This painting, by the French artist Eugène Delacroix, (c. 1798-1863), draws its inspiration from a poem called Gerusalemme liberata, written by the Italian poet, Torquato Tasso (c. 1544-1595). Tasso’s poem, which translates as The Liberation of Jerusalem, is a fictitious tale that is set in the times of the First Crusade (c. 1095/1096-1099). It features a mixture of purely fictional characters and some historical figures set in unhistorical episodes—from magic and monsters, to duels, and digressions into chivalric tales of star-crossed lovers, Torquato Tasso was quite inventive in his fantastical rendition of the First Crusade.
Eugène Delacroix features one of the purely fictional characters from the poem in this painting. The armored woman on the right side of the canvas is Erminia, a character whose backstory was that of a refugee who was driven by the crusaders to seek refuge in Jerusalem when the city was still unconquered. While she was being driven from her home, only one crusader was allegedly kind to her. This crusader was Tancred (a historical figure spliced into this fictional plot), and his kindness caused Erminia to fall in love with him. During the siege of Jerusalem, the two were on opposite sides of the wall, but Erminia watched Tancred’s actions with interest. When she eventually saw that Tancred was wounded during a duel, she was compelled to slip out of Jerusalem’s defenses to treat her beloved crusader’s wounds. To do this, she stole a suit of armor and a horse, and was able to bluff her way out of the gates. Nevertheless, Erminia was not able to reach Tancred at that time, for she was discovered by crusader scouts and was chased away. It is this turn of events that led the armored Erminia to stumble upon a community of shepherds, who were understandably shocked and startled by her appearance. Torquato Tasso poetically described the scene:
“She sees an old man in the pleasant shade,
braiding (his flock close by) some basket thing
and listening while three striplings play and sing.
They, struck with terror at the sudden view
of unaccustomed arms, stare in surprise,
but then Erminia greets them kind and true,
and heartens them, uncovering her eyes
and golden hair. ‘Pursue,’ she says, ‘oh you,
beloved by Heaven, your fair enterprise.
These arms shall never urge a war to wrong
your wholesome labour or your lovely song.’”
(Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata, Canto 7, stanzas 6-7)
Such is the episode that Eugène Delacroix painted. It shows the shepherding community in a state of alarm and surprise because of the unexpected arrival of their battle-ready guest. Erminia, however, reaches out her hand to assure them that she means no harm. Ultimately, the shepherds would accept and protect Erminia, allowing her to stay in their community.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Liberation of Jerusalem by Torquato Tasso and translated by Max Wickert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.