Old Master Paintings

Written in the Stars: Sebastiano Ricci’s ‘Arcas and Callisto’

By Cecilia Treves

S educed by a god, turned into a bear, almost killed by her own son... This is the story of poor Callisto told by the Roman poet Ovid in Metamorphoses, his witty tales of love and lust.

Over the centuries many artists have been inspired to paint the seduction and expulsion of beautiful Callisto. Her downfall is the episode that is best known: the terrible moment when Diana the goddess of hunting discovers that Callisto is pregnant and banishes her from her chaste band of nymphs. Titian’s take on Callisto’s humiliation is the most celebrated: he paints the unforgiving goddess pointing in judgement at Callisto as part of a set of mythological works commissioned by King Philip II of Spain, which the artist referred to as ‘poesie’ (painted poetry) – the subject of what will be a spectacular exhibition next year at the National Gallery in London.


Callisto’s troubles began when she attracted the unsolicited attentions of Jupiter, the king of the gods, who disguised himself as Diana to gain her trust. This episode, which proved irresistible to Rubens, Jordaens and Boucher, among others, offered a titillating opportunity to show a female couple kissing and caressing.

Callisto’s pregnancy arouses the jealous fury of Juno, Jupiter’s wife. Very few paintings show what happens next. After her expulsion from Diana’s troupe Juno wreaks revenge on the outcast, punishing her savagely for her unwitting adultery by turning her into a bear. Ovid describes Callisto’s transformation in gripping detail: fur spreads over her arms; her nails become claws; her lips grow into hideous jaws; growling replaces speech. On the outside she is a bear, inside she remains a woman; and in an ironic twist of fate, the huntress now becomes the hunted.

François Boucher, Jupiter and Callisto, 1759. © Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City

As a she-bear Callisto roams the woods for years, until her chance encounter with her son Arcas, now grown up and unaware of his mother’s plight. In Sebastiano Ricci’s spirited response to Ovid’s poem he paints with characteristic flourish the precise moment when the mother bear recognises her son, while he in heroic pose prepares for the kill.

The episode is unique in his work and seldom features in the history of art. At first glance the picture could be mistaken for a bear hunt – as indeed it was ever since its earliest mention in the late eighteenth century – but this is no ordinary hunting scene. The bear’s piercing gaze is the best clue to the painting’s true subject.

The mother bear stops in her tracks and fixes handsome Arcas with her gaze. Her eyes are painted with deliberate emphasis. She lumbers closer, Arcas is frozen by her stare and is about to kill her with his javelin were it not for the timely intervention of Jupiter, who transports them both into the heavens and transforms them into constellations: Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. And so, with his customary combination of humour and pathos, Ovid tells the story of the origin of the constellations of the Great Bear and Little Bear and Ricci vividly brings to life the episode when orphan Arcas, out hunting, gets unexpectedly reacquainted with his mum. No other interpretation of this subject can match the theatricality and shimmering tonality of this dazzling painting.

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