The Sacrifice of Polyxena at the Tomb of Achilles, painted by Giovanni Battista Pittoni the Younger (c. 1687-1767)

This painting, created by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Pittoni the Younger (c. 1687-1767), was inspired by the tragic myth of Polyxena, a Trojan princess captured by the Greeks at the end of the mythical or legendary Trojan War. Polyxena was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, and the princess’ post-war fate seemed to be leading down the path of enslavement. She, her mother, and other women of Troy were dragged to the fleet of Greek ships, which would carry the captives to strange new homes across the Aegean. Yet, the weather was unfavorable for sailing, and the Greek fleet could not set out to sea. As told in Euripides’ tragedy, Hecuba (produced c. 424 BCE), and centuries later in the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet, Ovid (c. 43 BCE- 17 CE), the unyielding weather was said to have been caused by the ghost of Achilles, who was holding the Greeks hostage until they honored him with a sacrifice. Achilles’ ghostly demands were very specific—only the human sacrifice of Polyxena would appease him and end the winds. The Greeks agreed to their deceased friend’s terms and sent warriors to grab Polyxena, who was with the other captured women on the ships. Ovid skillfully narrated the scene:

“Torn from Hecuba’s arms—she was almost the only comfort
her mother had left—the ill-starred maiden displayed a courage
transcending a woman’s, as guards led her up to the hero’s mound
to be laid on his grave as a victim. Once in front of the fatal
alter, she realized the rite was intended for her,
but she never forgot who she was. When she saw Neoptólemus waiting,
sword in hand, with his eyes intently fixed on her own,
she said to him: ‘Take my noble blood and delay no longer.’”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 13.449-457)

This description of Polyxena being led to the tomb of Achilles for sacrifice is what Giovanni Battista Pittoni the Younger re-created in the painting above. According to both versions of the myth, Euripides’ earlier Greek edition and Ovid’s later Roman account, Polyxena greatly impressed the Greeks with her courage in the face of death, for she did not struggle and there was no need for her to be restrained. In depicting the Trojan princess, Giovanni Battista Pittoni seems to follow Ovid’s description, for in the Metamorphoses and in the painting Polyxena “preserved her maidenly virtue, arranging her garments to cover the parts men’s eyes should not see” (Metamorphoses, 13.479-480), whereas Euripides claimed that Polyxena “took her robe and tore it open from the shoulder to the waist, displaying a breast and bosom fair as a statue’s” (Euripides, Hecuba, approximately line 560).

Written by C. Keith Hansley



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