Art in Metamorphoses: Nessus and Deianira

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Art in Metamorphoses
Centuries of Ovid's Influence
Curated by Natalie Dockhorn


Reni, Nessus and Deianira, 1621

"'You fool,' roared Hercules,
'Do you think your horse hooves are equal
To your mad idea?
Do you think you can plant your family tree
Between me and mine?
Nessus, the cure for you is on it's way.
Niether respect for me 
Nor your father's howls in hell
Chain on his wheel of fire
Can deflect you from the forbidden woman.
But I shall overtake you, 
Not on my feet, but flying
On the feather of a weapon.'"
-Ovid's Metamorphoses

As Hercules and his new bride are traveling together, the two approach a river. Being a gentleman, Hercules allows the Bull, Nessus, to carry his beloved across stream. While uneasy on the back of the beast, Deianira jumps aboard the ride of her life. Down the river, Nessus falls madly for his rider and attempts to take Deianira away. Running off with Hercules's new bride, the hero notices and after reciting the above quote kills the bull with a single arrow.

On Nessus' deathbed, he orders Deianira to take some of his blood, telling her that it is a love potion and should Hercules ever stray, the blood of the bull would bring him back to her. Down the long, winding road of marriage, Hercules does become distant to his beloved, so Deianira sends her husband a gift laced with the blood. Hercules then deteriorates quickly and the blood causes him terrible pain and misery. Begging for death, Hercules dies and Nessus gets his revenge. Meanwhile, Deianira, feeling just horrible about the whole situation, kills herself.

Reni's painting takes us back in the story to Nessus' love for Deianira and fleeing with his prize. Deianira is shown uneasy and slightly frightened by her abductor. She looks off and reaches for her husband, who's behind them on the shore. Hercules is about to throw his arrow and save the day once again. This piece doesn't leave much else too look at besides the three figures, but the clothing and bodies are done well and I really enjoy Nessus' emotion as he holds on to Deianira.

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