Jan Steen’s late biblical and mythological paintings often surprise and bewilder the viewer, and none more so than this monumental work of 1671. Here the young, beautiful Iphigenia has been brought to an altar to be sacrificed to appease an angry goddess, yet the scene has little of the gravity one would expect from such a serious subject. Surrounding the demure heroine, dressed in virginal white, are an array of theatrical types that seem to overplay their parts: the blood-thirsty executioner, the old crone yelling at the crying child, the despairing father, a conniving priest, supercilious soldiers, and a crowd of curious onlookers awaiting the denouement of the action.
No one has expressed their bewilderment about this work more forcefully than Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92), who could not restrain himself from railing that “the countenances are so familiar, and consequently so vulgar . . . that one would be almost tempted to doubt, whether the artist did not purposely intend to burlesque his subject.”1 Indeed, Reynolds’s comments raise questions about how one should approach this masterpiece, conceived in a manner totally contrary to classicizing pictorial traditions, not only ones to which Reynolds adhered in the eighteenth century, but also those current during Steen’s own lifetime.
Not all of Steen’s biblical and mythological scenes are humorous or satirical: see, for example, his Supper at Emmaus in the Rijksmuseum (fig 1).2 So when Steen did opt to introduce humor to a serious subject such as the sacrifice of Iphigenia, one needs to ask why and for what intent? The question is particularly intriguing because Steen only depicted this story from the Trojan War once, in this large painting that he executed near the end of his career. To some extent the answer lies in Steen’s fascination with the theater, but it also revolves around his awareness of the social, political, and religious disputes in the Dutch Republic. As discussed below, it is likely that Steen decided to depict this subject in a satirical manner as a means to comment critically on the complicated theological and political power struggles occurring in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic.
The dramatic scenario surrounding the sacrifice of Iphigenia was the focus of Euripides’s influential play Iphigenia at Aulis (408–6 B.C.). The story unfolds at the very beginning of the Trojan War, shortly after Paris abducted Helen, the wife of Menelaus, and took her to Troy. Menelaus’s brother, Agamemnon, was the leader of an expedition of Greek warriors who gathered at Aulis, a port in central Greece, to set sail for Troy to retrieve Helen. When unfavorable winds prevented his fleet from departing, the seer Calchas discovered that the goddess Diana was delaying the ships as an act of revenge against Agamemnon, who had previously killed a stag in her sacred woods. Calchas told Agamemnon that to appease the goddess, he would have to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon thus summoned Iphigenia and his wife, Clytemnestra, to Aulis under the pretext that their daughter would be married to the young hero Achilles—a ruse devised by Ulysses. Achilles, initially ignorant of the deception, became incensed when Agamemnon’s trickery came to light and attempted to prevent Iphigenia’s death. Ultimately, however, Iphigenia volunteered to be sacrificed so that her father’s ships might sail for Troy. When the noble maiden was led to the altar, Diana herself intervened and spared Iphigenia by allowing a stag to be slain in her stead.
Jan Steen could have read Euripides’s play when he was at the Latin School in Leiden, probably in the form of Erasmus’s Latin translation of the Greek text. Although Steen’s painting reflects the essential narrative of the Greek author’s play, his distinctive interpretation of the narrative indicates that Euripides’s text was not his only source of inspiration. Also important for him was the 1617 play Iphigenia by the Dutch playwright Samuel Coster (1579–1665).3
Coster, a medical doctor, founder of the Duytsche Academie and a man of libertine ideas, satirized in his Iphigenia the extremism of the orthodox clergy. This was quite daring in these years of strong antagonism between two factions of the Dutch Reformed Church: the Remonstrants and the Counter-Remonstrants. The religious dispute became a political power struggle when Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (1547–1619), the most prominent Dutch politician of the era, sided with the first, more liberal group, while Prince Maurits of Orange (1567–1625), the commander in chief of the Dutch forces, opted for the orthodox Counter-Remonstrants. By 1617, Coster could not know that this dispute ended with the drama of the execution in 1619 of the old leader, Oldenbarnevelt, ordered by Prince Maurits. The dominance of the Couter-Remonstrants lasted during the following decades.
In his play, Coster stressed the dilemma Agamemnon faced, a leader who did not know which advice to follow. In order to stress this antithesis, Coster introduced a second priest, the seer Euripylus, who demanded strict obedience to religious rules, in contrast with the priest Calchas who plays a moderate role. At the first performance of the play, it must have been evident to the public that in calling for the sacrifice of a young maiden, Euripylus mirrored the uncompromising attitude of the orthodox calvinist preachers of the time.
Coster deliberately confronted his audience with moral problems, worded in former times, but still topical. In the introduction to his play he stated that the poets of antiquity did not just leave the play to posterity as an invention, but that they meant it as:
a painting on the wall, in which observant people can measure the course of the World, and can determine how Hypocrisy, under the cloak of Religion, displays his character. How Hunger for political and financial power, under the guise of sincerity, even if it results in total upheaval, glorifies its knavery and makes it work to her benefit.4
In 1630, when Coster’s play was put on the stage again, the Amsterdam clergymen forced the burgomasters to ban all public performances of Coster’s Iphigenia. However, the issues that Coster raised had ongoing currency within the Dutch Republic throughout most of the seventeenth century.
In 1670–71 the young Prince Willem III of Orange (1650–1702) was about to come of age, and it was unclear what his role in the Republic should be; the debate over personal liberty, religious tolerance, and overbearing church interference in civic life had flared up again; and noted philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–77) had published his acclaimed Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in 1670, in which he attacked the Protestant church leadership’s interference in secular society and argued for individual liberty. So it is hardly surprising that in 1671 Jan Steen turned to Coster’s politicized version of Iphigenia as the basis for his pictorial message of caution. It is not so clear whether the two priests may be recognised in Steen’s painting. Evidently, the man with the mitre is the bad guy, but is there—maybe the man with the fur cap to the right—a second priest? It is very well possible that Steen just followed Euripides’ play, while at the same time referring to the interpretations of Coster.
Jan Steen staged the scene across the canvas as though it were a theatrical performance. The young victim kneels with her eyes closed before an altar erected under a statue of Diana. Her executioner, the personification of evil, eagerly awaits the fateful command from a despondent Agamemnon who holds his head in despair while resting his right arm on his walking stick. A bearded priest wearing a bishop’s miter, probably Calchas, possibly Euripylus, emphatically urges him to act. Behind Agamemnon stands a helmeted soldier looking askance toward Agamemnon, likely Ulysses, who conceived the plan to bring Iphigenia to Aulis. At left, mirroring Agamemnon, an old woman leaning on a stick may be Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, who accompanied Iphigenia to Aulis. Steen also added a number of figures not mentioned in literary sources to enhance his narrative. The crying youngster with a broken bow and arrow represents Cupid, disappointed that he was not able to kindle the flame of love between Iphigenia and Achilles. The young woman kneeling in front of the altar helps fulfill Diana’s wish to sacrifice a stag rather than Iphigenia by draping laurel vines around its neck. Steen enriched the right foreground with a translucent bottle of oil and a basket of roses half-covered by a splendid piece of Indian chintz.5
Steen made use of a variety of visual sources, including his own work, in conceiving this painting. For example, the figures of the priest and Agamemnon derive from comparable figures in his Moses Trampling Pharaoh’s Crown, ca. 1670 (fig 2).6 Steen must also have consulted the print The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Nicolas Beatrizet (1515–after 1565), then thought to have been based on a design by Michelangelo (1475–1564) (fig 3).7 Steen not only took over the image of the stag from this print, but also the pose of Iphigenia with her crossed arms.8
Steen likely made this large painting for Willem van Heemskerck (1613–92), a leading cloth manufacturer in Leiden and a man of great erudition.9 In 1675, Van Heemskerck, who appears as a cloth merchant and syndic in a group portrait by Jan de Baen (1633–1702) in Leiden’s Lakenhal (fig 4), was also an accomplished glass calligrapher, poet, and the author of several plays.10 It was in these latter capacities that his image was included in Panpoëticon Batavum, a collection of paintings of Dutch poets that Aernout van Halen (1673–1732) created in the early eighteenth century. Steen’s acquaintance with Van Heemskerck, his senior by 10 years, probably stemmed from his earlier childhood. The house belonging to Van Heemskerck’s grandfather stood on the Nieuwe Rijn next to the house of the painter Isaac Claesz van Swanenburgh (1537–1614).11 In 1647 Steen’s family lived on the south side of the Nieuwe Rijn, diagonally opposite these houses. After Steen’s return to Leiden in 1670, the two men would have likely reconnected because of their shared interest in the arts and theater.
Van Heemskerck is one of the few contemporary owners of Steen’s work whose name is known. In his collection was not only Sacrifice of Iphigenia but also Peasants Merrymaking Outside an Inn (JS-108), both of which were inherited by Van Heemskerck’s descendent, Leonard van Heemskerck. It is remarkable that that two of Steen’s large paintings—both nearly two meters wide—were owned by one person and, centuries later, are again in the hands of a single owner.
Steen’s dramatic figures, with their accentuated gestures and facial distortions, reflect his abiding interest in the theater. A number of his paintings have been connected to plays, and he repeatedly used stage props, such as curtains, in his works. Sacrifice of Iphigenia, in particular, resembles the spectacular tragicomedies of the playwright and director of the Amsterdam theatre Jan Vos (1612–67), whose works were performed in Amsterdam during the 1650s and 1660s. It seems probable that Steen’s inherent theatrical inclinations led him to pursue an equivalent mode in painting in the 1670s, when Vos’s extravagant productions had come under attack by classicists seeking a purer form of theater.13 In the mid-1670s Amsterdam’s theater, which had been rebuilt in 1665, had become subject to strict regulations by the church. It banned all kinds of pieces, particularly those referring to political and religious disputes, as had been the case with Coster’s Iphigenia, which had not been performed in the theater since 1630.
Not all plays, however, were performed exclusively in public theaters. Plays were also read out loud in domestic settings. In the second half of the seventeenth century, Holland had small reading societies at which roles were allocated to the members and plays were read aloud in a group.14 It is entirely possible that Steen and Van Heemskerck belonged to the same play-reading club and that they both participated in the reading of a piece, such as Coster’s Iphigenia. Steen, a Catholic, and Van Heemskerck, a Remonstrant, would certainly have sympathized with the mockery of the fanatical Reformed clergymen that had caused the play to be banned from the stage. This painting, with its array of theatrical poses and gestures, may well have been made with such a recitation in mind.
Steen’s comic mode is greatly beloved the world over; however, historically he has not been without his critics. Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his Sixth Discourse, written for students of the Royal Academy in 1774, characterized Jan Steen as a master who, if he had lived in Rome and had received instruction from Michelangelo and Raphael instead of from Adriaen Brouwer and Jan van Goyen, could have become a great artist: “he would have ranged with the pillars and supporters of our Art.”15 As already noted, in his Eighth Discourse of 1786 Reynolds lashed out at the prime example of Steen’s failings, Sacrifice of Iphigenia.16 Reynold’s criticisms have a ring of truth, particularly as seen from a classicist vantage point, but here the English painter and critic entirely misses Steen’s cautionary political commentary. Steen, who loved to make viewers laugh, does not in any way ridicule the heroism of Iphigenia, but rather emphasizes the weaknesses and deceitful behavior of those surrounding her. His intent, almost certainly, was to mock the self-righteous behavior of seventeenth-century theologians, much as the playwright Samuel Coster had done earlier in the century.
I am most grateful to Arthur Wheelock and Henriette Rahusen for thoughtful comments on the first draft of this entry.