Myths Of Transformation In Ovid’s Metamorphoses

As argued by Panofsky, no other classical author’s work was so assiduously illustrated as that of Ovid. While Ovid’s Metamorphoses has lived on through art throughout the centuries, the Renaissance was a time of evoking the world as it was really seen by the eye and so the abundance of detail in Ovid’s stories makes it a vital source. In examining the work of the Renaissance artist and sculptor Michelangelo, arguably a modern Pygmalion, one not only gains insight into how the non finito of Renaissance art has important roots in Ovidian aesthetics, but also how sculptors were inspired not only by the myths but the mere concept of change. The interaction between the static and dynamic and between metamorphosis and art is seen through Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, and through the paintings of Titian, Ovid’s detailed landscape descriptions are brought to life and the conflict between deception and reality in the Metamorphoses is made explicit. In the words of Rosati, Ovid displays a “quasi-ecphrastic” procedure and in agreement, despite the difficulty in depicting a process of transformation, Ovid’s reader is asked to believe in the reality of what they see, as a painting could easily be held together by the narrative itself. Ovid’s powers of visual imagination bequeathed “a spirit of play” to the Renaissance and as a period fascinated by symbolic codes, artists were inevitably drawn to a process where an individual is palpably transformed into an emblem of themselves and the conflict within art between the vivid and the frozen, predominant in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is arguably resolved. 

The biographical concept “every painter paints himself” originated in the Renaissance period, a time when what an artist expressed on the canvas, reflected themselves. Consequently, the myth of Pygmalion saturates their art and theory. While Barolsky argues that Ovid is not “the thematic font of Michelangelo’s art”, his highly polished figure of Night reminds one of the interplays between sleep and the frozen state of the statue itself. For Vasari, Michelangelo is “divine” and as a man who “falls in love with his own work”, he is a modern Pygmalion. While all sculpture is motionless, the figure of Night comes alive through her melancholic expression for “by sleeping she has life; wake her, if you disbelieve, and she will speak to you”. In this way, just as Pygmalion’s statue whose “ivory had lost its hardness” and whose “veins - beneath his anxious fingers - pulse” so the figure of Night is brought to life. Accordingly, while all sculpture is literally frozen, metaphorically the figure of Night has life. 

Michelangelo was not only inspired through Ovid in bringing his sculptures to life, but through his relief The Battle of the Centaurs, his devotion to the non finito incorporates Ovid’s concept of change and has strong allusions to the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha. By exhibiting the transformation of stone into human likeness, his figures appear to be metamorphosing out of the stone. In disagreement with seventeenth and eighteenth-century theoreticians, who made “no attempt to go beyond the basic notion that Michelangelo abandoned works because he was dissatisfied with them”, it is an example of Ovidian transformation. Ovid depicts his metamorphosing stones as having “the kind of likeness that a statue has when one has just begun to block the marble”, suggesting that “the process of metamorphosis and artistic creation are alike”. Conforming to Solodow’s opinion, this changing state between the frozen and the vivid is seen in the way Ovid’s stones, while turning into people, are in resemblance to the state of a motionless statue. 

This relationship between the static and dynamic in Renaissance art is arguably best illustrated in Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, for unlike Michelangelo, he depicts an Ovidian myth. The tension between the physicality of the marble and Bernini’s depiction of movement and change highlights the transience of time. Just as Ovid challenges the reader to believe in the reality of what one sees, so does Bernini’s statue; without the participation of the viewer, his statue is just a block of marble. As a result of Ovid’s vivid description of Daphne’s transformation:

“thin bark

begins to gird her tender frame, her hair

is changed to leaves, her arms to boughs; her feet-

so keen to race before - are now held fast

by sluggish roots; the girl’s head vanishes,

becoming a treetop. All that is left

of Daphne is her radiance”.

Bernini makes the impossible to depict possible. Just as the hair of Ovid’s Daphne “changed to leaves”, so Bernini portrays the ends of her hair as leaf-like. While ingeniously evoking the pathos of Daphne’s transformation, her beauty, prevalent in the Metamorphoses, is not compromised: “your fair form contradicts your deepest wish”. Furthermore, Apollo’s frustration, made explicit through Ovid’s use of imperatives “stay!”, “Wait, nymph!”, “Slow your pace; I pray you, stay your flight”, as similarly seen in the Latin text, is likewise depicted through the way Bernini places Apollo’s left hand on bark rather than flesh and projects branches directly into Apollo’s crotch, “scarcely the pleasant sensation to which the god aspires”. While one could argue that Ovid uses art to slow down a continuing narrative, thus creating tension, the extraordinary lightness of the figures, the illusion of soft flesh from harsh marble, synonymous to the bark, and evident effects of the wind which “laid bare her limbs” creates motion. As a result, Griffin’s argument that “the Metamorphoses is not about metamorphosis, but about love” is unjustifiable. While Bernini reflects Apollo’s desire for Daphne, there are stronger allusions to the process of transformation and this is, without doubt, his primary focus: “Ovid’s story is transformed into an image in stone”.

Having explored Renaissance sculpture, the interaction between Ovidian myth and Renaissance landscape painting is seen in the work of Titian. Ovid’s “quasi-ecphrastic” detail secures our acceptance “to the visible presence of a world that is not there to be seen because it does not really exist” and as a result of these meticulous landscape narratives, Titian’s paintings are brought to life. The interplay of art and nature is arguably most prevalent in Titian’s Diana and Actaeon for the setting plays an important role in emphasising that Actaeon offends divine power unwittingly. As in Ovid, Actaeon “had chanced, while wandering, to reach that grove” and while Titian’s Actaeon’s innocence is shown through his scarlet expression and the movement of his hands, the iconographical significance of the grotto foreshadows Actaeon’s foreboding death. While one could see the cave as a mere reflection in scenes of death, the Actaeon myth has a literary analogy with the preceding myth of Cadmus. In agreement with Leach, “like the grotto from which the hidden serpent emerges to devour Cadmus’ followers, Diana’s secluded Garaphian refuge is the precinct of a dangerous supernatural power”, foregrounding Actaeon’s ignorance. However, while in Ovid, “Nature’s art can imitate the ways of art; here she had shaped an arch of what was native there”, Titian reversed the accent. For Titian, the setting is architectural “where art had followed the “genius of nature”… and the ruined state of this structure, together with the inclination of the basin… gives the impression that nature is reclaiming her own”. Furthermore, while Actaeon’s transformation is not portrayed, within Titian’s freeze-frame, he incorporates most elements from the Ovidian myth, thus creating a sense of dynamism. The inclusion of the stag’s head affixed to the pillar and the animal skins that hang behind Diana add “a very Ovidian emphasis upon the interplay of setting and action” in not only foreshadowing Actaeon’s imminent death as a stag: “so mangled, young Actaeon died”, but also in incorporating his “metamorphic body into the setting where he is about to lose his human form”: “she set long-lived stag’s horns on the head she’d drenched”. Consequently, Titian’s painting is no longer just a split moment within Ovid’s narrative, but ultimately integrates the whole process of the transformation. In unmitigated agreement with Barolsky, while not in fact a “story”, Titian provides “a visual allusion to the story that unfolds through time in one’s memory”.

Nevertheless, in Titian’s later work The Death of Actaeon, the same theme is treated much more boldly. Whilst Actaeon’s body holds its human form, his head has taken on the resemblance of a speechless stag, lending a startling reality to the words of Ovid that Actaeon’s “heart has been denied all speech”. Diana occupies the entire foreground of the painting to reflect her brutality as the dominant force. As in Ovid, “Diana was not satisfied until, so mangled, young Actaeon died… that was the destiny the quiver-bearing goddess wished to see”. Titian’s minute attention to detail, supports Panofsky’s argument that “He (Titian) must have felt an inner affinity to an author profound as well as witty, sensuous as well as aware of mankind’s tragic destiny”. For this reason, Ovid’s “quasi-ecphrastic” technique is what invigorates Titian’s work. 

Irrefutably, while movement pervades the painting, Titian’s depiction of The Rape of Europa also illustrates the metamorphic conflict between deception and reality. In representing Jupiter as a bull, Titian takes part in the deception Jupiter himself plays and the bull’s composed, uncanny and stoic stature, together with bloodshot eyes conveying a haughty satisfaction, epitomises the extent to which Alcmena has been deceived. The description of the bull’s horns as “small, but so well wrought, one would have thought a craftsman had made them” is not only reflected in Titian’s painting, but also highlights Ovid’s unexpected doctrine that “nature imitates art” vital for our understanding of metamorphosis. For Titian, it is unequivocal that the abduction of Europa is a scene of rape. Panofsky argues that Europa’s facial expression and position of her legs reveals a kind of “rapture” that “suggests surrender as well as fear”, and that her arm action denotes “embrace as well as desire for self-preservation”. However, while in agreement that he transgresses Ovid’s narrative for Titian’s Europa does not “sit down upon his back”, her terror is what Titian emphasises. Sprawled on her back, she is totally helpless and the scene around her portrays constant motion, befitting the violent kidnapping: “he probes the shallows, then advances even farther; soon he bears his prey out to the waves, the open sea”. While in Ovid, Europa “clasps one horn with her right hand; meanwhile the left rests on the bull’s great coup” where the use of “rest” and Latin tenet and inposita est have no immediate connotations of fear, her clutch of the horn in Titian’s painting lacks any sensuality and is merely a means to prevent her falling. Movement is heightened through the winged, cherub-like creatures impotently trying to assist and the agitated, yet perfectly balanced composition which also reflects Europa’s swirl of emotions.

Ovid’s The Rape of Europa is not only confined to Book II but alluded to later in Ovid’s myth of Arachne. Although arguably a Baroque, and not Renaissance artist, Velàquez’s Las Hilanderas merits analysis. Just as Ovid weaves one myth into another as a type of Arachne, so Velàquez depicts “a painting of a tapestry of a painting; a painting which, in the first place, is of a myth narrated by a tapestry woven inside of a poem”. While in Titian’s Rape of Europa nature can be seen to imitate art, here it is art that imitates nature and this imitation of nature creates realism. So realistic is Arachne’s tapestry that Ovid concludes “you would think that both the bull and waves were true”, as is similar in Titian’s The Rape of Europa in the background of this painting, though the medium is coloured, woven thread. It is not only the realism that enlivens the painting, but the motion of the spinning wheel too. Although the spatial art of painting is inevitably frozen, the animation of the wheel creates a sense of unfolding time and as time seemingly elapses, the image is no longer static.

For Renaissance artists, the fundamental importance of realism results in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as an inevitable source. Having examined artists of the period, either through actually depicting a metamorphosis or drawing on Ovid’s “quasi-ecphrastic” skill, a vitality is created. Just as metamorphosis is a process, as is art, and the poem seems “to pass through renaissance art as much by a kind of metempsychosis”, inspiring artists for different reasons. Through metamorphosis, Ovid enabled the impossible to happen, and therefore the impossibility of art to have life becomes metaphorically possible, while literally the image remains static. It is not that these works become a story in themselves necessarily, but through including specific forms and allusions, the viewer metamorphoses images back in to words. It is fundamentally due to resolving this conflict between the vivid and the frozen and in making the inconceivable somehow conceivable that Ovid inspired so many Renaissance artists and his own hope “if poet’s prophecies are ever right - my name and fame are sure: I shall have life”.


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16 December 2021
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