Skip to main content

L'Asie vaincue

cat 5 crop.jpg

CAT 5. Etienne Achille Réveil after John Flaxman. L’Asie vaincu. Plate 31 in Tragédies d’Eschyle illustrating Act 4 in Les Perses. Paris: 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

This image of Asia vanquished captures the full humanism of Aeschylus’s play. The glory of war is reduced to the pathos of a woman whose loved one will never return. Her entire generation of Persian warriors has been destroyed by the overreaching ambition of their commander Xerxes. The clarity of line and expressiveness of posture, the rich interplay of the expired hopes and empty armor—these elements of Flaxman’s pictorial depiction translate Aeschylus’s vision into graphic form.

In Queen Atossa’s dream, the Greek and Persian maidens pulling her son Xerxes in a chariot were both “flawless in beauty, / and sisters from the one same / parentage.” That essential sisterhood is then destroyed as the “two of them build bitter quarrels” over whose “fatherland” would be whose, initiating the stage of the dream in which Xerxes takes his symbolic “fall” (Aeschylus/Potter, lines 190-93; Aeschylus/Lembke, pp. 47-48). Flaxman’s hand restores the sisterhood of their shared humanity because the mourning woman depicted here could be from any culture. The fetal position of the sophisticated young mourner awakens the viewer to a kind of primal reality against which an “advanced” culture must check its most “civilized” ambitions. She personifies the essential spirit of the message voiced by the Ghost of Darius in the play.

Pictorially, the posture of Flaxman’s mourning female figure resembles that of Psyche in Melville’s engraving of The Enchanted Castle after Claude Lorrain (CAT 128). Psychologically, her heartfelt devastation resembles that of Hunilla in Melville’s “The Encantadas”: “it needs not be said what nameless misery now wrapped the lonely widow” (NN PTO 155).