This painting, by the Dutch artist Pieter Lastman (c. 1583-1633), was inspired by the ancient Greek play, Iphigenia in Tauris, which was written by Euripides (484-406 BCE). It is a play that features two siblings, Iphigenia and Orestes, who were fathered by powerful King Agamemnon—who famously was the Greek commander-in-chief during the Trojan War. The war, although glorious for Agamemnon’s reputation, also tore apart his family. Iphigenia was offered as a sacrifice before Agamemnon and the Greeks set sail for war (yet, in Euripides’ play, Iphigenia was saved by Artemis, who relocated the girl to a temple at Tauris; but the goddess did not inform the family of Iphigenia’s survival). As Iphigenia was presumed dead, grudges began to fester within the royal family. In the end, Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, murdered Agamemnon. In turn, Orestes, prodded by the god Apollo, avenged his father by killing his own mother, Clytemnestra. This pattern of Apollo pushing Orestes on dangerous quests continues in the play, Iphigenia in Tauris, and the painting that was inspired by it. Euripides had the character, Orestes, lay out the setting and plot of the latest adventure in the opening lines of the play, stating, “[Apollo] told me to go to the boundaries of the Tauric land, where Artemis, your sister, has an altar, and to take the statue of the goddess, which is said here to have fallen to this temple from heaven; and, taking it by craft of some stroke of luck, to complete the venture by giving it to the Athenian land” (Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris, between lines 67-92). Yet, as might be guessed from looking at the commotion in the painting, Orestes (and his friend Pylades) were caught while trying to steal the statue of Artemis.
Iphigenia, as priestess of Artemis’ temple at Tauris, had a tense reunion with her apprehended brother. There was little time for hugs and reminiscing, as execution was the punishment for the sacrilegious attempted-looting of the temple. Yet, Iphigenia gave her brother a potential tether of salvation, for she declared that she would only execute one of the two friends, and the other would return home to Mycenean Argos. Iphigenia strongly insisted that Orestes should be the one to leave Tauris alive, but Orestes was not keen on the idea of willingly leaving his friend, Pylades, to die. Instead, Orestes volunteered to be the one that faced execution, but this caused great distress to the priestess. For Iphigenia, the thought of having to execute her brother was too much for her to bear, so she suddenly decided to defect from her duty as arbiter of the temple laws and instead become an accomplice of Orestes. Together, Iphigenia, Orestes and Pylades tricked the local population of Tauris, managed to load the temple’s statue on a ship, and successfully sailed away with their holy cargo.
Written by C. Keith Hansley