Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 74 – The Shrinking Sibyl

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Lake Avernus: Aeneas and the Cumaean Sybil (1814-15), oil on canvas, 76 × 92.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

In Book 14 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Aeneas is at last making his way up the coast of Italy towards his destiny, leading to the foundation of the city and empire of Rome.

The Story

Having cleared the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis, and seen the Cercopes who had been transformed into apes, Aeneas and his crew pass the city of Naples, and land at Cumae to visit the Sibyl there in her cave. Aeneas needs to do this in order to go to the underworld to speak to the ghost of his father Anchises.

The Sibyl reassures Aeneas that he will achieve his goals, and to that end she takes him to Proserpine’s sacred glade. Finding a golden bough there, she tells Aeneas to break that from the tree. Bearing that bough, the two of them travel to the underworld, make contact with the ghost of Anchises, and return safely.

During their walk back, Aeneas thanks the Sibyl for her help and guidance, and offers to build a temple to her, assuming that she is a goddess. The Sibyl points out that she is no goddess, and explains how she had once been offered immortality if she were to let the god Apollo take her virginity:
And, while he hoped for this and in desire
offered to bribe me for my virtue, first
with gifts, he said, ‘Maiden of Cumae choose
whatever you may wish, and you shall gain
all that you wish.’ I pointed to a heap
of dust collected there, and foolishly
replied, ‘As many birthdays must be given
to me as there are particles of sand.’
“For I forgot to wish them days of changeless youth.
He gave long life and offered youth besides,
if I would grant his wish. This I refused,
I live unwedded still. My happier time
has fled away, now comes with tottering step
infirm old age, which I shall long endure.
You find me ending seven long centuries,
and there remain for me, before my years
equal the number of those grains of sand,
three hundred harvests, three hundred vintages!
The time will come, when long increase of days
will so contract me from my present size
and so far waste away my limbs with age
that I shall dwindle to a trifling weight,
so trifling, it will never be believed
I once was loved and even pleased a god.
Perhaps, even Phoebus will not recognize me,
or will deny he ever bore me love.
But, though I change till eye would never know me,
my voice shall live, the fates will leave my voice.”

Aeneas and the Sibyl then reach Cumae, and he moves on to his next adventure.

The Paintings

The two interlinked stories of Apollo and the Sibyl of Cumae, and Aeneas and the Sibyl, have both attracted the attention of several Masters. Indeed one, JMW Turner, cut his mythological teeth on them, and during the rest of his career painted at least three more works showing the Sibyl.

Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682), Coast View with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl (c 1645-49), oil on canvas, 99.5 × 127 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

I start with one of Claude Lorrain’s most wonderful coastal landscapes, his Coast View with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl from about 1645-49. Although their figures are small, Apollo on the left is holding his lyre in his left arm, trying to persuade the seated Sibyl, to the right, to let him take her virginity.

Around them are the ruins of classical buildings and a stand of tall trees, as the land drops away to an idealised view of the coast of Italy. I suspect that the island on the horizon is based on Capri. In the small bay immediately below them are some ships, which may be a reference to Aeneas’ future visit to the Sibyl, although that would have been centuries later according to the Sibyl’s account of her age.

The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl exhibited 1823 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl (1823), oil on canvas, 145.4 x 237.5 cm, The Tate Gallery (part of the Turner Bequest 1856), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

JMW Turner didn’t tackle this first part of the story until 1823, when he painted The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and the Sibyl. His view appears to have been loosely based on Claude’s, with common elements, but has been recast at Baiae, in the Bay of Naples. Apollo is again on the left, with his lyre, but the dark-haired Sibyl has adopted an odd kneeling position. She is holding some sand in the palm of her right hand, asking Apollo to grant her as many years of life as there are grains.

Opposite the couple, on the other side of the path, under the trees, is a white rabbit.

François Perrier (1594–1649), Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl (c 1646), oil on canvas, 152 × 196 cm, Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

When Claude was painting his coastal view, François Perrier was painting a more conventional figurative account of Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl (c 1646). Aeneas, stood to the left of the incense burner, appears to be offering to burn incense in honour of the Sibyl, who stands at the right in front of her cave, and is just about to tell him her life-story.

Behind Aeneas is a queue of people, including a king, bearing gifts and waiting to consult with the Sibyl. At the top left corner is a temple, and in the clouds above it the god Apollo, I believe.

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), Lake Avernus: Aeneas and the Cumaean Sybil (1814-15), oil on canvas, 76 × 92.7 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

JMW Turner’s first version of this scene is thought to have been his first mythological painting, back in his early career, in about 1798. This second version, Lake Avernus: Aeneas and the Cumaean Sybil, dates from 1814 or 1815, and is both an improvement on the original and in better condition.

True to the spirit of Claude’s landscape, this too is a mythological landscape showing the beautiful setting of Lake Avernus, near Pozzuoli, to the west of the city of Naples. In the distance is Baiae and the cliffs of Cape Miseno.

The Sibyl, who does not show her years, holds aloft a golden sprig rather than a bough, and Aeneas stands with his back to the viewer, as if he too is enjoying the view.

The Golden Bough exhibited 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), The Golden Bough (1834), oil on canvas, 104.1 x 163.8 cm, The Tate Gallery (Presented by Robert Vernon 1847), London. © The Tate Gallery and Photographic Rights © Tate (2016), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Turner’s last account is The Golden Bough, which he exhibited in 1834. It shows well how much his style had changed, although it retains compositional features from his earlier paintings.

The Sibyl stands on the left, radiant in white light, and holding aloft a more substantial golden branch than Turner showed previously. Her right hand holds a golden sickle used to cut that branch. Down towards Lake Avernus are the Fates, dancing around another white glow. A couple of female companions of the Sibyl rest under the tree, but Aeneas is nowhere to be seen (he might be in the middle of the Fates, perhaps). In the right foreground is a snake, a symbol of the underworld.

Of the straight paintings of the Sibyl, hardly any show her as the seven hundred year-old woman of Ovid’s (and Virgil’s) accounts.

Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), The Cumean Sibyl (1876), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 149.9 cm, Detroit Institute of the Arts, Detroit, MI. The Athenaeum.

The painting which comes closest is probably Elihu Vedder’s The Cumean Sibyl of 1876. However, rather than show the Sibyl in the context of Aeneas’ story, he prefers to depict her in her other main role, going to sell the Sibylline books of prophecies to the last king of Rome. She strides out clutching these scrolls under her arm.

There are also many fine paintings of Aeneas and the Sibyl visiting the underworld, which I will examine on another occasion.

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.