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This panel shows the first part of the story of Alcyone and her husband Ceyx from the Metamorphoses, a poem by the Roman writer Ovid. It is continued in another panel, made as its pair (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
A boat waits to take Ceyx to the large wooden ship in the distance, upon which he will sail to the oracle at Claros. An oracle was a divinely inspired priest or priestess who would offer advice and answer questions. Alcyone, who had a premonition of a violent storm at sea, is on her knees begging Ceyx not to go.
Alcyone’s prediction came true. The Philadelphia panel shows Ceyx’s drowned body and Alcyone, appalled at the sight of it, launching herself into the sea. Their tragic end provoked a god to spare them both, transforming them into birds which appear to the left of the Philadelphia panel.
Carpaccio specialised in narrative scenes, often illustrating official events and ceremonies of the Venetian Republic. Here he tells a story from the Metamorphoses, a poem by the Roman writer Ovid which dramatically recounts legends of transformations. It is that of Alcyone and her husband Ceyx, which is continued in another panel made as its pair (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
A rowing boat waits to take Ceyx to the large ship in the distance. He was headed to the oracle at the sanctuary of the god Apollo at Claros, intending to ask about the death of his brother. An oracle was a divinely inspired priest or priestess who would offer advice and answer questions. A tree divides the world that Ceyx is leaving, inhabited by elegantly dressed figures and graceful architecture, from his destiny, the wooden boat isolated in the sea.
Alcyone and Ceyx are shown in the middle of a lengthy goodbye: Alcyone, who had a premonition of a violent storm at sea, begs her husband not to go. But determined and unwary of the threat, he places his hand on her face to reassure her. Her prediction came true: the Philadelphia panel shows Ceyx’s drowned body and Alcyone, appalled at the sight of it, launching herself into the sea. Their tragic end provoked a god to spare them both, transforming them into birds which appear to the left of the Philadelphia panel. Alcyone’s father was Aeolus, the god of the winds, and after her transformation he calmed the winds for seven days to allow her to lay her eggs – the origin of the saying ‘Halcyon days’.
We do not know who Carpaccio made the pictures for, nor their original destination, but each was once owned by a renowned nineteenth-century scholar – ours by Henry Layard, the archaeologist and National Gallery trustee, and the other by the writer, painter and critic John Ruskin. Our painting was once in the Manfrin Collection, a highly esteemed private collection in Venice that was sold during the second part of the nineteenth century.
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