This artwork, created by Jean Bernard Restout (c. 1732–1797) with a combination of inks, paints and washes, 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, she 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, Restout 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)
Such is the ancient scene that inspired the artwork. Jean Bernard Restout chose to spare viewers of his painting from gruesome images of animal sacrifice, with no sheep, cows or other sacrificial animals being easily seen. Yet, inanimate offerings are scattered around the area aplenty, being ritualistically displayed and burned. Overseeing it all is a statue of the goddess, Juno, seen sitting atop her pillar in view of the worshipping masses.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 2006.