This artwork is a tapestry designed by Daniel Janssens (1636–1682) and woven by the Wauters Workshop. As the title of the artwork divulges, the scene was inspired by the myth of Pygmalion, especially the account of the tale recorded by the Roman poet, Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE). According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion was a sculptor who carved his vision of the perfect, ideal woman into 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. Ovid described the creation of this beloved statue:
“In the course of time he successfully carved an amazingly skillful
statue in ivory, white as snow, an image of perfect
feminine beauty—and fell in love with his own creation.
This heavenly woman appeared to be real; you’d surely suppose her
alive and ready to move, if modesty didn’t preclude it”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.247-251)
Pygmalion was still enraptured with his lifelike statue when it came time for his community to hold a festival for Aphrodite (or Venus to the Romans). The artist fell into great emotional distress during the celebrations for the goddess of love, and he prepared a fervent prayer to go along with the offering he would soon leave at the deity’s altar. Ovid continued the story:
“His offering laid, Pygmalion stood by the altar
and nervously asked: ‘You gods, all gifts are within your power.
Grant me to wed…’—not daring to say ‘my ivory maiden’,
he used the words ‘a woman resembling my ivory maiden’.
Golden Venus was present herself for her own celebration.
She understood what Pygmalion meant and she signalled her favour”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 10.273-278)
Indeed, the goddess of love fulfilled Pygmalion’s prayers. 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. This living statue, in some accounts of the myth, was given the name Galatea, and she reciprocated Pygmalion’s love. Together, they had a daughter named Paphos.
Daniel Janssens’s tapestry evidently re-creates the early stages of the myth. Pygmalion can be seen putting on the finishing touches to the statue that would eventually become his wife. In the scene, he might not yet have brought his prayers and offerings to Venus’ altar, but it seems that several goddesses of Olympus have already taken interest in Pygmalion’s predicament, as they can be seen around him, observing his work on the statue.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.