This painting, by the Dutch artist Pieter Pietersz Lastman (c. 1583-1633), displays a scene of the mythical or legendary Queen Dido presiding over a religious sacrifice. Ancient Greeks and Romans credited this Queen Dido as the founder of the city of Carthage. As a woman of Phoenician heritage, Queen Dido would have worshiped Phoenician deities, yet as the artist of this painting follows Greco-Roman sources, Queen Dido is instead seen worshiping Juno (or Hera) in the artwork. In particular, Lastman seems to have drawn inspiration from descriptions of Dido and Carthage found in The Aeneid, written by the Roman poet, Virgil (70-19 BCE). He wrote:
“And first they visit the altars, make the rounds,
praying the gods for blessings, shrine by shrine.
They slaughter the pick of yearling sheep, the old way,
to Ceres, Giver of Laws, to Apollo, Bacchus who sets us free
and Juno above all, who guards the bonds of marriage.
Dido aglow with beauty holds the bowl in her right hand,
pouring wine between the horns of a pure white cow
or gravely paces before the gods’ fragrant altars,
under their statues’ eyes refreshing her first gifts,
dawn to dusk. And when the victims’ chests are splayed,
Dido, her lips parted, pores over their entrails,
throbbing still, for signs…”
(Virgil, The Aeneid, Book 4, approximately lines 70-80)
Pieter Pietersz Lastman’s painting contains several elements from this quote. Dido is seen in the center of the painting, holding a wine goblet by the fire. She does not pour the wine oblation between a cow’s horns, but the white-colored creature does stand beside her. A yearling sheep, and other sacrificial offerings, can also be seen in the painting. Overseeing it all is a statue of the goddess, Juno, seen sitting atop an upper terrace in view of the worshipping masses.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.