This painting, by the French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), was inspired by the most famous ancient myth about King Midas of Phrygia. In the events preceding this scene, Midas or his people had come across a lost and drunk satyr named Silenus, who was searching for his companions. Met with this satyr in need, King Midas decided to help Silenus find his way back to his people. Midas succeeded in his quest, and found that Silenus’ friends were quite a peculiar bunch—it was the god, Dionysus (or Bacchus), and his festive entourage.
When Midas strolled with the misplaced satyr into the presence of Dionysus, the god was happy to see his friend returned. In gratitude, Dionysus decided to grant Midas a wish, and the chosen gift could even be the bequeathment of a supernatural power. Midas gleefully accepted the offer and asked for an ability that let him turn anything he touched into gold. Dionysus granted his wish, and King Midas walked away from the meeting imbued with the newfound power that he had wished for. Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE), a Roman poet, narrated what happened next:
“Midas departed in high delight with his bane of a present,
and put the gift to the test at once by touching some objects.
Passing an oak with low green boughs, he uncertainly pulled
at a leafy twig; the twig and its foliage turned to gold.
He lifted a stone from the ground; that also became pure gold.
He touched a clod; the power in his fingers converted the soft earth
into a hard nugget. Plucking the ears in a ripe cornfield,
he reaped a harvest of gold. He picked an apple and held it—
a present from the Hesperides’ garden? He rested his hands
on the doors of his lofty palace: the doors appeared to be glowing.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 11.106-115)
Nicolas Poussin depicts the first of Midas’ golden test runs in the painting. Following Ovid’s account, Midas can be seen holding a branch pulled from the oak tree, albeit he does so curiously in front of an audience of scantily-clad figures. After the scene at the tree, and once Midas returned to his palace, he soon found his new powers to be more of a curse than a gift. Food and drink turned to gold at his touch, and he could not avoid transforming these vital forms of sustenance by using utensils, for even if morsels or liquid entered his mouth unchanged, they would turn to gold as soon as they touched a side of his throat. He ultimately begged Dionysus to take back the gift, and, to the god’s credit, Dionysus did remove Midas’ powers before the king died of malnutrition or thirst.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.