When visiting a large museum like The Met or a gallery as immense as The National Gallery my habit is to wander though the collections and see what catches my eye. During my recent visit to The National Gallery while I was in London, I kept circling back and spending time with Pierre Subleyras’s painting of Diana and Endymion. The image reminded me of Ovid and his various descriptions of transformations in the Metamporhoses, especially as they relate to the theme of love. There are many variations of the myth, but I suspect Subleyras had in mind the version in which Endymion is an Aeolian shephard who captures the attention of the goddess Diana. What makes the story particularly striking is that Diana is a virginal goddess but her attraction to Endymion overrides her proclivity for solitude. (It is even said in one myth that the couple bear fifty daughters.) Diana asks Jupiter to give Endymion eternal youth and he is also placed in a cave where Diana can visit him every night and admire him in his sleep which is her favorite way to view him.
I find it fascinating that Ovid doesn’t include this story as part of the Metamorphoses, but instead writes a few poignant and striking lines about Endymion in Heroides XVIII. Ovid composes a letter from Leander, a young man who sneaks out of the house at night to swim the Hellespont so he can be with and make love to a young woman named Hero. Hero, a devotee of Venus, lives in a tower and lights a lamp each night for Leander so he can find his way to her. As Leander is reminiscing about his noctural swims, he invokes the image of Endymion and Diana (translation of Heroides XVIII.57-66 is my own):
No more delay, instead I threw off my clothes
along with my fear and I launch my pliant
arms through the liquid sea. The moon, like a
dutiful companion along my path, was offering
her trembling light to me as I was gliding along.
And I, looking up at her, said, “May you,
oh shining goddess, support me and may the
rocks of Latmos rise up in your mind. Endymion
does not allow you to be severe in your heart. Turn
your face, I pray, to help me in my secret love. You, as
a goddess, glided down from heaven to seek a mortal
love. May it be permitted for me to speak the truth!—-
The woman whom I pursue is herself a goddess.
As I am drawn back again and again to that peaceful look on Endymion’s face in the Subleyras painting, I can’t help but think that he must have been a soothing presence for Diana. As I contemplate the painting in relation to both of these myths, their many parallels make themeselves evident; if Diana wouldn’t let a little thing like mortality stand in the way of love, then Leander can’t let geography or the sea impede his way either. If only Endymionis somnium dormire (to sleep the sleep of Endymion.)
For the extra curious, here is a link to the Latin text: http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/ovid/ovid.her18.shtml