The Sacrifice of Polyxena, by Giovanni Battista Pittoni (c. 1687 – 1767)

This painting, created by the Italian artist Giovanni Battista Pittoni “the Younger” (c. 1687-1767), draws inspiration from the tragic myth of Polyxena, a Trojan princess captured by the Greeks at the end of the Trojan War. Polyxena, the myths and legends claim, was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, but like other Trojan women who were taken captive after the war, fate seemed to be leading her down the path of enslavement. She, her mother, and the rest of the female prisoners were dragged to the fleet of Greek ships, which would carry them to strange a new existence 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. Spectral Achilles’ 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)

It is this scene of Polyxena facing her unfortunate fate with bravery and poise that Giovanni Battista Pittoni re-creates 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. For Polyxena’s wardrobe, the ancient sources gave Giovanni Battista Pittoni a variety of different routes that he could have taken. Euripides, for instance, 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). Ovid, however, imagined that Polyxena “preserved her maidenly virtue, arranging her garments to cover the parts men’s eyes should not see” (Metamorphoses, 13.479-480). Although it must have been tempting for the artist, Giovanni Battista Pittoni opted to forgo the nudity and instead painted Polyxena modestly robed.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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