You hear precious little about the goddess Cybele (Greek Κυβέλη) because, until 205 BCE, she was regarded by both Greeks and Romans as an exotic import from Phrygia, where she had attracted a national cult. Then, during the Second Punic War against Carthage, the Sibylline oracle told the Romans to conscript her as an ally. She became Magna Mater, the Great Mother, and eventually was associated with the Romans’ legendary Trojan origins.
As a deity, she’s akin to Gaia, Mother Earth, with elements of Demeter, crops, harvests and fertility. Her cult was rather Bacchic, with wild music, free-flowing wine and religious ecstasy. Her most distinctive features are fruits and nature’s produce, and her chariot hauled by a pair of lions.
Her strong following in Rome wasn’t supported by many myths retold by major classical sources such as the writings of Ovid, so she has seldom made it onto canvas.
Leandro Bassano’s Allegory of the Element Earth from about 1580 is a copy of a work originally painted by his better-known father Jacopo. With the foreground full of the fruit of the earth, in the distant sky is Cybele in her chariot drawn by lions.
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s exquisite decorative image of a Garland of Flowers around an Allegory of Farming from 1615 naturally places Cybele in its central cameo, where she is attended by flying putti.
Mariano Salvador Maella’s Goddess Cybele offering her Produce to the Earth from 1798 was intended for a ceiling, and follows the theme with Cybele bestowing nature’s riches on the earth below her.
Ovid isn’t completely silent about Cybele, though, as he gives the mythical story of how she acquired the pair of lions which draw her chariot. This is the end of the story of the running race between Hippomenes and Atalanta, whose impatient lovemaking in an old shrine brings opprobium from Olympus.
Antoine-François Callet’s magnificent Spring, or Zephyr and Flora Crowning Cybele (1780-81), now adorning the ceiling of the Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre, shows the couple transformed into a lion and lioness, drawing Cybele’s chariot. Ovid has Venus tell this story to Adonis as a caution, so preparing the ground for the metamorphosis of the dying Adonis.
Roman associations between Cybele were committed to Virgil’s story of the Trojan Women.
Claude Lorrain’s Trojan Women Set Fire to their Fleet from about 1643 shows the scene from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 5 (604-710), which follows the years of wandering enforced on the Trojan Women following the city’s destruction. The building clouds warn of a storm sent by Jupiter in response to Aeneas’ prayers, which quenched the blaze. The women were transformed into mermaids at the behest of Cybele.
My final painting shows not Cybele, but her graven image, when her cult was brought to Rome following the instruction of the Sibylline oracle in 205 BCE.
Andrea Mantegna’s wonderful three-dimensional grisaille of The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele in Rome was painted in 1505, the year before he died. A bust of the goddess is being processed by a suitably disorderly crowd.
So the next time that you come across a goddess in a chariot being towed by a lion and lioness, you’ll know that she’s Cybele, and the big cats are Hippomenes and Atalanta.