained its former name.
So with Acis transformed into a river-god, Galatea ends her sorrowful tale.
The tragic love affair between Acis and Galatea and the murderous jealousy of Polyphemus have proved lasting inspiration to a succession of great artists. For once, we are spoilt for choice of excellent narrative paintings.
Nicolas Poussin’s Acis and Galatea (1630) is one of the earliest of these masterpieces, but is not Poussin’s best narrative work, and available images are not of suitable quality to read it fully. So my selection starts with Claude’s slightly later account.
Claude’s wonderful Coastal Landscape with Acis and Galatea (1657) is first and foremost a coastal landscape, but also tells Ovid’s story faithfully. Polyphemus is seen at the right, watching Acis and Galatea in their makeshift shelter down at the water’s edge, with Cupid sat beside them. Additional Nereids are tucked away in the trees at the left.
Nicolas Bertin’s Acis and Galatea from around 1700 also follows Ovid in detail. At its centre, the two lovers are behind a rock pinnacle, with three cupids to seal their love. Polyphemus is already in a rage at the upper right, although he has not yet armed himself with the boulder.
Below Acis and Galatea, Bertin provides an apposite link into Ovid’s greater narrative, with Scylla and Charybdis, and possibly the goddess Venus with her son Cupid by her breast.
Johann Heinrich Tischbein prefers an altogether plainer account in his Acis and Galatea from 1758. Galatea is almost naked in the arms of Acis, as Polyphemus peers at them, a voyeur behind a tree trunk. There are now no cupids or other distractions.
Alexandre Charles Guillemot’s The Love of Acis and Galatea (1827) does not pursue the theme of the voyeurism of Polyphemus, but returns to the more conventional composition of the Cyclops sitting on a distant hill. He also sows potential confusion: Polyphemus is holding his reed pipes, although they are harder to see, and the pipes on Acis’ back are extras which are perhaps a little too obvious.
Later in the nineteenth century, emphasis switched from the jealousy of Polyphemus at the sight of the couple together, to Tischbein’s theme of the voyeurism of the Cyclops.
Gustave Moreau’s first Galatea from about 1880 shows Galatea resting naked, alone in the countryside with her eyes closed, as the Cyclops plays sinister voyeur. Surrounding them is a magical countryside, filled with strange plants recalling anemones, as would be appropriate to a sea-nymph. Acis is nowhere to be seen.
Moreau’s second Galatea from near the end of his career in 1896 is dark, and shows Galatea and Polyphemus hemmed in within a deep canyon. Around her are not flowers, but the seaweeds and corals which are more appropriate to a sea-nymph.
One of the masterpieces of Symbolism, Odilon Redon’s The Cyclops (c 1914) follows Redon’s personal theme of the eye and sight, and further develops that of the voyeurism of Polyphemus. Polyphemus’ face is now dominated by his single eye, which looks down over Galatea’s naked beauty, with Acis nowhere to be seen.
Curiously, none of the above paintings shows the moment of climax, or peripeteia, in which Polyphemus murders Acis.
Only Pompeo Batoni’s Acis and Galatea from 1761 shows the Cyclops, his reed pipes at his feet, hurling the boulder at Acis, so making clear the couple’s tragic fate. As pure narrative, this has to be the most compelling and complete account, although it deprives the artist of painting Galatea’s figure, of course, so was probably not as popular with patrons.
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.