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Representations in Art

Ovid’s Metamorphoses. By far the most important source for the Roman narrative of Greek myths is Ovid’s epic poem Metamorphoses (complete probably in 8 A.D.), which begins with the myth of creation and ends with the deification of Julius Caesar in 44 B. C. The last two books of the poem (14–15) make the transition from the Trojan War to early Roman history, and they include some myths (for example, Picus, and Vertumnus) that are not part of the Roman historical tradition. Ovid’s poem is by far the richest source for mythological narrative paintings and other works of art (especially in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries).

Flora. Flora’s festival, introduced in 238 (or 173) B.C., was a spring celebration marked by licentiousness and the nudity of actresses. More sober is Poussin’s painting (inspired by a passage in Book 5 of Ovid’s Fasti) The Realm of Flora (1631, now in Dresden), in which the garden of Flora is populated with mythological characters (Ajax, Clytie, Narcissus, Hyacinthus, Crocus, and Smilax) who were changed into flowers.

Vertumnus and Pomona. For poets, artists, and composers, the legend of Vertumnus and Pomona has been one of the most popular of all Roman myths. It was especially important in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with paintings by Goltzius (1613), Rubens (completed by Jordaens, 1638), and many others. François Boucher designed a series of tapestries inspired by operas and court ballets on the legend in 1763 (examples are in New York and San Francisco), and in 1749 he painted a series of four elements, of which Earth is represented by Pomona and Vertumnus (now in Columbus, Ohio).

Atalanta and Milanion. The race between Atalanta and Milanion (Hippomenes) has been even more popular, especially in the nineteenth century (e.g., the poem "Atalanta's Race," by William Morris, 1864, illustrated by Edward Burne-Jones). Book 10 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses narrates the race and the metamorphosis of the lovers into lions.

Hero and Leander. Of many paintings of the myth, that of Peter Paul Rubens is notable (1605, now in New Haven).

Baucis and Philemon. Their story was especially popular with Dutch and Flemish artists in the seventeenth century: for example there are paintings by Adam Elsheimer (1609, now in Dresden), Peter Paul Rubens (1625, now in Vienna), and Jacob Jordaens (ca. 1645, versions now in Helsinki and Raleigh, North Carolina). Landscape for Philemon and Baucis by the American painter David Ligare (1984, in Hartford) is remarkable for its beautiful evocation of the legend without the use of human or divine figures.

Pyramus and Thisbe. The legend has been quite popular in art: a woodcut by the German artist Hans Wechtlin (ca. 1515, now in Cleveland) focuses both on the power and the blindness of love: among many paintings, those by Lucas Cranach (1525, now in Bamberg) and Edward Burne-Jones (Thisbe, 1861, now in London, and Pyramus and Thisbe, 1876, now in Birkenhead) are representative of different interpretations.

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