The three greatest ‘Quest’ sagas in classical Greek and Roman myth and literature are Homer’s Odyssey, Jason and the Golden Fleece, and Virgil’s Aeneid. In the coming weekends, I’m going to look briefly at some of the finest narrative paintings which tell those stories, starting with Virgil’s epic Latin poem about Aeneas and the origins of Rome.
Virgil was a brilliant and sophisticated storyteller, and uses complex techniques in his poem. Its narrative is highly non-linear. For example, the start of Aeneas’ story isn’t told until he is with Dido in Carthage, and is recited by the hero himself. Throughout the twelve books, Virgil gives a parallel narrative of events with the gods who control the destiny of Aeneas. From the point of view of narrative art, these literary subtleties can’t be approximated, and I will here unravel Virgil’s story into a more linear form.
The events told in the Aeneid start with the conception of Aeneas, like so many classical heroes the product of a union between a god and a mortal. This case is unusual, as it wasn’t Jupiter to blame, and Aeneas’ father was the mortal Anchises, and his mother the goddess Venus.
Venus and Anchises, painted by William Blake Richmond between 1889-90, shows this legend. Jupiter challenged Cupid to shoot an arrow at his mother, which in turn caused her to fall in love with Anchises when she met him as he was herding sheep on Mount Ida. Aeneas was the result of that relationship, and the legend the explanation for Venus watching over the safety of Aeneas during his prolonged journey from Troy.
Aeneas and his father, wife and young son were among those who abandoned the burning city of Troy after it fell to the Greeks.
Adam Elsheimer’s The Burning of Troy (c 1600-01) shows Aeneas carrying his father in the left foreground, with young Ascanius and his mother Creusa to the right. The backdrop of the burning city includes the Trojan Horse, to the left of the upper centre, and hints with subtlety at the vast tragedy taking place.
Pompeo Batoni’s Aeneas Fleeing from Troy (1753) shows the family as they leave the burning city behind them. Creusa is already falling slightly behind, and looks particularly distressed. By the time the hero reaches the city gates with his father and son, his wife is nowhere to be seen. Aeneas re-enters the burning city to look for her, but her ghost tells him that his destiny is to reach Hesperia, where he will become a king and marry a princess.
Aeneas then organises survivors from the burning city to build themselves a fleet of ships and set sail to escape the remains. They reach a series of nearby ports, including Thrace and Delos.
This landscape masterpiece, a singular painting in every respect, is Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Aeneas at Delos (1672). This was the first of half a dozen works which Claude painted in the final decade of his life, based primarily on the Aeneid. Its meticulous details are supported by a coastal landscape of great beauty.
The twin trees at its centre, an olive and palm according to myth, are those which the goddess Latona held when she gave birth to Apollo and Diana, and now provide shade for a shepherd and his flock of sheep.
The king and priest Anius is at the left of the group, wearing priestly white, and pointing out those twin trees to his guests. To his right is Anchises in blue, then Aeneas holding his spear, and his young son Ascanius, with a suitably shorter spear in his right hand.
Apollo tells the Trojans to leave and seek the land of their ancestors. They next arrive in Crete, where they build the city of Pergamea, but they’re struck by a plague which convinces them to move on to the Strophades, where they meet the Harpy Celaeno.
François Perrier’s Aeneas and his Companions Fighting the Harpies, for which I have no date, shows Aeneas to the left of centre, as his men battle with the flying Harpies. Celaeno directs them to leave her island and head for Italy, where she prophesies that they will become so hungry that they will eat their tables, before finding their destiny.
They eventually round the south-eastern tip of Italy, but are caught in the whirlpool of Charybdis when trying to pass between the mainland and the island of Sicily, and are forced ashore. There they rescue one of Odysseus’ men and escape the giant Polyphemus. Anchises then dies of old age, and they head north towards their destiny again.
Juno has it in for Aeneas and his men, so gets Aeolus, King of the Winds, to blow the fleet south again. This angers Poseidon, who brings calm to allow the remains of the fleet to shelter off the coast of north Africa. There Aeneas’ mother Venus appears to her son and encourages him to enter the city of Carthage. She then tells Cupid to visit Dido, the Queen of Carthage who has recently been widowed, and encourage her to love Aeneas. The opportunity arises when Dido and Aeneas are out hunting together.
Francesco Solimena’s painting of The Royal Hunt of Dido and Aeneas from about 1712 shows the moment that Cupid has loosed his arrow at Aeneas. A storm drives the couple to shelter in a cave, where they make love, an act which Dido considers constitutes their marriage.
This relationship is disrupted by Jupiter, who sends Mercury to remind Aeneas of his duty to travel onward to Italy. He has no choice, and prepares the fleet for departure.
Another of Claude Lorrain’s late paintings shows Aeneas’s Farewell to Dido in Carthage (1676). His fleet awaits him now, despite Dido’s passionate pleas for him to remain as her husband.