Had you visited our house until the mid-1990s, you might have noticed, while walking up the winding stone stairway, a black-and-white print of a painting on the wall above you.
This was just one of the artworks that were on display in the entrance stairwell, until the thefts began. First the beautiful Japanese porcelain face masks over each doorway disappeared; then the shiny brass railing. We even had to place protective padlocked cages around lightbulbs, as they vanished too.
The painting survived, deemed by thieves too inaccessible, heavy, and uninteresting. I knew it depicted a scene from ancient Greece, but it didn’t arouse further curiosity.
I don’t know how long the print has been in the family, but the fact that it is titled in German “Die Gefangene Andromache” (“Captive Andromache”) suggests it was purchased by my grandfather during his years in Germany.
Today, of course, everything is accessible online. So here is a picture of the painting in colour; the original oil painting hangs in the Manchester City Art Gallery,s the work (1888) of English sculptor and painter Sir Frederic Leighton (1830-1896).
Leighton, like so many other artists, was partial to themes from ancient Greek history and mythology. This is a scene depicting the sequel, if you will, to Homer’s Iliad: the aftermath of the Trojan War.
It’s still not a historical certainty that the Trojan War actually took place, although there are so many different accounts of it down the ages that it must contain at least a basic kernel of truth.
According to Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged between the 13th and 12th centuries BC. The trigger was the abduction (or perhaps the elopement) of Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, to Troy by Paris, prince of Troy.
If the Trojan War was indeed a historical event, historians now feel that Helen’s abduction was a convenient pretext (just was the fabricated ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were for the invasion of Iraq) for a concerted Greek attack on the rich city of Troy. Its location in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) near the narrow Dardanelles strait (known in antiquity as Hellespont) joining the Black Sea to the Aegean, made it of strategic importance on the vital trade routes connecting East and West. In addition to spices, gold and other riches, it also handled copper and tin necessary for making bronze, the crucial alloy for fashioning armaments in the Bronze Age. Just as wars today are fought over oil, whatever the ostensible reasons given to us are, so it is also plausible to assume that the Trojan War, a supposedly ‘just war’ based on lofty principles and honour, like so many ‘just wars’ after it, was actually a grab for power and control.
The principal characters in the Trojan War are, on the Greek side: Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and brother of Menelaus; another king Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin), king of Ithaca and part of the Greek coalition; and the Greek hero-warrior Achilles.
On the Trojan side: Priam, king of Troy; his sons Hector and Paris, princes of Troy and his daughter Cassandra, princess of Troy; and Andromache, wife of Hector, by whom she has an infant son Astyanax. There are many more on both sides, but these will suffice for us. Hector is the Trojan hero-warrior counterpart to the Greek Achilles.
According to Homer’s Iliad, the war raged for ten years, with neither side the victor; the formidable battlements of the fortress-city of Troy were immune to attack, and there were obviously sufficient food and water supplies within despite the long siege.
Matters come to a head when Achilles, maddened with rage after the death of his cousin Patroclus, challenges Hector to a duel. This is given much melodrama in the 2004 Hollywood film Troy.
Ironically, the soldier idealised by Homer is the Trojan warrior-hero Hector. He has the character of the model soldier and citizen.
Andromache in classical Greek means “battler of men” (Andros= male; mache=battle). In many accounts of the story and in the 2004 film, when Hector bids goodbye to his family, Andromache beseeches him not to rise to Achilles’ bait. In Hector’s response, Homer foreshadows the end of the Trojan War and its outcome for not just Hector and for Troy, but for his nuclear family as well, tilting the reader’s sympathy in favour of Troy rather than Greece.
Like any husband, Hector tells Andromache he cares more for her and their son than for his country. He is fighting for something much more personal: his wife, his child and his home. We identify very much with Hector and with Troy.
Hector envisages that Andromache will soon be a widow and Astyanax an orphan. What even he is unable to foresee (and Homer’s Iliad ends before the outcome of the Trojan War is revealed) is that the outcome will actually be far more gruesome. Achilles murders Hector in full view of Andromache, and then defiles the corpse by dragging it behind his chariot around the city walls. King Priam has to beg for the return of his son’s body, so it can be given a proper hero’s farewell.
And when Troy eventually falls (whether the Trojan horse is a literal device of Greek deceit, or a metaphor for an ancient ‘weapon of mass destruction’ is unclear), Andromache has her son Astyanax wrenched from her bosom and hurled from the battlement walls, killing him instantly; the Greeks consider it too dangerous to allow Astyanax to live lest he grow up to avenge his father and his countrymen. The Greeks’ ‘just war’ ends unjustly, dishonourably and deceitfully.
And what of Andromache? She becomes a ‘spoil of war’. No time to even grieve her husband and son, she is forcibly made concubine to Achilles’ son Neoptolemus.
It is at this juncture that Leighton portrays Andromache. She is literally at the centre of the painting, clad in drab black clothes (signifying mourning to 19th century England, even if not ancient Greece) in stark contrast to the bright colours worn by everyone else. Head bowed, isolated from those who bustle around her, she contemplates her fate.
A once-proud princess, she is now reduced to the menial task of drawing water from the common well, and patiently waits her turn in the queue.
And although Leighton couldn’t have foreseen it in 1888, the cloud directly above Andromache resembles eerily the mushroom cloud we associate with another horror of warfare, the atom bomb.
Andromache is true to her name, not in the literal sense of ‘battling’ men. Not every battle need be fought in the physical sense, all blood and gore. But her character and her life, although influenced, prodded, traumatised and brutalised by testosterone-fuelled notions of war, honour, glory, rise above it all. She seems to be questioning both the victor and the loser in the war whether the human toll and blood price was really worth it.
(An edited version of this article was published on 11 June 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)