This painting, by the Italian artist Guercino (aka Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, c. 1591–1666), was inspired by a scene 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). Despite the deceptive name of the poem, the Gerusalemme liberata more closely resembles ancient epic poems such as the Iliad and the Aeneid than an actual account of the First Crusade. Instead of Greeks besieging Troy, Tasso’s epic has Crusaders besieging Jerusalem. Whereas Greco-Roman gods helped or hindered the ancient heroes of old, Tasso’s newer characters instead meet angels, demons, wizards, witches, and a diverse host of other supernatural creatures. Nevertheless, this particular painted scene is quite mundane, and does not feature any such spiritual beings or monsters that can be found elsewhere in the poem. Instead, this painting focuses on the fictional character, Erminia, and an encounter she had with a community of shepherds.
As Torquato Tasso tells it, his character Erminia was a refugee who fled from the Crusader armies and found sanctuary in the then unconquered city of Jerusalem. 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 injured 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)
It is this passage that inspired the painting by Guercino. His painting re-creates many elements from the short quote. In the artwork, Erminia has removed her helmet, ‘uncovering her eyes and golden hair,’ to calm the family of herdsmen. Three young children, or ‘striplings,’ can be seen stinting on the opposite side of the canvas from Erminia, and the ‘old man,’ weaving a basket, stares up at the strange woman from his seat in front of the three boys.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Liberation of Jerusalem by Torquato Tasso and translated by Max Wickert. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.