The theme is taken from a passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (XIII: 382–98), in which he describes Flora’s garden with the mythical personalities who had been turned into flowers upon their death. Ajax of Salamis, the son of Telamon, lost his reason when he was denied the honour of receiving Achilles’ weapons, which were instead given to Ulysses, and he committed suicide using his own sword. Ajax, a virtuous and honourable hero, was transformed by the gods into a plant with big rough leaves, and white, yellow or violet flowers.
Tiepolo achieves the drama of the scene, and the pathos leading up to the tragedy, using a sharp contrast of light and shade similar to the effect he obtained in his Rape of the Sabines now in St Petersburg, and even more so in the preparatory drawing in Helsinki. The boldly modelled bodies are evidence of the artist’s interest in ancient sculpture, which was much illustrated in contemporary engravings.
The great emotional intensity of the painting is created by the chiaroscuro effect which the artist obtained by working from life with sharply lit models.