This painting, by the Italian artist Luca Giordano (c. 1634-1705), was inspired by the ancient tale of Picus, a man of myth or legend who was said to have ruled a kingdom in Italy. Picus allegedly was one of the most handsome men of his age, and he had countless lustful admirers from both the mortal and immortal communities. Yet, of these willing women, Picus devoted himself only to one—she was a nymph named Cánens, and to her, Picus remained steadfastly faithful.
As is given away by Lubieniecki’s painting and its title, King Picus unfortunately had an encounter with the magically-masterful goddess, Circe. Since Picus was the handsomest man in the land, the sight of him naturally filled Circe with desire. She succumbed to her attraction and instantly decided to have a go at seducing him. Calling on all of her magical knowledge and power, Circe conjured an illusory animal to lure King Picus away from any guards and attendants. She similarly summoned darkness and mist to blind Picus’ kingdom while she tried to charm the king. Unfortunately for Circe, all of her magic and planning was for naught; when the goddess revealed herself to Picus and tried to seduce him, the faithful king rejected her advances. Scorned Circe, however, would have her revenge. The Roman poet, Ovid (c. 43 BCE-17 CE), described what happened next:
“[Circe shouted] ‘You’ll learn what a woman in love who is injured
can do; and Circe is surely an injured woman in love!’
The sorceress then turned twice to the west and twice to the east;
she struck the young king with her wand three times, and she spoke three spells.
Picus took to his heels but soon was surprised to discover
himself running faster than usual. Wings had sprung from his body!
A new type of bird had suddenly joined the forests of Latium”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 14.384-390)
It is this tale of Circe turning King Picus into a bird that Luca Giordano re-creates in his painting. King Picus can already be seen with feathers sprouting from his body, and unfortunately for the king, the transformation would only become more extreme. Once the spell had run its course, Picus found himself completely metamorphosized into a woodpecker. Most shocking to the avian king was the new addition of a beak on his face. So the story goes, it was his hatred of (or confusion over) this new body feature that caused the kingly woodpecker to begin pecking on tree trunks.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.