This painting, by the Dutch artist Abraham van Dijck (c. 1635/1636-1680), was inspired by ancient Italian mythology. In particular, the scene draws from a story involving the god Vertumnus—an Etruscan deity of seasons and vegetation—and Pomona, a Roman goddess of orchards and fruits. As the two were both deities of plant life and nature, they were naturally attracted to each other. In particular, Vertumnus fell in love with his counterpart, Pomona, at first sight. Pomona, however, was totally absorbed in her agricultural duties, living in a walled-off orchard and rejecting any and all advances from male deities who sought her company. Nevertheless, Vertumnus was a patient and persistent fellow, and he decided to use all of the magical tools at his godly disposal to court Pomona. In particular, Vertumnus was a masterful shapeshifter, and he tried out all sorts of masculine physiques and appearances in hopes of catching 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).
Such, then, is the story behind Abraham van Dijck’s painting. It shows Pomona, depicted as the young woman wearing a hat, talking to Vertumnus—seen disguised as an elderly woman. As the story goes, the incognito god began telling the goddess that she had a godly admirer, and he went on to flatteringly describe his real self for her. 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.