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The Tragedy of Andromache

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Following on from our previous article, ‘Mythology in a contemporary age’, let’s continue exploring art and mythology as it allows us to appreciate previous civilisations and its influence on contemporary society. This piece will appreciate Franz Matsch’s oil painting ‘The Triumph of Achilles’ and Frederic Leighton’s oil painting ‘Captive Andromache’ which focuses on the literature and mythology of ancient Greece. Both excellently portray the events of the Trojan War and its impact which are narrated in ancient Greek plays and literature.  Both paintings encapsulate the experience of tragedy which was heavily focused on by the ancient Greeks. 

Overview of Greek Drama and Literature 

For the ancient Greeks, tragedy was one of the three genres of drama with the other two being comedy and satyr plays. Tragedy dealt with big themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between men and gods.

The theatrical dramas performed by the ancient Greeks were heavily based on two standout poems: Iliad and The Odyssey, both of which Homer is regarded as the composer. It is from both these poems that countless works of literature, music, art and film are inspired from. 

Context of Frederic Leighton and Franz Matsch’s oil paintings

In ancient Greek literature including the Iliad, events of the Trojan War are narrated. The war began after the abduction (or elopement) of Queen Helen of Sparta by the Trojan prince Paris. Helen’s jilted husband Menelaus convinced his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, to lead an expedition to retrieve her. Agamemnon was joined by the Greek heroes Achilles, Odysseus, Nestor and Ajax, and accompanied by a fleet of more than a thousand ships from throughout the Hellenic world. They crossed the Aegean Sea to Asia Minor to lay siege to Troy and demanded Helen’s return by Priam, the Trojan king, which was ignored .

“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships”- Christopher Marlowe
The face that launched a thousand ships refers to Queen Helen of Sparta, describing the fact that a massive war was mounted on her behalf.

Franz Matsch’s oil painting ‘The Triumph of Achilles’ 

The Triumph of Achilles by Franz Matsch
The sight of the Hector’s death by dragging from a chariot

Whilst the war festered for over 10 years, the Trojan hero and prince Hector was slain by Achilles, the greatest of Greek warriors.  This leads us to Franz Matsch’s oil painting titled ‘The Triumph of Achilles’. The painting excellently depicts the dead Trojan hero Hector being dragged from a chariot by Achilles.  

The war finally concluded with Greek victory over the Trojans and Helen returned to Sparta reunited with Menelaus. The city of Troy, however, was attacked, the temples were destroyed, and its inhabitants were killed. This was except for some of the women and children of Troy who were divided as spoils of war and permanently separated from the ruins of Troy and one another. 

Amongst the captured women and children were Andromache and Astyanax. Andromache was the wife of the dead Trojan hero Hector – seen in the above painting by Franz Matsch – who died at the hands of Achilles. Astyanax was the young son of Andromache and Hector and he was shortly thrown from the city walls of Troy by Achilles son, Neoptolemus, for fear that he may one day avenge Troy. Andromache was subsequently taken as a concubine by Neoptolemus fulfilling the fate of conquered women in ancient warfare. 

Andromache provides an account of her husband’s death in the Athenian tragedy by Euripides:

I endured the sight of the Hector’s death by dragging from a chariot, 
and of Ilium (Troy) piteously burning.
I myself embarked on an Argive ship as a slave,
dragged by my hair. And when I arrived in
Phthia (Epirus), I became the bride of Hector’s killers.
How, then, is life sweet for me? Where can I look?
To my present or my past fortunes?
                                                                                                                                                                                            Euripides, Andromache 399-407

Frederic Leighton’s oil painting ‘Captive Andromache’

The painting by Frederic Leighton shows an enslaved Andromache arriving at Epirus where, following the Greek victory in the Trojan War, she has been awarded as a prize to Achilles’s son Neoptolemus.

In the centre, Andromache is draped in black with only her face, neck and foot visible. It portrays to the viewer that she is mourning and lamenting the death of Hector, her son Astyanax, and her enslavement to the Greeks. 

She is looking towards a family group at the bottom right, where a baby sits on its mothers’ knee and touches its fathers face. It is clear that Andromache is musing over what she has lost as only a short while previously, when she too had a family of her own.  

Then there are a number of individuals looking towards her and this could be the citizens of Epirus sympathising with her fate. This is because we know from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s translation of The Iliad and the Athenian tragedy by Euripides that Andromache’s fate was regarded most unfortunate by the ordinary citizens of Epirus: 

‘Some standing by,
Marking thy tears fall, shall say ‘This is she,
The wife of that same Hector that fought best
Of all the Trojans when all fought for Troy.’
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s translation of the Iliad 
‘Realize that you are
a servant in a foreign city
where there are none of those near and dear to you to turn to,
O most unfortunate of women,
O all-suffering bride’.
Euripides, Andromache 136-140

To add salts to the wounds of Andromache, Helen of Sparta had returned to live with Menelaus who held no grudges at her having run away with Paris. Further, despite the destruction her actions had caused, we find in Homer’s Odyssey that she had the audacity to tell Odysseus anecdotes of her life inside besieged Troy. 

The element of tragedy found here is that Helen’s action actions led to Andromache’s “wedding with slavery”, the death of her husband and son, Hector and Astyanax, as well as the destruction of Troy.

Societal position of Women in Ancient Greece

It is also worth pointing out how Frederic Leighton’s oil painting and ancient Greek mythology as a whole showcases the societal position of women in ancient Greece. In the bottom left corner of Leighton’s oil painting, we can see an elderly lady on the left spinning cloth. This was the type of work that Andromache was doing prior to the events in question and this is evident from Hector’s comments to Andromache prior to departing for war against the Greeks: 

“But return to the house, attend to your work, the loom and the distaff, and bid your handmaidens to do so also; but the men will have charge of the fighting, all of those from Ilium, but I more than others”

In this regard, Andromache was viewed the “perfect wife” in the eyes of ancient Athenians as she would weave clothing for her husband and would go above and beyond the expectations of women within the society. Thus, Andromache’s situation was all the more unfortunate and tragic. Frederic Leighton’s painting excellently captures this sentiment in the minds of the viewer.    

A fresco of The Triumph of Achilles by Franz Matsch is currently found on the upper level of the main hall in the Achillion Palace in Corfu whilst Frederic Leighton’s oil painting ‘Captive Andromache’ is found closer to home: Manchester Art Gallery. Hopefully for our readers, this piece has inspired further appreciation of ancient Greek literature and art.

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