Thursday, March 22, 2007

Iphigenia and Artemis

Having brought out the Oresteia, I thought of ways I might illustrate my lecture. Images of Agamemnon, however, are generally, in my experience, uninteresting. An image of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, on the other hand, ought to be a stunner. I am not all that familiar with the standard paintings-Torrelli, Fontebasso, Steen, Houbraken, Testa, Tiepolo -but they don't seem to leap off the canvas. This group, however, does capture something of the scene. This, found in Rome in the Gardens of Sallust and dating to 250-160 BCE (Hellenistic), depicts the version of the myth in which Artemis, who is after all the god of young girls--substitutes a stag for the body of the young girl at the last minute. There is nothing last-minutish about this group; time appears slowed down, and cooled off. The Artemis is a very good bodily portrait of the goddess, collected and virginal, and the graceful diagonal of the exposed Iphigenia is a worthy subject of her attentions.
They hold her over the improvised altar
Like a struggling calf.
The wind presses her long dress to her body
And flutters the skirt, and tugs at her tangled hair-- (Hughes)
The story of the sacrifice is so brazen, it seems to have acquired ambiguities along the way. What makes Artemis so angry? Why would she condone the sacrifice of one of her own? Aeschylus apparently originates the story that Agamemnon himself interprets the signs in such a way as to mean he sacrifice his daughter. I recall as a kid I much preferred the version of the stag substitute, though Aeschylus, clearly, knows better.