The Trojan Women Setting Fire to Their Fleet, by Claude Lorrain (c. 1600-1682)

This painting, by the French artist Claude Lorrain (c. 1600-1682), draws its inspiration from the Aeneid, a poem by the Roman poet Virgil (c. 70-19 BCE) that tells of the journey of Trojan refugees, led by the hero Aeneas, who resettled in Italy after being defeated in the Trojan War. In the scene painted above, Aeneas and his followers had reached Sicily and were torn between settling on the island or pressing on to find a new home on the mainland of the Italian peninsula. The women in the group were said to have been especially anxious to put a stop to their wanderings. As the story goes, the goddess, Iris, infiltrated the group of women and encouraged them to act on their emotions. This resulted in the scene above—the Trojan women marched out to the ships, intending to set them alight. Virgil described the scene:

“Spurring them on and first to seize a deadly brand,
she held it high in her right hand, shook it to flame
and with all her power hurled the fire home.
Astounded, the hearts of the Trojan women froze…
but at first the women wavered, looking back
at the ships with hateful glances, torn between
their hapless love for the land they stood on now
and the fated kingdom, calling still—when all at once
the goddess towered into the sky on balanced wings,
cleaving a giant rainbow, flying beneath the clouds.
Now they are dumbstruck, driven mad by the sign
they scream, some seize fire from the inner hearths,
some plunder the altars—branches, brushwood, torches,
they hurl them all at once and the God of Fire unleashed
goes raging over the benches, oarlocks, piney blazoned sterns.
The ships are ablaze.”
(Virgil, Aeneid, Book 5, approximately lines 710-733)

Such is the scene that is occurring in the painting above. Claude Lorrain seems to have captured the moments early in the episode, at a time when the ships were only beginning to catch fire. No high flickering flames can be seen in the painting, but black smoke is visible billowing up from the decks of many ships floating on the water.  These fires, however, would not last. The smoke was noticed by the hero, Aeneas, and he prayed for the gods to save the fleet. As he was a demigod born from Aphrodite, Aeneas’ pleas had weight. In answer to his prayers, a massive rainstorm appeared over the ships and put out the fires.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



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