The Wallace Collection


Collection Blog

Tales from Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’

Marking our Porphyry Court Display and Gallery Trail on Ovid’s Metamorphoses (open until 23 April), this new blog post from Curator Suzanne Higgott explores the continued fascination for Ovid’s poem, both in literature and art.

Gender transition, same sex marriage, a compelling advocacy for vegetarianism – these are just some of the ‘hot topics’ of today that were addressed in the Roman writer Ovid’s magnificent fifteen-book poem Metamorphoses. Yet this year, in all likelihood, is the two-thousandth anniversary of Ovid’s death. Such has been the influence of this poem on artists over the centuries that the Wallace Collection is able to present a Display and Gallery Trail comprising ceramics, silver, paintings, miniatures, sculpture and furniture inspired by stories from the poem. The majority were made in Italy and France, and, ranging in date from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, they provide a fascinating focus for a celebration of the enduring popularity of the poem.

Born near Rome in 43 BC, Ovid was educated there and had achieved widespread fame by the age of thirty for his poem Amores (‘Loves’). The Metamorphoses is his best known, most enduring and influential work. It was completed in AD 8, when Ovid was living in exile in Tomis (modern Constanta, Romania), at the edge of the Roman Empire, having offended the Emperor Augustus for reasons that are not fully understood. Living in isolation far from family and friends, Ovid hoped for pardon but died an exile. However, he sensed that with Metamorphoses he had written a work that would ensure his lasting fame, concluding it: Throughout all ages,/ if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live in my /fame.

The Latin word ‘metamporphoses’ means ‘transformations’. Ovid explained the theme and scope of his epic-length poem at the outset:

Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my/spirit impels me/now to recite. Inspire me, O gods … and spin me a thread from the world’s beginning/down to my own lifetime, in one continuous poem.

In Metamorphoses, Ovid retells more than two hundred and fifty stories from Graeco-Roman mythology and history. They are united by the theme of transformation. Stories of transformation fascinate us as much today as they did in Ovid’s day, but it is also the immediacy, vivacity, passion and humour of Ovid’s writing, together with the perennially compelling feelings that he describes – jealousy, desire, unrequited love, terror, intimacy and joy among them -  that have led to the enduring popularity of his poem.

Perhaps second only to the Bible as the most widely read and illustrated text in the Western world, Metamorphoses is the source through which the majority of people have become familiar with the stories of Classical mythology. From the medieval period it became an important source of inspiration for writers, including Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. Closer to our own time, Ovid’s influence is evident on Czech author Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915), which describes the devastating consequences when travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes to find himself transformed into ‘a monstrous cockroach’, while Ted Hughes selected twenty-four stories from Metamorphoses to translate for his Tales from Ovid. Twenty-four Passages from the Metamorphoses (Faber and Faber, 1997). The poem continues to inspire. For example, American playwright Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, premiered in 1996, continues in repertory. In related fields, stories from the Metamorphoses, or works influenced by it, have provided subjects for opera, song cycles, ballet and film.

One of the defining features of the poem is the way in which Ovid paints pictures in words, even beginning numerous descriptions of buildings and landscapes, ‘Picture …’. This visually evocative way of writing has ensured the enduring popularity of the Metamorphoses as a source of subject-matter for artists. The first printed editions of the poem appeared in the later fifteenth century. The first illustrated version of the book to be printed, and the first to be published in Italian, was published in Venice in 1497. Ovidio methamorphoseos vulgare was translated by Giovanni Bonsignore and printed by Giovanni Rosso da Vercelli for Lucantonio Giunta.  The fifty-three woodcuts first published in Ovidio Methamorphoseos vulgare were often reproduced in the sixteenth century. Among the many sixteenth-century editions of the poem, Jean de Tournes’ La metamorphose d’Ovide figurée, published in Lyons in 1555, was notable for its woodcuts by Bernard Salomon. These print sources were popular models for the decoration of a wide range of artefacts, not least the Italian Renaissance tin-glazed and painted ceramics known as maiolica. Colourful maiolica depicting key moments from the literature and history of Classical antiquity was highly prized by the educated elite. Subjects could be painted over the ceramic surface as if it were a painter’s canvas. This was known as istoriato (story-painted) maiolica. Components from many maiolica table services survive. Dramatic transformations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses often occur in pastoral settings and allow for the inclusion of naked or semi-clad female figures. This was appropriate for maiolica, which was considered suitable – though not exclusively so – for use at a rural villa.

The Wallace Collection’s Porphyry Court Display includes some beautiful pieces of maiolica.

C91 frontAmong them is this maiolica plate depicting the story of Glaucus and Scylla (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Books 7, line 233; 13, lines 899-967; 14, lines 1-68). Glaucus, a fisherman, became a sea god after eating magic grass. He fell in love with Scylla, who rejected him. He asked the sorceress Circe for help, but she loved Glaucus herself and jealously poisoned Scylla’s bathing pool. As a result, Scylla’s lower body was transformed into barking hounds, repulsing Glaucus.

On the plate, Xanto has combined several incidents. On the right, Glaucus is a fisherman. On the left, his transformation has begun with his feet and he hastens to the sea. Scylla is in the pool. In the background, Circe sits on a cliff, gazing out to sea.


In the Medieval and Renaissance periods Ovid’s tales were often imbued with a moralising message. For example, the story of Narcissus could exemplify the sin of pride and its consequences.

C47This bowl depicts the story of Narcissus and Echo (Ovid, Metamorphoses,Book 3, lines 345-510). The handsome youth Narcissus, desired by men and women alike, was proud and hard-hearted, disdaining his suitors. The nymph Echo, who could only repeat the last few words she heard spoken, fell in love with him. Rejected, she wasted away until her body turned to stone and only her echoing voice remained. Narcissus was fated to experience himself the misery that he had imposed on others. He fell in love with his own reflection. Eventually realising this, he languished and died. His body was transformed into the flower that takes his name.

The story is beautifully evoked on this bowl, with its distinctive soft pastel shades. Narcissus, enraptured, pours over his own reflection in the fountain of love, which is presided over by blindfolded Cupid, god of love. Stone- coloured, ghostly Echo is on the left, a group of rejected admirers of Narcissus on the right.


A rare and exquisite work of art in the Display is a silver baby-linen basket made in seventeenth-century Holland.

W163Perhaps rather surprisingly, given the object’s function, its central panel depicts in relief the story Apollo and Daphne (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 1, lines  451-567). Daphne was the sun god Apollo’s first love. Apollo offended Cupid, the god of love. In response, Cupid struck Apollo with an arrow, inflaming his passion for Daphne, the beautiful daughter of the river god Peneus.  Cupid also struck Daphne with an arrow, causing her repulsion for Apollo. Terrified by Apollo’s pursuit, Daphne fled. With Apollo’s breath so close it ruffled the hair on her neck, she grew weary and begged her father to change her form. Transformed into a laurel, she was still beloved by Apollo, who decreed that the laurel wreath be used to crown poets.

On the plaque, Apollo pursues Daphne, whose transformation has begun, while, from amidst the clouds, Cupid takes aim with his bow and arrow.


One of the highlights of the Gallery Trail is Titian’s great painting of Perseus and Andromeda.

P11This tense and dramatic composition represents the story of Perseus and Andromeda (Ovid, Metamorphoses,  Book 4, lines 663-752). Andromeda, shown bound to a rock, was the daughter of the King of Joppa. Her mother, the queen, had boasted that she and her daughter were more beautiful than the sea nymphs (Nereids). Her claim angered Neptune, god of the sea, who sent a sea monster to destroy the kingdom. In order to save it, Andromeda was chained to a rock as a sacrifice to the monster. Titian shows the moment when the hero Perseus arrives to slay the monster, thereby saving her life. A powerful antithesis is evoked between the two protagonists: action and passivity, heroicism and vulnerability, powerfully conveyed by the simplicity of the composition. The transformation referenced here concerns the red coral in the foreground. In the story, Perseus had previously killed the Medusa. He put down her severed head, which hardened things on contact, and the seaweed it touched became coral.

This painting was one of six canvases that Titian painted for Philip II of Spain, all of which were inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Titian was immensely proud of this series and called them his Poesie, or painted poetry. This painting is the most dramatic of the Poesie and demonstrates Titian’s ability to convey intense emotion in his work.


The marital strife of the king and queen of the gods of Mount Olympus, Jupiter and Juno, is a recurring theme of the first seven books of the Metamorphoses. Their antagonism was usually caused by Jupiter’s seemingly insatiable philandering. One of the best-known of his seductions was that of the youth Ganymede, who Jupiter abducted and took to Mount Olympus as cup-bearer to the gods. Jupiter often transformed himself into another form in order to allay the suspicions both of Juno and the object of his desires. This was the case in the story of the rape of Europa (Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 2, lines 833-75), another of the tales encountered on the Gallery Trail. Although it is ultimately a dark tale of abduction and rape, the artist François Boucher brings a lightness of touch to the subject, in accordance with eighteenth-century French taste.


Avoiding any reference to the story’s underlying violence, the artist chose to depict the moment before Europa’s abduction and focussed on the gallant aspects of the scene. The Phoenician princess affectionately garlands the bull’s horns with flowers, charmed by his good nature. Fully exploiting the picturesque potential of Ovid’s text, Boucher has set the scene in a lush landscape and demonstrates his artistic skill by displaying a variety of figures from different angles. During the early stages of his career Boucher established his reputation with such pleasurable mythological paintings, which were much in keeping with the contemporary French taste for light-hearted subjects – only the eagle at the top right of the painting reminding us of another of Jupiter’s guises and his ultimate, predatory intent.

By Suzanne Higgott, Curator of Glass, Enamels and Earthware


The Display in the Porphyry Court and the Gallery Trail are both free.

Don’t miss our related free event, Readings from Ovid. Actors Joshua Higgott and Rachel Finnegan will read remarkable tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in the magnificent surroundings of our Great Gallery on Friday 10 March, 1pm.


Comments are closed.