Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 79 – Pomona Seduced and Anaxarete Petrified

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Vertumnus and Pomona (1617-19), oil on canvas, 120 x 200 cm, Private collection. Image by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, via Wikimedia Commons.

With Aeneas transformed into the god Indiges, Ovid lists a succession of rulers of Latium and Alba, which had been founded by Aeneas, until he reaches King Proca, who prompts his next stories of transformation.

The Story

Pomona lived during the reign of King Proca. She was a devoted and very capable gardener, who cared for her plants with passion. However, she shunned male company, and had no interest at all in the many men who sought her love. One, Vertumnus, the god of seasons, gardens, and plant growth, loved Pomona more than any other, but was no more successful in attracting her.

Vertumnus was able to shape-shift at will, and in his quest for Pomona’s love he had posed as a reaper, a hedger, and in various other gardening roles. Through these, he had been able to gain entry into her garden, but had made no progress in winning her hand.

One day, Vertumnus came up with a new disguise, as an old crone with a bonnet over her white hair, and leaning on her walking stick. This too got him into the garden, and he was able to engage the beautiful Pomona in conversation. Vertumnus almost gave himself away when he kissed her overenthusiastically, but managed to control himself and tried to give Pomona some womanly advice about marriage:
But you, if you are wise, and wish to make
a good match, listen patiently to me,
an old, old woman (I love you much more
than all of them, more than you dream or think).
Despise all common persons, and choose now
Vertumnus as the partner of your couch,
and you may take me as a surety for him.
He is not better known even to himself,
than he is known to me. And he is not
now wandering everywhere, from here to there
throughout the world. He always will frequent
the places near here; and he does not, like
so many of your wooers, fall in love
with her he happens to have seen the last.
You are his first and last love, and to you
alone will he devote his life. Besides
all — he is young and has a natural gift
of grace, so that he can most readily
transform himself to any wanted shape,
and will become whatever you may wish —
even though you ask him things unseen before.

Having cunningly promoted his own cause, Vertumnus told Pomona the cautionary tale of Iphis and Anaxarete to press his case.

Iphis was a young man of humble origins, and unfortunately fell in love with the high-born Anaxarete. Knowing the hopelessness of his love for her, Iphis told her nurse, and persuaded her maids to take notes and flowers for her.

Anaxarete’s response was iron-hearted and cruel: she laughed at him, and shut him out. Iphis was broken by this, and after a brief soliloquy, he hung himself from her door. Her servants cut his body down, but it was too late, he was dead. They carried his body to his widowed mother, who led it in funeral procession to the pyre.

Anaxarete watched:
And she ascended to an upper room,
provided with wide windows. Scarcely had
she looked at Iphis, laid out on the bier,
when her eyes stiffened, and she turned all white,
as warm blood left her body. She tried then
to turn back from the window, but she stood
transfixed there. She then tried to turn her face
away from that sad sight, but could not move;
and by degrees the stone, which always had
existed, petrified in her cold breast,
and took possession of her heart and limbs.

Having tried trickery and his cautionary tale, Vertumnus was getting nowhere with Pomona. So he transformed himself back into his own form, as a young man, which finally won her heart.

The Paintings

There is a marked contrast between the depiction in visual art of these two short stories: the outer and truly Latin legend of Vertumnus and Pomona has proved enormously popular in painting, but the embedded account of Iphis and Anaxarete has been almost completely ignored. I will tell them in the sequence used by Ovid.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526/7–1593), Rudolf II of Hamburg or Vertumnus (1590), oil on panel, 68 x 56 cm, Skokloster Castle, Håbo, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

The Roman god Vertumnus was most famously painted by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, in his idiosyncratic portrait of Rudolf II of Hamburg from 1590. Given the nature of the god, Arcimboldo’s choice of fruit and flowers couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Most paintings of this story show Vertumnus in his disguise as an old crone, chatting up a beautiful, and quite fleshly, Pomona.

Francesco Melzi (1491–1568), Vertumnus and Pomona (c 1518-28), oil on poplar wood, 186 x 135.5 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Francesco Melzi’s Vertumnus and Pomona (c 1518-28) follows Ovid’s account very carefully, giving Vertumnus quite masculine looks to ensure the viewer gets the message. In the background is a wonderful Renaissance fantasy landscape with heaped-up hills similar to those seen in ancient Chinese landscapes.

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617), Vertumnus and Pomona (1613), oil on canvas, 90 x 149.5 cm, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

Hendrik Goltzius gets close up in his Vertumnus and Pomona from 1613, and arms Pomona with a vicious-looking pruning knife. There is a wonderful contrast between the two women’s faces and hands here, which makes this a fine study of the effects of ageing.

Abraham Bloemaert (1564–1651), Vertumnus and Pomona (1620), oil on canvas, 98 x 125 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Abraham Bloemaert’s Vertumnus and Pomona (1620) uses gaze to great effect: while the persuasive Vertumnus looks up at Pomona, her eyes are cast down, almost closing their lids.

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) and Jan Roos (c 1591–1638), Vertumnus and Pomona (c 1625), oil, 142 x 197 cm, Musei di Strada Nuova, Genoa, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Anthony van Dyck and Jan Roos collaborated in painting Vertumnus and Pomona in about 1625, which is remarkable for its rich symbolism and visual devices. Pomona has her left arm around Vertumnus, but in her right hand holds a silver sickle. She gazes wistfully into the distance, as if in a dream.

Vertumnus is again looking up, pleading his case with the young woman, and his left hand (on a very muscular and masculine arm) is behind Pomona’s left knee, between her legs. At the right, Cupid grimaces at the deception, his back turned, pointing at what is going on with apparent disapproval. Then at the lower left corner is a melon cut open to reveal its symbolic form, with its juice and seeds inside – which seems a fairly overt anatomical allusion.

Adriaen van de Velde (1636–1672), Vertumnus and Pomona (1670), oil, 76.5 x 103 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

Adriaen van de Velde’s fine Vertumnus and Pomona from 1670 has been marred by the fading of the yellow which he used to mix some of his greens, turning some of its foliage blue. He avoids any dangerous allusions, and returns to a more distant view of the pair talking together.

Jean Ranc (1674–1735), Vertumnus and Pomona (c 1710-22), oil on canvas, 170 x 120 cm, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean Ranc’s startlingly contemporary Vertumnus and Pomona (c 1710-22) clothes the pair in the fashion of the day, but loses all reference to Pomona as a passionate gardener. At least Vertumnus’ hands are those of a man.

François Boucher (1703–1770), Earth: Vertumnus and Pomona (1749), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Columbus, OH. Wikimedia Commons.

Seemingly influenced by the earlier painting of van Dyck and Roos, François Boucher puts the pair into an embrace in his Earth: Vertumnus and Pomona (1749), and Cupid’s mask play alludes to the deception.

Moving on to the second story of Iphis and Anaxarete, I am only able to show two illustrations from very old editions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A third, an interesting watercolour painted by Sir John Everett Millais, is kept in Oxford’s Ashmolean, but is not available as a usable image here, I am afraid.

Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630), Anaxarete Seeing the Dead Iphis (1606), etching for Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.5 x 12 cm, Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum (Gray Collection of Engravings Fund, by exchange), Cambridge, MA. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

Antonio Tempesta’s etching of Anaxarete Seeing the Dead Iphis (1606) condenses the story into a single image, in which Iphis hangs dead, and Anaxarete has just been transformed into stone in front of him, in what is really a form of multiplex narrative.

Virgil Solis (1514–1562), Iphis and Anaxarete (before 1581), engraving for Ovid, Metamorphoses Book XIV, Frankfurt 1581, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Virgil Solis adheres more rigorously to Ovid’s account, in his Iphis and Anaxarete, which must have been engraved before Solis’ death in 1562. His multiplex narrative incorporates two separate scenes: in the left foreground, the body of Iphis has been discovered hanging outside the door to Anaxarete’s house.

In the right distance, Iphis’ corpse is carried to his funeral pyre, with his mother in close attendance, as Anaxarete looks on from her balcony, and is turned to stone.

What is a little strange and puzzling about the wealth of paintings of the story of Vertumnus and Pomona is how few pay any attention to the outcome of that story, and Ovid’s obvious moral that, in love, deception and threat get you nowhere, and it is honesty – being who you really are – which will prevail.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Vertumnus and Pomona (1636), oil on panel, 26.5 × 38.3 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

It is that outcome which Peter Paul Rubens hints at in his late oil sketch of Vertumnus and Pomona of 1636. There is now no pretence that Vertumnus is a woman: he lacks breasts, and even has heavy beard stubble. However, the embrace of his right arm still brings Pomona to push him away with her left arm.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Vertumnus and Pomona (1617-19), oil on canvas, 120 x 200 cm, Private collection. Image by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, via Wikimedia Commons.

For me, the outstanding depiction of this wonderful story is Rubens’ earlier and finished Vertumnus and Pomona from 1617-19. Vertumnus has assumed his real form, that of a handsome young man. Pomona looks back, her sickle still in her right hand, and her rejection of his advances is melting away in front of our eyes.

Rubens even offers us a couple of rudely symbolic melons, and provides distant hints at Vertumnus doing the work in the garden while Pomona directs him, at the upper left.

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.