This painting, by the Dutch artist Jan van Noordt (c. 1623-1676), was inspired by the Greco-Roman myth of a mortal couple, Philemon and Baucis, being paid a momentous visit by the gods, Zeus/Jupiter and Hermes/Mercury. Jan van Noordt’s representation of Zeus is the scantily-clad and jolly-looking man with the blue cloth draped over his lap. As for Hermes, he is the rather disinterested man with a helmet on his head and a red garment draped about his body. Finally, we can see the elderly couple, Philemon and Baucis, coming up behind Zeus with a basket of food.
As the story goes, the two deities mentioned above, Zeus/Jupiter and Hermes/Mercury, traveled in disguise through the hometown of Philemon and Baucis. With their godliness masked in mortal guise, the deities discovered that the people of the town, almost unanimously, would not show hospitality to strangers. Only one humble home stood as an anomaly in that most unwelcoming community—this refuge of generosity was the home of Philemon and Baucis. Whereas other households turned the gods away or refused to open their doors, this amiable couple invited in the disguised gods and played the role of the host to the best of their ability. This scene was described by the Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE):
“Jupiter once came here, disguised as a mortal, and with him
his son, the messenger Mercury, wand and wings set aside.
Looking for shelter and rest, they called at a thousand homesteads;
a thousand doors were bolted against them. One house, however,
did make them welcome, a humble abode with a roof of straw
and marsh reed, one that knew its duty to gods and men.
Here good Philémon and Baucis had happily passed their youth
and here they had reached old age, enduring their poverty lightly
by owning it freely and being content with the little they had.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8.626-634).
Despite not having much at their disposal, Philemon and Baucis threw a feast for their guests, bringing whatever was available in or around the house to the table. This hospitality and generosity impressed the gods, and as it would soon turn out, the feast would be of great consequence to the lives of Philemon and Baucis. The two gods had been in the region to scout out a spot for a new temple, and Philemon and Baucis’ hometown was, to put it mildly, in the way of the divine plan. Mid-feast, the deities revealed their godhood to Philemon and Baucis. The gods then quickly ushered the two awed mortals out of town and led them to a mountain. With Philemon and Baucis safely stowed on a mountaintop, the gods called in a flood to wipe out the town—of all the houses in the community, only that of Philemon and Baucis survived the inundation. As the story goes, the site of the hospitable couple’s home was transformed into the temple that the gods wanted, and Philemon and Baucis spent the rest of their lives there, serving as priests.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.