Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

Dido's death

  • Title: Dido on her funeral pyre
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    The Vatican Vergil codex was produced circa 400 CE, presumably for a pagan aristocrat. It consisted of about 440 folios of fine parchment, but included some leaves with minor defects. The pages are about 24 cm. high and 21 cm. wide. A good scribe wrote its script in fluent Rustic capitals, although the text includes some errors and omissions. Two hundred eighty framed paintings illustrate the codex, interrupting the text at appropriate places. Since the ninth century, this codex, reduced to only a fraction of its original length, has been studied, as described by Wright as “the most impressive surviving example of an illustrated classical literary text”. Three illustrations in this text depict Dido, the mythical queen and founder of Carthage, a city with which Rome fought three wars. In Aeneid book 4, Aeneas, on his way from Troy to Rome, stops in Carthage, and Dido immediately falls in love with him. Each of the Vatican Vergil’s three illustrations of Dido shows her in different stages of her relationship with Aeneas, evoking different “effeminate” emotions from the audience with each successive scene.

    Dido Sacrificing (33v) illustrates Aen. 4.56-64, wherein Dido offers sacrifices to various gods in hope of bringing about her marriage to Aeneas, for whom she burns with love. The woman to the right of Dido in this illustration is likely her sister Anna, with whom Dido discusses her love at the start of book 4. Two assistants and a cow and sheep stand near the altar as well. Wright notes that this illustration was painted by the second Vatican Vergil painter; the attendant on the far right is awkward in stance, and some of the painting’s highlights are careless. Although painted in a codex, Wright argues that this illustration could have been modelled on an image from a papyrus edition of the Aeneid, since without this scene’s background and frame, it could be placed in a column of text accompanying the illustrated verses (37, 2). Rather than depict Dido pining for Aeneas, burning with passion upon meeting him, the illustrator chose to show Dido taking concrete steps to secure her union with Aeneas. The illustrator’s choice to depict Dido in a moment of calm contrasts with the third illustrator’s decision to show Dido at her least rational, her most feminine, in the following two scenes.

    Rather than linger on Dido’s marriage to Aeneas or her initial love for him, the Vatican Vergil illustrations jump to the very end of their relationship, depicting two scenes of Dido’s death. Having learned that Aeneas has fled Carthage, continuing on with his men to Italy, Dido plans to kill herself. The illustrator first shows Dido constructing her own funeral pyre and lying on top of it. Wright notes that this is probably the first illustration executed by the third painter since it is so elaborate. This artist was meticulous, unlike the second painter, but not as proficient a painter as the first. Dido appears alone in only this middle illustration, raising a sword in her right hand. Her shape appears small on her large pyre, painted inside an even larger room; her pink clothing blends with pink paint of the pyre and walls. Unlike the first painting, Dido here recedes into the illustration, emphasizing her loss of self and diminished sense of control since Aeneas’s departure.

    The second scene depicting Dido’s suicide (41r), again painted by the third illustrator, captures the moment just before Dido’s death. Wright notes the variety of gesture and posture in use and the sense of coherent movement evident in the three women at the left. While these women’s identities are unknown, Anna, Dido’s sister, is at the right, raising her arms to beg Dido not to commit suicide. Wright draws a contrast between the “expressive force” and talent of the third painter specifically with the clumsiness of the second painter, noting the “shallow layer” of awkwardly posed figures in Dido Sacrificing. As in the first painting, Dido is among people, but, in the second painting, the sense of loneliness is dispelled. Feelings of fear, desperation, and resignation, however, swell.

    In Late Antiquity, Dido’s female sorrow, anger, and lust--all aimed at Aeneas--were considered to be negative, and Dido an effeminate “other” in direct contrast to Aeneas’s reasoned Roman demeanor. Augustine recounts his reaction to reading Dido’s speech in school as a boy, saying, “Had I been forbidden to read this story, I would have been sad that I could not read what made me sad. Such madness is considered a higher and more fruitful literary education than being taught to read and write.” The illustrators of the Vatican Vergil likewise devote attention to a passionate Dido, choosing to illustrate two scenes of her death. In the first, Dido’s solitude and her determination are evident, as are her shrunken sense of self and her love for Aeneas. In the second scene, the terror and sorrow of Anna and the bewilderment of her attendants dominate the scene as they crowd around Dido. Dido, the embodiment of the passionate and emotional woman, retained this reputation in Late Antiquity, serving as an example of female irrationality, if a pathetic one, at the time of the Vatican Vergil’s composition.

  • Source: Image #1 Wikimedia Commons
    Image #2 Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Image #1 Public domain
    Image #2 Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Aeneas (Literary Figure) Classical Influences Dido (Literary Figure) Love Suicide
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 5
  • Date: Ca. 400
  • Related Work: Other images from the Vatican Vergil codex:
    Dido and Aeneas speak;
    Dido Sacrificing (33v)
    Digitized pages from the Vatican Vergil
  • Current Location: Rome, Biblioteca apostolica Vaticana, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225
  • Original Location: Around Rome
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 24/21 /(manuscript page)
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: May, Nathan. “A Rhetorical Redemption: Dido in the Classroom from Late Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century.” Discentes 4, 2 (28 April 2016): 16-24;
    Wright, David. “From Copy to Facsimile: A Millennium of Studying the Vatican Vergil.” British Library Journal 17,1 (Spring 1991): 12;
    Wright, David. The Vatican Vergil: A Masterpiece of Late Antique Art. University of California Press,1993.