This painting was created by the artist, Vinzenz Fischer (c. 1729 – 1810), who operated out of Austria. In this artwork, Fischer re-creates the ancient Greek myth of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter. As the reader might have guessed from Iphigenia’s parentage, the myth of her sacrifice was directly connected to the larger saga of tales involving the Trojan War, in which Agamemnon was the commander-in-chief of the Greeks. Regarding chronology, the story of Iphigenia’s sacrifice is set after the abduction of Helen, but before the Greek fleet set sail to wage war against the Trojans. As war preparations neared their conclusion, Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, called together the forces of the Greeks at the port town of Aulis. The coalition was ready to depart on their long campaign across the Aegean, but the gods—especially Artemis—refused to grant the Greeks a favorable wind until a sacrifice was performed. She did not want an offering of wine, grain, or livestock, but instead requested a human sacrifice, and according to Agamemnon’s seer Calchas, the goddess would only be appeased by the sacrifice of King Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigeneia.
Although Agamemnon was conflicted and disturbed by Calchas’ advice, he ultimately decided to go through with the sacrifice. It was a choice that was bitterly opposed by Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, yet she was powerless to stop her husband from allowing the seer to do his gruesome work. Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BCE), an Eleusinian playwright, described the sacrifice of Iphigeneia in a play called Agamemnon:
“Her father called his henchmen on,
on with a prayer,
‘Hoist her over the altar
like a yearling, give it all your strength!
She’s fainting—lift her,
sweep her robes around her,
but slip the strap in her gentle curving lips…
here, gag her hard, a sound will curse the house’—
and the bridle chokes her voice…her saffron robes
pouring over the sand
her glance like arrows showering
wounding every murderer through with pity
clear as a picture, live,
she strains to call their names…
What comes next? I cannot see it, cannot say.
The strong techniques of Calchas do their work.”
(Aeschylus, Agamemnon, approximately lines 230-250)
This grisly event is the subject of Vinzenz Fischer’s painting. Special attention, however, should be given to Aeschylus’ line about not being able to see or say how Iphigeneia’s sacrifice concluded. The question of ‘What comes next?’ was very real, for there were two ancient versions of the story. Aeschylus’ preferred tradition assumed that Iphigeneia was indeed killed during the sacrificial ceremony. In contrast, Euripides (c. 484-406 BCE), a junior contemporary of Aeschylus, followed an alternative narrative that claimed that Artemis swooped in to save Iphigeneia at the last moment, exchanging the young girl for a deer. Unfortunately for Iphigenia, the only sign of Artemis that can be seen in Fischer’s painting is a statue which, at the moment, seems quite inanimate. Yet, there is still time for a miracle to occur.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Aeschylus, The Orestia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides), translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 1979.
- [Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0108%3Acard%3D1578