For the last seven months, I have worked through each of the stories in the second half of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, summarising their verbal narrative and showing some of the best paintings which tell those stories.
As I did at the halfway point, I have selected for this and the next article a dozen of the very best stories and finest paintings.
The full listing of articles and an index of all the characters involved is provided here. If you want to look back at the best of the first half, this article covers from Daphne to Echo and Narcissus, and
this from Pyramus and Thisbe to the Calydonian boar hunt.
Nessus, Deianira, and Hercules (Book 9)
Hercules married the beautiful Deianira, and was returning to his native city with her. The couple reached the River Euenus, which was still in spate after the rains of the previous winter. Hercules feared for his bride trying to cross the river, and the centaur Nessus came up and offered to carry her across for him.
Hercules had already thrown his club and bow to the other bank and had swum across the river when he heard Deianira’s voice calling. He suspected that Nessus was trying to abduct her, so he shouted warning to Nessus before loosing a poisoned arrow at the centaur’s back. Nessus tore the arrow which had impaled him through, and the blood running from his wounds mixed with the poison which Hercules had taken from the Lernaean hydra.
As he was dying, Nessus gave his blood-soaked tunic to Deianira, saying that he would not die unavenged, and instructing her to keep the tunic to use when she needed to strengthen waning love.
Years passed after Nessus’ death, and Hercules was away in Oechalia, intending to pay his respects to Jupiter at Cenaeum. Word reached Deianira that her husband had fallen in love there with Iole. At first she was upset, but recalling Nessus’ dying words, she devised a strategy to address his rumoured unfaithfulness. She therefore impregnated a shirt with the centaur’s blood, and gave that to Lichas, Hercules’ servant, to take to her husband.
Hercules donned the shirt as he was about to pray to Jupiter. He felt warmth spreading throughout his limbs, which quickly grew into intense pain. As that pain became unbearable, he cried out so loud that he could be heard for miles. When he managed to rip a little of the shirt from him, it tore his skin, even muscles, away with it. The searing heat penetrated deep into his bones, where it dissolved their very marrow.
Hercules wandered through Oeta like a wounded beast, still trying to tear the shirt from his body. He came across Lichas, and accused him of being his murderer. His servant tried to protest his innocence, but Hercules picked him up, swung him around, and flung him out to sea. As Lichas flew through the air, he was transformed into flint, and became a rock in the Euboean Sea.
Hercules cut down trees and built himself a funeral pyre. Ordering this to be lit, he climbed on top, and lay back on his lionskin. Jupiter came to his aid, calling on the gods to consent to Hercules being transformed into a god; they agreed, and Hercules’ immortal form was carried away on a chariot drawn by four horses, into the stars above.
This marvellous painting was probably made by Rubens’ workshop around the time of the Master’s death in 1640. It views events from the bank on which Hercules is poised to shoot his arrow into Nessus. This has the centaur running across the width of the canvas, his face and chest well exposed for Hercules’ arrow to enter his chest, rather than his back.
To make clear Nessus’ intentions, a winged Cupid has been added, and Deianeira’s facial expression is marvellously clear in intent. An additional couple, in the right foreground, might be intended to be a ferryman and his friend, who improve compositional balance.
Orpheus and Eurydice (Book 10)
The wedding of Eurydice to the outstanding musician and bard Orpheus was marred by tragedy: after the ceremony, as Eurydice was wandering in joy with Naiads in a meadow, she was bitten by a snake on the heel, and died.
Orpheus was heart-broken, and mourned her so badly that he descended through the gate of Tartarus to Hades to try to get her released from death. He reached Persephone and her husband Hades, and pleaded his case before them. He said that, if he was unable to return with her to life on earth, then he would rather stay in the Underworld with her.
He then played his lyre, music so beautiful that those bound to eternal chores were forced to stop and listen: Tantalus, Ixion, the Danaids, even Sisyphus paused and sat on the rock which he normally tried to push uphill. The Fates themselves wept with emotion.
Persephone summoned Eurydice, and let Orpheus take her back, on the strict understanding that at no time until he reached the earth above must he look back, or she would be taken back into the Underworld for ever.
The couple trekked up through the gloom, and were just reaching the brighter edge of the Underworld when Orpheus could resist no longer, and looked back to make sure that his wife was still coping with the journey. The moment that he did, she faded away, back into Hades’ realm. As he tried to grasp her, his hands clutched at the empty air. She was gone.
Orpheus tried to persuade the ferryman to take him back across the River Styx into the Underworld, but was refused. For a week he sat there in his grief. He then spent three years avoiding women, in spite of their attraction to him.
Ary Scheffer’s moving painting of Orpheus Mourning the Death of Eurydice was one of his early works made in about 1814. The snake is still visible at the far left, and Orpheus cradles the limp body of his new bride, and breaks down in grief. Scheffer’s handling of complex limb positions is masterful, with the symmetry of their right forearms, and the parallel of her left arm with his left leg. Orpheus’ lyre rests symbolically on the ground behind his left foot.
Pygmalion and his statue (Book 10)
Pygmalion had seen the Propoetides, who were turned into prostitutes by Venus because they had denied her divinity, and was so revolted that he became celibate. He still wanted married love, though, and carved himself the most perfect and lifelike statue of a woman in ivory. He kissed it lovingly, spoke to it, and dressed it in fine clothing.
When the festival of Venus arrived, Pygmalion prayed that he should have a bride who was the living likeness of his statue. Venus heard this, and the sacred flame rose to indicate her response. Pygmalion returned home, rejoicing that his prayer might be answered. He went to his statue and kissed it repeatedly, which seemed to impart some warmth to its cold ivory.
He continued to kiss the statue, whose surface softened like beeswax in the sun. He was amazed by this, stood back, and touched the statue again. It felt like flesh, and its skin was perfused with blood. Pygmalion praised and thanked Venus for answering his prayer.
His marriage to the former statue was blessed by Venus, and nine months later they celebrated the birth of their daughter, whom they called Paphos, after whom the island was named.
Jean-Léon Gérôme was both a realist painter and a sculptor, and in a series of paintings explored the relationships between the sculptor, their model, and their sculpture. Among these were his first studies for the most brilliantly narrative depiction of this myth.
This study for Pygmalion and Galatea from 1890 was an early attempt at the composition, in which Pygmalion’s future bride is still a marble statue at her feet, but very much flesh and blood from the waist up. That visual device was perfect, but Gérôme recognised that his painting would be shunned because of its full-frontal nudity, so reversed the view.
Gérôme’s finished Pygmalion and Galatea (c 1890) extends the marble effect a little higher, and by showing Galatea’s buttocks and back and concealing the kiss, it stayed on the right side of what in the day was deemed decent. His attention to detail is, as always, delightful, with two masks against the wall at the right, Cupid ready with his bow and arrow, an Aegis bearing the head of Medusa, and a couple of statues about looking and seeing.
Hippomenes’ race with Atalanta (Book 10)
When Cupid was kissing his mother Venus, one of his arrows grazed her breast, and set her heart on fire for the beautiful young Adonis. Venus shunned her place with the gods, preferring to spend her time on earth with Adonis. She warned her lover to keep clear of wild beasts, in order to remain safe. When he questioned that, Venus told him the story of the race between Hippomenes and Atalanta.
As a girl, Atalanta had always outrun the boys. But she had been told by an oracle that she should not marry; she had to refuse every suitor’s kisses, or she would be deprived of her self. She therefore lived alone, and issued the challenge that she would only marry the man who could beat her in a running race.
Hippomenes was the great-grandson of Neptune, a fast runner, and when he saw Atalanta’s lithe body, fancied he might be able to beat her, so winning her hand in marriage. When he saw her run, though, he realised just how fast, and beautiful, she was.
He challenged her. When she had looked him over, she was no longer sure that she wanted to win, thinking whether she might marry him. But she was mindful of the prophecy, and left in a quandary. Hippomenes prayed anxiously to Venus, seeking her help in his challenge. She gave him three golden apples from a tree in Cyprus, and instructed him how to use them to gain the advantage over Atalanta.
The race started with the sound of trumpets, and the two shot off at an astonishing pace. Atalanta slowed every now and again, to drop back and look at Hippomenes, then reminded of the prophecy she accelerated ahead. Hippomenes threw the first of the golden apples, which Atalanta stopped to pick up. This allowed Hippomenes to pass her, but she soon caught him up and went back into the lead.
He repeated this with the second golden apple, and again Atalanta stopped to retrieve it, lost her lead, and caught him back up. On the last lap, he threw the third apple far away. Venus intervened and forced Atalanta to chase the apple still further this time, and made it even heavier so to impede her progress. This allowed Hippomenes to win the race, and claim Atalanta as his prize.
Hippomenes failed to give thanks to Venus for her intervention. This angered the goddess, and when the couple were travelling back a few days later, Venus filled Hippomenes with desire for Atalanta. They were passing by a temple to Venus, next to which was an old shrine in a grotto. There Hippomenes made love to Atalanta, so defiling the shrine, and offending the goddess.
For their desecration of a holy place, Atalanta and Hippomenes were transformed into the lions which now draw Venus’ chariot. The goddess completed her story by telling Adonis that this is the reason to beware of lions and other savage beasts.
Noël Hallé’s The Race between Hippomenes and Atalanta (1762-65) shows a race of almost epic proportions, spread across a panoramic canvas. At the right are the local dignitaries, and a winged Cupid as a statue, watching on. Atalanta is picking up the second golden apple, with Hippomenes holding the third behind him, in his right hand, as if he is ready to drop it.
Orpheus battered to death by Bacchantes (Book 11)
Almost all the stories told in Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses were sung by Orpheus, following his loss of Eurydice to the Underworld. His song was then interrupted as he was attacked by a mob of frenzied Thracian women – Maenads, or Bacchantes. They accused Orpheus of scorning them, as indeed he had.
The first of the Bacchantes threw her thyrsus at him, but it only bruised his face. She then fell to the ground, enchanted by his voice and lyre. His music was quickly overwhelmed by the mob, with their drums and deafening screams. The women first killed the birds which Orpheus had charmed, then the snakes around him, before turning on the bard.
A nearby group of farmworkers had run away, abandoning their tools in the field. The Bacchantes seized those, and used them as weapons to bludgeon the body of Orpheus. He made one last plea for his life before they killed him, and tore his body limb from limb.
The mortal remains of Orpheus were then dispersed into the rivers: his head and lyre ended up in the river Hebrus, where they still made sorrowful sounds, as they made their way downstream and over the sea to the shores of Lesbos. Orpheus’ soul descended to the Underworld, where he was at last reunited with his wife Eurydice.
The god Bacchus couldn’t let this crime pass, so transformed those Bacchantes into an oak wood.
Émile Lévy’s Death of Orpheus (1866) shows the moment just before the first wound is inflicted: Orpheus, remarkably young-looking, has been knocked to the ground, and looks stunned. Two Bacchantes kneel by his side, one clasping his neck almost as if feeling for a carotid pulse, the other about to bring the vicious blade of her ceremonial sickle down to cleave his neck open.
Another wields her thyrsus like a club while pulling at the man’s left hand. Their priestess, her head thrown back to emphasise her extraordinary mane of hair, is entwined with serpents, and officiates at the sacrifice. In the shadows at the top left stands the figure of Bacchus, looking away from the scene below as a naked celebrant cavorts behind him.
The Greeks attack Troy (Book 12)
The thousand ships of the massed Greek fleet gathered at Aulis in Boeotia, where its leaders made sacrifices to Jupiter in preparation for their departure. During these, they observed the omen of an azure snake which ate eight chicks and their mother bird in a tree. This was interpreted by Calchas as indicating that the Greeks would eventually conquer Troy, but only after nine years of war.
In spite of attempts to propitiate the gods, the seas remained stormy, and the fleet unable to sail. Some claimed this was because Neptune had helped build the walls of Troy, but Calchas said that it would require the sacrifice of a virgin to satisfy Diana whom Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces, had offended.
Agamemnon had to put his duties as a king over those of a father, and sacrifice his virgin daughter Iphigenia to placate Diana. The goddess took pity on them, though, and shrouded the sacrificial ceremony in mist. Some said that she went further, in substituting a hind for the victim, and carrying Iphigenia away with her; Ovid is careful to leave this possibility open.
This sacrifice finally brought the favourable winds needed by the fleet to sail against Troy.
Tiepolo’s The Sacrifice of Iphigenia from 1770 shows Iphigenia sitting almost spotlit with her pale flesh, as the priest, perhaps Agamemnon himself, looks up to the heavens, the knife poised in his right hand. In a direct line with that hand comes Diana in her characteristic divine cloud, ready with the deer. Below is a group of women, already holding the sacred bowl up to catch the sacrifical victim’s blood, and in the left distance are some of the thousand ships of the Greek fleet, waiting to sail.