This illustration is from a 14th-century manuscript of the poem, Roman de la Rose, written by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun in the 13th century. The medieval poem was greatly inspired by ancient Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), and the myth that the manuscript illustration tells comes directly from Ovid’s encyclopedic masterpiece, Metamorphoses. Pygmalion, as the story goes, was a sculptor who carved his vision of a perfect, ideal woman in pristine ivory. All of the artist’s desires and emotions were poured into the design of the life-size artwork, and his skilled hands masterfully shaped the ivory to have the exact voluptuous shapes that he wished for his sculpted woman to possess. Pygmalion succeeded in every goal and criterion that he wanted to achieve in the creation of his ivory lady, and when the genesis of the statue was complete, he fell madly in love with the inanimate woman that he had built. The artist was still enraptured with his statue when it came time for his community to hold a festival for Aphrodite (or Venus to the Romans). Pygmalion gave an offering to the goddess during this festival and pleaded that she help him marry a woman that resembled the sculpted woman that he loved. As the myth tells, the goddess heard his prayer, and by causing the altar’s fire to flicker three times, she let the artist know that his wish would be granted. Instead of matching the sculptor with a woman that resembled the statue, the goddess of love alternatively used her divine power to bring the sculpture to life. Ovid skillfully narrated the scene of Pygmalion’s statue transforming into a flesh-and-blood woman:
“The ivory gradually lost its hardness,
softening, sinking, yielding beneath his sensitive fingers.
Imagine beeswax from Mount Hymettus, softening under
the rays of the sun; imagine it moulded by human thumbs
into hundreds of different shapes, each touch contributing value.
Astonished, in doubtful joy, afraid that he might be deluded,
Pygmalion fondled that longed-for body again and again.
Yes, she was living flesh! He could feel the throb of her veins
as he gently stroked and explored. At last the hero of Paphos
opened his heart in a paean of thanks to Venus, and pressed
his lips to the lips of a woman.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.283-293)
It is this ancient myth that the illustration from the medieval manuscript depicts. The medieval artist who created the image opted for a much more tame and clothed rendition of the story. As can be imagined from ancient Greek and Roman art, the ancient statue in the myth would all but certainly have been naked.
Written by C. Keith Hansley