Subject and Theme: Jerusalem Delivered
Erminia and the Shepherds illustrates a scene from one of the great epic poems in the Italian language, Jerusalem Delivered, by Torquato Tasso (1544-95), published in 1581. The story is set in the 11th century during the First Crusade, when Christian warriors laid siege to Jerusalem. Filled with dramatic episodes of chivalric adventure, enchantments, and star-crossed romantic love, Tasso's work remained enormously popular with artists for several centuries.
Guercino's masterpiece is a literal interpretation of stanzas 6 and 7 from the seventh canto of the poem:
She rose; and gently, guided by her ear
Came where an old man on a rising ground
In the fresh shade, his white flocks feeding near,
Twin-baskets wove, and listened to the sound
Trilled by three blooming boys, who sate disporting round.
They at the shining of her silver arms,
Were seized at once with wonder and despair,
But sweet Erminia soothed their vain alarms,
Discovering her dove's eyes, and golden hair.
The young woman in armor is Erminia, a pagan princess who has fallen hopelessly in love with the noble Crusader Tancred. Tancred, however, favors Erminia's friend Clorinda, the great Persian warrior maiden. Learning that Tancred lies wounded, Erminia determines to go to him secretly, and sets out disguised in Clorinda's armor. Some Christian soldiers, taking her for their enemy Clorinda, pursue her. On her fleet horse she evades them, only to become lost in a forest, where she falls asleep. On awakening, she hears music and comes upon an aged shepherd and his three sons. They are frightened at first, but Erminia removes her helmet, revealing herself as a damsel in distress rather than a ruthless warrior.