Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Death of Polyxena from De Mulieribus Claris

Death of Polyxena, from De Mulieribus Claris, 1403

The artist behind this image is unknown, but it was created in France for a 1403 edition of Bocaccio's De Mulieribus Claris.  Bocaccio first published De Mulieribus Claris, which means "On Famous Women", in 1378.  It features the biographies of one hundred and six historical and mythological women, and is the first such collection devoted to women.  It begins with Eve and continues through Bocaccio's own time, ending with Joanna I of Naples.  It includes goddesses like Venus and Isis, mythological figures like Clytemnestra and Penthesilea, and historical figures like Cleopatra and Agrippina.  Bocaccio was inspired by Petrarch's On Famous Men and in turn influenced a number of similar works about women, including Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. I find this depiction of Polyxena particularly interesting.  Polyxena was a Trojan princess who was sacrificed at the end of the Trojan War to aid in the Greeks' return home (they left Greece with the sacrifice of an innocent girl, so no reason they shouldn't get back the same way). Polyxena is resigned to her fate and prefers to die in Troy than to live on as the slave to a Greek soldier (the fate of many Trojan women).  This illumination bears many hallmarks of medieval illustration, with its flat space and stilted poses, but there is also something extremely sophisticated bout it.  Most of this interest comes from the expression on Polyxena's face.  The artist managed to convey Polyxena's resignation and weariness, as well as her sadness.  This sadness is for herself and for her city and people, so utterly destroyed.  Even the Greek soldier's face is complex, registering something perhaps close to remorse.  Notice that Polyxena's hands are folded in her lap; she waits calmly for the sword to fall, a bitter end to the tragedy of Troy.

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