Pieter Codde – The sacrifice of Polyxena

This exceptional history painting by Pieter Codde depicts the sacrifice of Polyxena, a dramatic episode from the last phase of the Trojan War. Polyxena was the youngest daughter of the Trojan king, Priam. She witnessed the murder of her brother, Troilus, by the Greek hero Achilles, who then fell in love with her. The Trojans took advantage of the situation, luring Achilles into a trap and killing him. Following the fall of Troy, Achilles’s ghost appeared to the Greeks, demanding that Polyxena, who had been taken prisoner, should be sacrificed on his grave. A long debate ensued as to whether or not this request should be honoured, with Achilles’s son Pyrrhus finally agreeing to commit the horrible deed. Images of the sacrifice of Polyxena are often confused with depictions of another event from the Trojan War, namely, the sacrifice of Iphigenia.1 Here, however, the subject is undeniably Polyxena – the sacrifice is carried out not by the priest Calchas, as in the case of Iphigenia, but by a man wearing a helmet and cuirass and thus clearly identifiable as the warrior Pyrrhus.2

Codde must have been well acquainted with the story, as he includes many details also found in the written sources.3 He places Polyxena and Pyrrhus on a mound: the tomb of Achilles. As Pyrrhus draws his sword, the kneeling Polyxena turns towards him, looking up. Here Codde again follows the ancient authors, who claim Polyxena met her fate fearlessly, even baring her breast to make it easier for Pyrrhus to strike his target. Pyrrhus himself was deeply ambivalent about the sacrifice, and Codde shows him staring off into the distance, his brow furrowed in thought. Assembled around the grave are the grieving Trojan women and several children: a crouching woman looks angrily at the pair; another covers her eyes, while an old woman has thrown herself to the ground, her fists clenched. This is probably Polyxena’s mother, Hecuba. At the far right, wrapped in a white cloak, stands Calchas, the soothsayer who had insisted Achilles’s demand be heard. The self-assured man in the left foreground, with his large turban and staff, is probably Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks. He is surrounded by his warriors, who, as in the legend, are moved to tears by Polyxena’s composure and courage.

The Amsterdam artist Pieter Codde is mainly known as a painter of portraits and genre scenes: interiors with usually rather small figures of elegantly dressed men and women or soldiers in their guardrooms. He made his name, however, with the so-called Meagre company,4 a large militia portrait begun by Frans Hals but finished by Codde following a dispute between the great master and his patrons in 1637. Codde was most productive in the years around 1625-40. Only portraits and a few history paintings are known after this time. As one of his most elaborate history paintings, The sacrifice of Polyxena is an important work in his oeuvre. Aside from The judgement of Midas in the Museum der Bildende Künste in Leipzig (fig. 1) there is almost no other painting with which it can be compared. This makes it quite difficult to date. The composition, with its piling up of figures at the left and right, seems somewhat old fashioned, and is reminiscent, for example, of pictures executed by the artists around Pieter Lastman a generation earlier.

Like these painters, too, Codde pays extraordinary attention to his characters’ varying states of mind – the courageous Polyxena, the doubting Pyrrhus, the hysterical Hecuba and the intransigent Agamemnon. Nevertheless, the painting was undoubtedly made later. With its beautifully reproduced fabrics, the picture is far more colourful than Codde’s virtually monochromatic genre paintings of the 1630s, such as Festivity with masked dancers of 1636, now in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.5 It thus seems to belong more to the stylistically transitional 1640s, when Dutch art generally started to become more bright and variegated. A date of around 1640-1650 therefore seems plausible.

The sacrifice of Polyxena is an unusual subject in seventeenth century Dutch art. It was only depicted a few times, and by artists with no connection to Codde.6 It seems possible that the Amsterdam theatre may have provided the inspiration for Codde’s piece. During the first half of the century several plays were published dealing with the history of the Trojan heroine.7 In that of the Amsterdam playwright Samuel Coster particular emphasis is placed on the sacrifice. The first edition of the play appeared already in 1619, but it was reprinted in both 1630 and 1644. Coster’s Polyxena was performed several times in Amsterdam, among them on 18 April 1644.8 It is thus conceivable that Codde either knew of the publication or had even seen a performance of Coster’s play.9 Moreover, Coster’s work is the only written source in which Polyxena’s mother Hecuba is present at the sacrifice – as she is in Codde’s painting. Her daughter reprimands her for showing her grief and behaving in an unworthy fashion. In this way, Coster further underlines Polyxena’s exemplary conduct, presenting her as a model of courage and self-restraint.10 Codde appears to have sought to achieve something similar in his painting. The editions of Coster’s play published in 1630 and 1644 include a rather simple engraving of the sacrifice scene (fig. 2), accompanied by a four-line verse:11

Wie Tyrannie haet, wie vroom is en rechtschapen.

Aenschout den moort lust van de blinde Griecsche Papen.

Die ’t Vollick leeren, dat Gods gramschap wort gheboet.

Door ’t gruw’lic storten van onnosel Maechde bloet.

(‘He who hates tyranny and is pious and just / look upon the murderous lust of the blind Greek popes / who teach the people that God’s anger should be atoned / by the wretched spilling of innocent maiden’s blood.’)

This is clearly a condemnation of the Greeks, who, due to their super­stitions – they are obeying an apparition – put a blameless woman to death. Interestingly, the superstitious Greeks are referred to as ‘papen’ – popes or Catholics – and Calchas is depicted in the engraving carrying a bishop’s crook. Codde, too, seems to have wanted to express his disapproval of the murdering Greeks in a similar manner, giving his Calchas a censer, another specifically Catholic attribute. This lends further support to the suggestion that Codde was inspired by Coster’s play. This makes the painting exceptional in Dutch art, as an example of the reciprocal influence of theatre and painting, otherwise often so difficult to prove.