Trojan Epics: Introduction to a new painting series

Adam Elsheimer (1578–1610), The Burning of Troy (c 1600-01), oil on copper, 36 x 50 cm, , Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

For most of us, the epic stories of the Trojan war are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and maybe Virgil’s much later Aeneid. But Homer’s two epic poems are the sole survivors of a whole cycle that began with Zeus’s decision to reduce the population of mortals, and ended with the deaths of those who had survived the Trojan War, including Odysseus, in what’s known as the Epic Cycle. In this new series of narrative paintings, I’m going to trace and tell as much of the whole cycle as I can.

Although the Iliad refers to events before and after its narrow window of fifty-one days during the siege of Troy, it’s primarily focussed on the story of Achilles, and ends well before his death.

Some of the preceding events that led to the war against Troy are well known, and have been well painted, among them the wedding feast of Thetis and Peleus, where Eris left her golden apple as a prize ‘to the fairest’, setting up the Judgement of Paris.

jordaensgoldenapplediscord Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), The Golden Apple of Discord (1633), oil on canvas, 181 × 288 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.[/caption]

This is Jacob Jordaens’ Golden Apple of Discord from 1633, based on a brilliant oil sketch by Rubens. The facially discordant Eris, seen in midair behind the deities, has just given the golden apple, which is at the centre of the grasping hands, above the table. At the left, Athena (Minerva) reaches forward for it. In front of her, Aphrodite (Venus), her son Eros (Cupid) at her knee, points to herself as the goddess most deserving of the apple. On the other side of the table, Hera (Juno) reaches her hand out for it too.

The huge Greek fleet struggled to set off for Troy, a problem only resolved in the end by the sacrifice of Iphigenia, its commander’s daughter.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770), The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (1770), oil on canvas, 65 × 112 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Tiepolo painted his account, The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, in 1770. Iphigenia sits, almost spotlit with her pale flesh, as the priest, perhaps Agamemnon himself, looks up to the heavens, the knife held in his right hand. In a direct line with that hand, comes Artemis (Diana) in her characteristic divine cloud, ready with a deer. Below is a group of women, already holding the sacred bowl up to catch the sacrificial victim’s blood, and in the left distance are some of the thousand ships of the Greek fleet, waiting to sail.

As a warrior Achilles was supreme, but had one vulnerability, his heel, which Paris was able to exploit with a single arrow.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Death of Achilles (c 1630-35), oil on canvas, 107.1 x 109.2 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens tells this most vividly in The Death of Achilles, from a series on the hero painted between 1630-35, towards the end of the artist’s own career and life.

Achilles, an arrow piercing straight through his right foot, is shown in the centre foreground, his face is deathly white. But Rubens doesn’t place Achilles in battle, as does Ovid in his account in his Metamorphoses: he has been standing at a small altar to the goddess Artemis, with her strong associations with archery. At the door to the left, Paris is still holding the bow which loosed the arrow, and behind him is Apollo aiding and abetting in the killing.

Another memorable part of the story omitted from the Iliad is the wooden horse used by the Greeks to gain entry to the city of Troy, so bringing about its destruction.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), The Trojan Horse (1924), oil on canvas, 105 × 135 cm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin. Wikimedia Commons.

The Trojan Horse (1924) was Lovis Corinth’s last major painting from classical myth. The city is seen in the background, with its lofty towers and impregnable walls. The select group of Greek soldiers who undertook this commando raid are already concealed inside the horse, and those around the horse are probably Trojans, sent out from the city to check it out.

The fall of Troy forms the start of Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid.

Gillis van Valckenborch (attr) (1570-1622), The Sack of Troy, oil on canvas, 141 x 220 cm, Private Collection. Wikimedia Commons.

There are many paintings showing the city’s sacking and destruction, of which my favourite, for its truly apocalyptic vision, is this attributed to Gillis van Valckenborch.

Although the Odyssey and Aeneid tell much of the story of those who either returned home or fled across the Mediterranean, other parts of the cycle add detail.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891), oil on canvas, 149 x 92 cm, Gallery Oldham, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

In his Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus (1891), John William Waterhouse shows the sorceress Circe true to Homer’s account, offering Odysseus an enchanted cup containing wine laced with her magical potion. Her facial expression fits this well, and her left hand wields her magic wand, ready to transform Odysseus into a pig, as cued by the sight of a pig resting peacefully at her feet. Her right hand offers Odysseus and the viewer the enchanted cup. A large circular mirror shows Odysseus, and puts the viewer invisibly within the painting.

Circe bore Odysseus three sons, the youngest of whom was Telegonus, who according to other legends in the cycle unintentionally killed his father, or alternatively the cause of Odysseus’s death may have been the droppings of a passing heron.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Penelope and the Suitors (1912), oil on canvas, 129.8 x 188 cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, Aberdeen, Scotland. Wikimedia Commons.

Over the years of Odysseus’s absence from his wife Penelope and their son Telemachus, she had attracted the attentions of many suitors, as shown in Waterhouse’s Penelope and the Suitors from 1912. They took over her court, living off her kingdom, raping a dozen of her maids, and rose to number over a hundred by the time that Odysseus returned to Ithaca.

Penelope was driven to resort to devious tactics to keep them at bay. The most celebrated was her promise that she could only consider her suitors once she had completed weaving the shroud for Laertes, the father of Odysseus who had sailed with Jason as one of his Argonauts. Although the suitors saw her weaving intently by day, she then unravelled her work each night.

At the end of the Odyssey, but long before Odysseus’s own death, he had to dispose of those suitors.

Gustave Moreau (1826–1898), The Suitors (c 1852-1885, unfinished), oil on canvas, 385 × 343 cm, Musée National Gustave-Moreau, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Gustave Moreau started this unfinished painting of The Suitors in about 1852, showing the resulting carnage. There are two prominent figures: Odysseus, who was originally holding a bow and standing proud at the top of steps on the right, and Athena, who is in mid-air in the middle of the painting, as Odysseus’s tutelary goddess. By the time Moreau had enlarged the canvas and repainted, Odysseus had become lost in the background, where he is now shown, still holding his bow, in the doorway at the back, with an owl over his head. Athena is pre-eminent.

I hope you’ll me in the coming months as I retell this cycle with more great works of art.