(b. 1578, Frankfurt/Main, d. 1610, Roma)

Jupiter and Mercury at Philemon and Baucis

Oil on copperplate, 16,5 x 22,5 cm
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Adam Elsheimer's early works were still clearly in the tradition of sixteenth-century painting and printmaking; yet at the same time the Flemish landscape painters working in Frankenthal were also an important influence on him. In 1598 he travelled to Venice; from around 1600 he is known to have been in Rome; and in 1606 he was admitted to the Accademia di San Luca in that city, where he was able to explore the works of contemporary artists such as Caravaggio or Paul Bril.

From 1606/07 he produced a number of paintings based on episodes from the Metamorphoses by the Roman author Ovid, including the story of Jupiter and Mercury at the House of Philemon and Baucis. Philemon and Baucis was an old couple who, according to Ovid (Met. 8:621-96) once gave hospitality in their humble cottage to two travellers who had been turned away from other, richer houses. During supper, to the hosts' astonishment, the wine bowl miraculously replenished itself; their only goose, which they would have killed for the occasion, flew to the visitors for refuge. Jupiter and Mercury, for it was they, then revealed themselves to Philemon and Baucis, and took them up to the mountainside where they observed that the whole country was covered with flood waters, except for the cottage which had been changed into a temple. Granted a wish by Jupiter, the old man and woman chose to be priests of the temple. At their death they were changed into an oak and a lime tree.

In Elsheimer's day, the story would have been read as a parable of divine revelation to humanity, most especially to the poor, and as having strong analogies with Biblical tales. The painter does not show the transformation, but rather concentrates on the hospitality extended to the gods by the married couple, as is described at length in Ovid, and more specifically on the events before the meal. The low door and the cramped space inside the hut, the bed covered with its simple covers, the care and attention showered on the guests - Elsheimer takes all this from Ovid and presents it, enriched by a couple of motifs of his own, to the viewer. Even the goose, which the aged couple intended to slaughter for the wanderers and that was spared at the gods' behest, can be seen in the foreground.

By situating the scene indoors, Elsheimer's depiction differs strongly from the admittedly rare earlier examples of this subject. The artificial light sources are given special significance: to the left, an oil lamp brightens the faces of the gods and lends them additional force; to the right, a somewhat weaker light illuminates in particular the still-life in the foreground. In this the picture matches a series of nocturnes that Elsheimer painted during the same period in Rome with the aim of mastering the techniques of Caravaggio.

This small cabinet painting, on copper like many of Elsheimer's works, was disseminated in engravings and copies, and even Rembrandt was to draw inspiration from it.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 3 minutes):
Charles Gounod: Philémon et Baucis, aria