Diana and her Companions

‘Diana and her Companions’ (1655-1656) is a painting by Johannes Vermeer that can currently be found in a gallery of The Hague. It is Vermeer’s only surviving mythological scene, inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses (book III, 138-252). Diana, the virgin goddess of hunt and emblem of chastity, has gone hunting early in the morning, and the painting shows the end of her day; the moment in which she is having a rest in her favourite stream with her nymphs. However, this scene reflects an unusual moment before the climax of the story; this is, before Actaeon (young prince and son of the herdsman Aristaeus) breaks in. Both Diana and Actaeon have been hunting separately the whole day, but Diana will punish Actaeon for interrupting her sacred and intimate moment.

It was a bright spring day, and the animals were beginning to emerge from their burrows. Diana decided that it was a perfect day to go out hunting with her nymphs so that they could catch some tasty food for dinner. The woods were full of animals in early spring, therefore, Diana knew she would be successful in her hunting. After being out with her nymphs for the whole day, the nightfall began to appear and Diana stopped at her favourite stream to relax and to have a bath. This is the moment portrayed in the painting. Two of the nymphs are resting on the rock; another one keeps herself apart and contemplates the scene from a distance, and a fourth one is cleaning Diana’s feet using a brass water basin to prepare her for the bath. The brass water basin may have Christian undertones, implying that Diana is cleaning herself both physically and spiritually; however, it could also be related to death. Diana can only be recognised by the crescent moon she is wearing in her hair and by the hunting dog, since there are no other elements related to her hunting ability – such as a bow, arrows or dead animals. She is placed in the middle of a circle created by the nymphs, catching the viewer’s attention and presenting the idea of unity, balance and repose.

Nevertheless, this is not Diana’s most common side. She seems calm and thoughtful in the painting, but in mythology, she is described as cruel and vindictive. She even transformed Callisto, who is present in the scene, into a bear and expelled her from the court because she betrayed Diana by getting pregnant (which is a bit hypocritical if one notices that Diana herself is also pregnant). In the painting, it is the nymph in the black dress that seems to represent Callisto, since she remains on the background attempting to go unnoticed by the viewer; hinting that she is already hiding her pregnancy. This contrasts with the presence of the dog, which is probably representing loyalty and faithfulness; although it could be interpreted as a reminder of Actaeon’s tragic fate as well.

Actaeon appeared when Diana was nude, bathing. This was a sacred moment that no man could interrupt, but the presence of the dog and the thistle are already suggesting that a masculine figure is about to appear. Actaeon did not expect to contemplate that scene, since he went to the stream only to quench his thirst. Diana noticed he was watching, and full of anger – which shows her true personality -, she casted a spell on him. She threw some water drops on him and transformed Actaeon into a deer. Out of fear, he started to run as fast as he could, but fate was against him. His own hunting dogs attacked Actaeon and devoured him, after having mistaken him for a hunting prey. The nymphs knew about Diana’s angry character, so they simply made their own way to the palace and got ready to enjoy the food that they had hunted that same day.