Rembrandt Mythological Painting: Philemon and Baucis

A Mythological painting by great Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn that shares a story about Philemon and Baucis, in 1658. Even so, the picture has more the atmosphere of both a religious scene and an episode from classical mythology. This painting can be found at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.  And, we feature this painting on our Winter Wonderland Art Tour. 

The Original Mythological Tale

The mythological story is told in the Latin poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, a book length collection of tales about the ancient gods and goddesses and their relationships with mortals. This painting depicts the exact moment when an elderly couple realize the guests they are sharing dinner with are no ordinary strangers!

Zeus Thunder God Mythological
Hermes God Mythological

Two travelers (Zeus and Hermes) came disguised as ordinary mortals, and began asking the people of the town for a place to sleep that night. They came into a village in Phrygia, a location in modern Turkey, looking for shelter for the night. They approached many of the village’s inhabitants, asking if they could provide a place to sleep, but all the villagers turned them down. Only an elderly married couple, Philemon (husband) and Baucis (wife), among the poorest of the villagers, offered the strangers a roof for the night, while making it clear that their home was very humble and they could only provide the barest basics.

Philemon and Baucis brought the strangers into their cottage and prepared a meal for them. They began to realize that something very unusual was happening that no matter how much wine they poured out for their guests, the pitcher would replenish itself. Feeling that the food they were providing the strangers was not very satisfying, they were going to kill their only goose, which acted as a guard animal, and cook it to make a nicer supper.

Deep Look Into the Mythological Painting

Finding Reverence in the Mythological Story

The painting shows the strangers revealing themselves as gods- Jupiter (Zeus) and Mercury (Hermes). It is quite dark inside the hut and Mercury, the younger god, is silhouetted by light from a lamp behind him. Jupiter is facing forward, exuding quiet power and authority, as he spares the goose’s life, protecting it with a gesture of his hand. Baucis, who has been trying to catch the goose, is overwhelmed to realize their guests are gods, and her husband calms her with his hand on her shoulder while expressing reverence and thanks to Jupiter with his facial expression.

Use of Light to Highlight Mythological Drama

Rembrandt’s use of light to capture the drama of the moment is masterful. The figure of Jupiter, exercising mercy to the goose, is heavily influenced by the depiction of Christ in Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, which Rembrandt knew only from prints. Leonardo’s composition had a profound impact on Rembrandt, and he used it in conceiving a number of different subjects in prints, drawings, and paintings.

Mythological Outcome: Granting the Wish

Rembrandt’s painting captures the essence of the myth, creating an almost religious feeling. The gods rewarded Philemon and Baucis by granting the elderly couple’s wish that when it came time for one of them to die, the other would also leave life, so that they would never be separated, a great blessing indeed!

Mythological Lesson: The Golden Rule

This was a very influential myth in antiquity, illustrating the importance of being nice to strangers and the sacred nature of hospitality. In the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. Chapter 14, the Apostle Paul has been preaching in Lystra, assisted by his companion Barnabas, when the listeners exclaim “The gods are among us!” They take Barnabas for Jupiter and Paul for Mercury, exactly the gods who were in mortal form in the myth of Philemon and Baucis. So this story really impressed on people “You’d better be nice to strangers! They might be gods or goddesses in disguise who will reward you for kindness or punish you for being mean!”

So Philemon and Baucis had many reasons at this meal to give thanks for their blessings and I hope we all do as we sit down to table at the holiday.  Happy Thanksgiving!

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Stephen Mead

Stephen lived in London until six years ago, where he was invited to lead tours of exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum and give talks for the National Arts Collection Fund (UK) and worked for many educational institutions in Britain. Since moving to the DC area, he has led many tours of the capital’s museums and monuments for tourists, student groups and adults. Stephen is also a professional storyteller and brings his skills in storytelling to the historical and artistic areas he covers in his tours, providing both an educational and enjoyable experience.
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