Weekend Reading: The Man in Black

This week, having found a tiny gap in the marking, I’ve been sucked into the rabbit hole of Old Masters research. Specifically, my Research Question (because I’ve been encouraging my MA Dissertation students this week to form a Research Question!) is this…


Who is the Man in Black, and why is he in this painting?




Those of you who’ve had the misfortune to attend my Myth tutorials will know that this guy has been bothering me – on and off – for years. Is it weird that an extra character in a 17th century painting keeps me awake at night? Not for me, it’s not: sometimes I can’t sleep for a week because of an unexplained dative.

This painting is of the myth of Philemon and Baucis, which pops up in Ovid’s Metamorphoses but (interestingly) not elsewhere. To summarise, the story is this… Jupiter and Mercury are knocking on doors in rural Phrygia, asking people to take in two weary travellers, but at every door they are turned away. Then they come to the hovel of the poor but generous Philemon and his wife Baucis, who invite the travellers in and serve them with their own hands, even chasing their goose round the cottage with the intention of killing it to provide a feast. Ovid lists in extraordinary detail the foodstuffs and the preparations, all managed by the old man and his wife, who begrudge no effort to welcome the mysterious guests. There’s a moral here, and we’re being walloped over the head with it – rather unusually for Ovid, who is rarely either moralising or blatant.

Eventually, the fact that the wine pitcher keeps refilling itself gives the elderly couple a clue that all is not as it seems. Jupiter catches the goose and prevents its sacrifice, the old couple offer an appropriately grovelling response to the revelation that a pair of dangerously unpredictable gods are in their hovel, and the gods act as gods tend to do. In other words, they drown the entire neighbourhood, except for Philemon and Baucis, to whom they offer to grant a wish.

This is where things tend to go wrong, in myth and in fairy tales: but Philemon and Baucis dodge the bullet. They ask to become priests of the gods, and to die together. The gods grant the wish: the old couple live a long life, and when that life is over they both turn slowly into trees, entwined together forever.

Ah. What a lovely ending. Except for all the dead neighbours under the water, of course…

The thing that fascinates me is that, while this myth is almost unknown today, in the 17th century it was all over the place. There were loads of paintings of Philemon and Baucis: mostly images of hovel hospitality, from painters who specialised in scenes of peasant life. The standout winner, in terms of quality and atmosphere, is Rembrandt, whose 1658 version I would love to see in real life, because I don’t think computer monitors do it any favours:


[On a side-note I’m currently fascinated by Rembrandt, who had a classical education and attended a school where only Latin was spoken. One biographer said that Rembrandt was so miserly that his art students used to paint coins on the floor as a joke, so that they could laugh when he tried to pick the coins up (I used to do that, back in my mural-painting days!). Then there was the tale that while Rembrandt was painting a family portrait, his pet monkey died, and he insisted on painting the dead monkey into the portrait. I love that story, which is reported in a way that takes Rembrandt’s ownership of a pet monkey completely for granted, as if everybody had a monkey…]

Anyway, Rembrandt’s version of the Philemon and Baucis myth is extraordinary, with a Christ-like Jupiter who practically glows. But at around the same time, in Antwerp, the painter David Rijckaert III was creating his own version: and now we’re back to the painting in question…



Back to my RQs (that’s what us Education Types call our research questions)… Who is the extra bloke and why is he there?

If you’ve been paying attention (what are the chances? I must have bored at least 80% of my audience to sleep by now…), you’ll know that the WHOLE POINT of Ovid’s story is that Philemon and Baucis don’t have a servant, or a slave, or much of anything at all. Ovid actually says they don’t have a servant:

‘It was no matter if you asked for owner or servant there: those two were the whole household: they gave orders and carried them out equally.’

(Using the Kline translation)


So why is there a servant, holding aloft a tray in true waiterly fashion, bang in the middle of this painting? What is Mr Rijckaert the Third up to?

I’ve been asking the wonderful people on the OU’s undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies Forum, since they have more confidence than I do when it comes to Art History, and a fair bit more knowledge too… I now have a number of suggestions to ponder (like the possibility that the Man in Black is representing the artist himself), not to mention some questions which hadn’t even occurred to me (like: why is the servant walking away from the gods with a loaded tray? and why is there a sinister-looking bird above him?).

I’m also toying with a possible explanation offered by the artist’s own situation. Apparently Rijckaert acquired, late in his career, a wealthy benefactor who liked his style but didn’t like his hovels: he wanted grander interiors. Rijckaert, being a practical sort of chap, obliged. Was this painting (which is annoyingly undated) part of his shift in style, to please the person holding the purse strings – and was he inserting the servant ironically, as a statement about the ridiculousness of glamming up myth? I know there’s a joke or a message here: I’m just not entirely sure what it is yet…

I got slightly side-tracked looking through the wonderful Leiden Collection, a private collection of Rembrandt (and Rembrandt-ish) paintings available to view online. Unfortunately that’s made me dissatisfied with my own lack of a private collection of Old Masters: so I’ll be keeping a look-out in the local charity shops, just in case…

But of course, with Rijckaert’s mysterious Man in Black floating around in my head, I now can’t get away from other Man in Black instances. Like this thread from Sententiae Antiquae, with a Johnny Cash/Classics puzzler that’s got Classics Twitter buzzing:



You can tell that the marking’s easing off for the summer, when classicists around the world start publicly deconstructing Johnny Cash songs…



This week’s links from around the internet



Wooden votive arm – BBC 

Manuscript scandal – Variant Readings

Besieging the Troy exhibition – The Times

Snazzy Greek jackets – Greek City Times

Slovenian Trojan Women – Cyprus Mail 

Old fake coins – The First News 

York excavation planned – BBC 


Comment and opinion

Sappho’s grocery list – McSweeney’s

Reading Trajan’s Column – National Geographic 

A Spartan garden – The Scotsman 

Between archaeology and Classics – Society for Classical Studies 

What happens when you dub ‘Life of Brian’ – Kiwi Hellenist 

The priestess at Delphi – The Conversation 

Representing Rome – The History Girls 

Controversial philosophy – Smithsonian 

Plato, Socrates and Glaucon – Spectator USA


Podcasts, video and other media

Athenian coins – NNP 

Medusa and monsters – That’s Ancient History

Translating Thucydides’ speeches – The History of Ancient Greece 

Ancient justice in fiction – E.G. Stone 



Just started: a 3D Rome course – FutureLearn




A big thank you to three of my lovely students, who came from all over the country to drag me out today for a visit to Regina and some fish and chips. It was great to see you – and to be reminded that the outside world exists!



2 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: The Man in Black

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s