When Something You See Prompts You to Read Dante and to Even Consider Reading Herodotus
The Louvre’s collection of Italian paintings, at least the 14th-17th centuries part of it that I’ve been looking at for almost a year now, contains far more works on religious subjects than on secular ones, which explains in part why I have written so many more blog posts about religious paintings than on artworks devoted to classical mythology, history or contemporary society. But I have also been influenced by my academic interests: I’m a medievalist by training; my doctorate examined the background in monastic spiritual writing of late medieval secular love poetry, especially of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Last week I was definitely tempted out of my comfort zone by the intriguing title of a 1685 painting by Mattia Preti (1613-1699), Thomyris Immersing the Head of Cyrus in a Vase of Blood (1685). The incident was unfamiliar to me, as was the name of Thomyris; I thought I knew a little about Cyrus, a name I have associated for years with the Bible’s Book of Esther, which tells the story of a lovely Jewish girl whose marriage to the Persian king Cyrus helped to save her people from persecution. How could such a good man, I wondered, have suffered such a horrible end?
Simple, really. It isn’t the same Persian king at all. The Book of Esther’s Ahasuerus, or Assuerus, is Xerxes I, who was in power 485-465 B.C., while the Cyrus of the Preti painting is Cyrus the Great, who ruled Persia from 550 B.C. to 529 B.C.; two kings, Cambyses and Darius, ruled in the intervening years. What I thought I had known was gone, but it was readily replaced. A search for Thomyris, under a number of variant spellings, in the online Grove Dictionary of Art revealed that the story of Cyrus the Great and Thomyris had been presented in many paintings through the late Middle Ages into the Baroque era (Rubens, the Master of Flemalle, etc.) and mentioned by a number of writers, especially in works about notable female figures of history (Boccaccio, Eustache Deschamps), although Dante chose to mention her as a parable against pride in Purgatory 12:56. Medievalists, take note.
Clearly the incident was known because of its exemplary power: it represented womanhood, and it represented vices such as pride and vengeance (one painting the Grove characterizes as “imitated into the 17th century” was entitled The Vengeance of Tomyris). But it also had a great sound-bite that echoes down to us from the Greek historian Herodotus (490-480 B.C.-425 B.C.), who concludes the first book of The Histories with the death of Cyrus the Great at the hands of the Massagetae, ruled by Queen Thomyris. After her son and general, Spargapises, was captured in a battle against the Persians, a battle in which Cyrus had successfully used the stratagem of enticing the Massagetae into drunkenness to weaken them, Thomyris sent a message that demanded the return of her son. Herodotus reports her threat: “Glutton as you are for blood, you have no cause to be proud of this day’s work, which has no smack of soldierly courage….give me back my son and get out of my country with your forces intact…. If you refuse, I swear by the sun our master to give you more blood than you can drink, for all your gluttony.” She made good on her words; after Spargapises committed suicide while still a prisoner, she sent her army against Cyrus’s forces. In the battle that followed Cyrus was killed; his body was brought to the queen, who had the head removed and placed in a container of blood. “See now,” Herodotus has her say, “I fulfill my threat. You have your fill of blood.”
One final curiosity: the Grove Dictionary of Art has no mention of Preti’s painting of Thomyris; rather, it is his religious painting that dominates the dictionary’s account of his legacy. For a quick and impressive glimpse of that legacy, go to http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Mattia_Preti. Don’t forget to check out Preti’s hat.