Orestes pursued by the furies.
Orestos pursued by the furies.
Orestos pursued by the furies.
About the painting:
This is a huge oil on canvas painting. There are five figures clustered in the centre, leaving the dark landscape background largely unnoticed. A thorny vine creeps across their path in the right foreground. The one male, nude holding his hands over his ears with an expression of pain on his face, is swarthy and surrounded by four females in various tints of pale. Three of the females, hair swarming with snakes, are the furies: Tisiphone, Alecto, and Megaera point at his crime, as he covers his ears and tries to escape. The female to his left, his mother, has a knife buried deep in her chest. Her head is tilted back and she is supported by one of the furies. The mother's hair hangs down long past her waist, blood drips on her creamy white skin and garments. Her lower body is draped in a swirling red cloth. The three furies have an eerie cast to their skin, and their faces are distorted in anger. The one on the right side of the canvas holds a torch in her left hand, but the flames are subdued in comparison to the red garment draped about the murdered woman. Orestes, the one male in the painting, murdered her for killing his father.
Orestes finds a refuge and a solace at the new temple of Apollo in Delphi, and the god, unable to deliver him from the Erinyes' unappeasable wrath, sends him along to Athens under the protection of Hermes, while he casts a drowsy spell upon the pursuing Erinyes in order to delay them.
Clytemnestra's ghost appears from the woods and rouses the sleeping Erinyes, urging them to continue hunting Orestes. The Erinyes' first appearance on stage is haunting: they hum a tune in unison as they wake up, and seek to find the scent of blood that will lead them to Orestes' tracks. Ancient tradition says that on the play's premiere this struck so much fear and anguish in the audience, that a pregnant woman named Neaira suffered a miscarriage and died on the spot.
The Erinyes' tracking down of Orestes in Athens is equally haunting: Orestes has clasped Athena's small statue in supplication, and the Erinyes close in on him by smelling the blood of his slain mother in the air. Once they do see him, they can also see rivulets of blood soaking the earth beneath his footsteps.
As they surround him, Athena intervenes and brings in a jury of twelve Athenians to judge her supplicant. Apollo acts as attorney for Orestes, while the Erinyes act as advocates for the dead Clytemnestra. During the trial, Apollo convinces Athena that, in a marriage, the man is more important than the woman, by pointing out that Athena was born only of Zeus and without a mother (Zeus swallows Metis). Before the trial votes are counted, Athena votes in favour of Orestes. After being counted, the votes on each side are equal. Athena then persuades the Erinyes to accept her decision. They eventually submit. (However, in Euripides' Iphigeneia in Tauris, the Erinyes continue to haunt Orestes even after the trial.) Athena then renames them Eumenides (The Kindly Ones, a euphemism), and they will now be honored by the citizens of Athens and ensure their prosperity. Athena also declares that henceforth hung juries should result in the defendant being acquitted, as mercy should always take precedence over harshness.
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