Otis House

The Lost Erminia Seeks Refuge in the Shepherd’s Hut

This painting is one in a series of four that depict episodes from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered. First published in 1581, which tells a largely mythified version of the First Crusade in which Christian knights, led by Godfrey of Bouillon, battle Muslims in order to take Jerusalem.

Tasso’s choice of subject matter, an actual historic conflict between Christians and Muslims with fantastical elements added, had a historical grounding. Like other works of the period which portray conflicts between Christians and Muslims, this subject matter had a topical resonance to readers of the period, as the Ottoman Empire was advancing through Eastern Europe.

The poem was hugely successful, and sections or moments from the story were used in works in other media all over Europe, especially in the period before the French Revolution and the Romantic movement, which provided alternative stories combining love, violence and an exotic setting.

“The Lost Erminia Seeks Refuge in the Shepard’s Hut” (Canto VIl; Stanza VI), shows Erminia inflamed by passion for Tancred. She disguises herself in the armor of Clornida, a woman who Tancred is in love with, in hopes of deceiving the Christian hero. Failing to find him anywhere, she loses her way. Exhausted by hunger and fatigue, she entreats the hospitality of the shepherd.

During the Federal period, images involving mythological and religious subjects were very popular. These four paintings were originally set into the walls of the ballroom at the Asa Waters House, a 1826 Federal mansion, in Millbury, Massachusetts. These paintings were framed by moldings in the ballroom to give them the appearance of murals. In the early 1900s, these panels were removed, descended in the Waters family, and were donated to Historic New England. These paintings are well suited for Otis House because they show the mythological interest of the Neoclassical period. Records indicate that Otis owned a sizable collection of paintings, some of which he lent on occasion to exhibits at the Boston Athenaeum.

Unknown artist
Europe or America, c. 1790
Oil on canvas