Often billed as the greatest love story, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is but one of many derivatives of an ancient legend first recorded by Ovid as a story within his Metamorphoses. It’s told there by one of the daughters of Minyas while she is busy spinning, and is given as an explanation as to why the fruit of the mulberry tree is red.
Pyramus (the man) and Thisbe (the woman) lived in the city of Babylon, in houses sharing a common wall. They fell in love with one another, but their fathers refused to let them marry. They communicated through a crack in the party wall between the two houses, talking together until nightfall. They resolved to meet after dusk at a tomb outside the city, under a mulberry tree with its (then) white fruit.
John William Waterhouse’s Thisbe, inevitably also known as The Listener, (1909) shows her listening at the party wall, and alludes to the daughters of Minyas in showing Thisbe’s spinning gear. Its only reference to the tragic outcome is a red and white shawl, screwed up in the far corner of the room.
Thisbe arrived first, but while she was sitting under the mulberry tree, a lioness came to drink at the nearby spring, her face still covered in blood from her recent kill. Thisbe fled to hide in a cave, leaving her shawl on the ground, which was then torn by the lioness as she walked away from the spring, leaving blood on the material.
Pyramus arrived after the lioness had gone, but saw her footprints, and discovered the bloody and torn shawl by the mulberry tree. He immediately presumed that Thisbe had been killed by the creature, and blamed himself for putting her at risk. Draping the shawl over the tree, he kissed it, then killed himself by thrusting his sword into his side. This caused his blood to spurt high in jets, colouring the mulberry fruit hanging there.
Thisbe then tentatively left the cave, and made her way back to the mulberry tree, which she found hard to recognise because she couldn’t see its white fruit. She there discovered her dying lover, lifted him up, and kissed him. As he died, she blamed herself for his death, and decided to join him. She took his sword, placed its point below her chest, and fell onto it.
In her last words, Thisbe asked for the couple to share the same tomb, so that they could finally rest together, and for the fruit of the mulberry tree to forever bear the mark of their deaths. Both of these wishes were respected: their parents put their ashes together in the same urn, and the gods transformed the mulberry fruit from white to red.
Several paintings and mosaics showing the climax of this story are known from classical Roman times. This version from the ruins of Pompeii includes all the main cues, with the lioness in the distance, and a mulberry tree with its white fruit.
Lucas Cranach the Elder or his workshop painted this account in about 1515-20. Rather than show the blood of Pyramus, he is dressed in scarlet.
Although painted just a few years later, Hans Baldung’s version is one of the more sophisticated. It uses a monochrome background to set the scene at night, and accentuate the figures. The lioness is still skulking in the distance with Thisbe’s white shawl, near a stand of mulberry trees. All it lacks is the sword in Thisbe’s hands.
Among these earlier depictions, Abraham Hondius’ Pyramus and Thisbe (1660-75) stands out in coming closest to Ovid’s account. Set at night, the artist shows us the spilt blood, and more spurting from Thisbe as she impales herself on Pyramus’s sword. Behind and to the right of her the lioness is shown making away, with red and reddened garments strewn in the foreground. Hondius even manages to include some mulberries, hanging at the top right, their berries still white.
This combined landscape attributed to Jasper van der Laanen, Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe probably from around 1615, is another faithful account. Pyramus hasn’t quite expired, and still clutches Thisbe’s blood-stained shawl, as she is about to fall on his sword, wiping the tears from her eyes. The lioness is more distant, and the mulberry fruit has already changed colour to red, above Thisbe’s head.
Surely the most famous painting of this story is Poussin’s Landscape during a Thunderstorm with Pyramus and Thisbe (1651), which succeeds in telling the story and being one of his finest landscapes.
Before looking at his narrative, it’s worth appreciating its setting. The city of Babylon is in the distance, along a picturesque and pastoral valley. But the peacefulness of this landscape has been transformed by the sudden arrival of a thunderstorm: the gusty wind is already bending the trees, and near the centre of the view has broken a large branch with its force. Two bolts of lightning strike the hills below.
In the foreground, there is frantic activity in response not only to the storm, but to the lioness now attacking a horse, whose rider has fallen. An adjacent horseman is about to thrust his spear into the back of the lioness, while another, slightly further ahead, is driving cattle away from the scene. Others on foot, and a fourth horseman, are scurrying away, driven by the combination of the lioness and the imminent storm.
In the foreground, Pyramus lies dying, his sword at his side, and his blood flowing freely on the ground, down to a small pond. Thisbe has just emerged from sheltering in the cave, has run past the bloodied shawl at the right, and is about to reach the body of her lover. She is clearly distraught. The only element from Ovid’s story lacking in this painting is the mulberry tree with its fruit.
By the time that Pierre-Claude Gautherot painted his version in 1799, the story had declined in popularity. He followed established tradition in a composition you can trace back to that painting in Pompeii, itself made less than seventy years after Ovid had written it.