This painting, by the Dutch artist Jan Tengnagel (c. 1584-1635), depicts a myth about the god Vertumnus and the goddess Pomona. In the scene above, frozen on the canvas, we have caught Vertumnus in an awkward situation. Although the painting portrays what looks like two women in conversation, one of the two figures is Vertumnus in disguise. It is actually a peculiar tale of courtship that the art conveys.
Vertumnus was an Etruscan god of seasons and vegetation, while Pomona was a goddess of orchards and fruit. They had a lot in common and as soon as Vertumnus laid eyes on the goddess, he wanted to spend the rest of his immortal life with her. Pomona, however, was totally absorbed into her agricultural duties, living in a walled-off orchard and rejecting any and all advances from male deities who sought her company. Nevertheless, Vertumus was a persistent fellow and he also happened to be a talented shapeshifter. Using his transformative power, Vertumnus tried out all sorts of physiques and appearances, trying to catch Pomona’s attention. He approached her orchard in various disguises, such as a reaper, a haymaker, a plowman, a vineyard worker and an apple picker, only to be turned away or ignored each time. After Pomona rejected all of these personas, Vertumnus had an epiphany—if he adopted a disguise as a woman, maybe Pomona would let down her guard enough to talk. The Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE) described these transformations:
“All these forms he adopted again and again to get close
to Pomona and so to enjoy the sight of her beautiful person.
One day he even put on a grey wig with a bright-coloured headscarf,
crouched down over a stick and pretended to be an old woman.”
(Ovid, Metamorphosis, 14.651-655).
In this latest disguise, Vertumnus made much better progress. He was able to waltz right into Pomona’s orchard and strike up a conversation with her, as can be seen in the painting above. Still disguised as the old woman, Vertumnus began telling the goddess that she had a godly admirer, and he went on to describe his real self. After Vertumnus got Pomona’s attention with this self-serving prelude, he revealed his true identity and shape, to great effect. As Ovid told the tale, the two lived happily ever after.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.