This painting, by the Austrian artist Joseph [or Josef] Abel (c. 1764-1818), depicts a pivotal scene from the life of the mythical Theban princess, Antigone. Her story is intertwined with the sad saga of the incredibly ill-fated hero, Oedipus, whose terrible luck leeched off into the rest of his family. A brief mythological recap should help to clarify this artwork and put it into context.
Oedipus grew up in Corinth, raised by his adoptive parents, Polybus and Merope. Unbeknownst to Oedipus, his birth mother and father were actually Jocasta and Laius, the rulers of Thebes, who cast baby Oedipus away after they received a prophecy that their son would kill Laius. Oedipus, when he reached adulthood in Corinth, also received a prophecy that he would kill his father and wed his mother, yet he assumed this prophecy referred to his adoptive family, Polybus and Merope. In an effort to prevent himself from harming his loved ones, Oedipus became an adventurer. Sadly, this action would lead to the fulfillment of the prophecies. During his travels, Oedipus encountered and unwittingly killed Laius, his father. Then, he ran into a sphinx that was harassing the city of Thebes. Oedipus overcame the creature, and because of this deed he became the king or tyrant of the city, marrying the widowed Queen Jocasta, who (unknown to them both) was Oedipus’ mother. Together they had four children: Antigone and Polynices (who are depicted in the artwork), as well as Eteocles and Ismene. Unfortunately, the truth about Oedipus, Jocasta, and their incest-born children eventually came to light, resulting in tragic consequences.
When this revelation struck the family, Jocasta hanged herself and Oedipus savagely stabbed out his own eyes, but he survived. Now a social pariah and an untouchable outcast, Oedipus wandered Greece as a blind beggar, with only his daughters, Antigone and Ismene, keeping him company and seeing to his needs. His sons, Polynices and Eteocles, instead stayed behind to engage in a civil war over Thebes. Polynices was on the losing end of the conflict and had to relocate to Argos. When old and disgraced Oedipus finally died (reportedly at Colonus, Athens), Polynices was preparing for a desperate assault against his brother, Eteocles, who was then in control of Thebes. After their father’s death, Antigone and Ismene hurried back to Thebes in an unsuccessful effort to halt the civil war between the brothers. Despite their pleas and protests, the battle commenced and both Polynices and Eteocles died in battle at each other’s hands. With the two male heirs dead, their uncle Creon took over the city. Creon, who had sided with Eteocles during the civil war, deemed Polynices a traitor for leading a hostile army against the city of Thebes. Therefore, based on this verdict, Creon controversially decreed that Polynices would not be given any funerary rites whatsoever—instead, his body would be left to rot.
This brings us back to Joseph Abel’s painting. In it, Antigone defiantly gives her slain brother, Polynices, the funerary rites that Creon had forbidden. As the story goes, she did this not once, but twice, as Creon’s henchmen had undone her ritual the first time. Unfortunately, during her second ceremony, Antigone was spotted and arrested. The Athenian playwright, Sophocles (c. 496-406/405 BCE), narrated the scene in his play, Antigone, telling the story from the point of view of her captors:
“Just so, when she sees the corpse bare
she bursts into a long, shattering wail
and calls down withering curses on the heads
of all who did the work. And she scoops up dry dust,
handfuls, quickly, and lifting a fine bronze urn,
lifting it high and pouring, she crowns the dead
with three full libations.”
(Sophocles, Antigone, approximately lines 425-435)
This act of defiance caused Antigone and Ismene to run afoul of Creon, who had them imprisoned. As happened too often in Sophocles’ plays about the Oedipus saga, suicides ensued from the actions of the Theban tyrant. As the play continued on its tragic course, Antigone would take her own life, which caused Creon’s son, Haemon, to commit suicide, which, in turn, caused Creon’s wife, Eurydice, to kill herself, too. Creon stayed his own hand from following this trend of self-harm, but he later (depending on the myth) was murdered or killed in battle.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Sophocles, Three Theban Plays: Antigone; Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus, translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982, 1984, 2018.