This painting, created by the Italian artist Giovanni Francesco Romanelli (c. 1610-1662), was inspired by the tragic myth of Polyxena. She was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, and, after being captured by the Greeks at the end of the Trojan War, Polyxena’s 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, unfavorable weather prevented the Greek fleet from setting out to sea. As told in Euripides’ tragedy, Hecuba (dated to 424 BCE), and reimagined centuries later in the Metamorphoses of the Roman poet, Ovid (c. 43 BCE- 17 CE), the unyielding weather was caused by the ghost of Achilles, who would not release the Greek fleet until his former comrades honored him with a sacrifice. Achilles’ ghostly demands were very specific—the human sacrifice of Polyxena would appease him and end the winds. The Greeks agreed to the 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)
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 Francesco Romanelli seems to follow Ovid’s description, for in the Metamorphoses, 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 she “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). It is this scene of Polyxena facing her death with dignity that Giovanni Francesco Romanelli re-creates in the painting above.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.