Painting (b)

Iliad Retable




My "Iliad Retable" is an installation about the core of Homer's epic "Iliad " (ca. 850 BC). The "Iliad" - 24 books or hymns - describes only 51 days from the last year of the ten-year war of the Greeks against the Trojans (ca. 1200 BC). However, those 51 days are very decisive for the long struggle. These days are dominated by Achilles' grudge against the Greek army chief. The reason for the war is the kidnapping by the Trojan king's son Paris of the beautiful Helena, who is the wife of Menelaus of Sparta, the brother of the powerful King Agamemnon of Mycenae. Agamemnon leads the Greek coalition against Troy. Homer uses a romantic motif as the basis for this war. It is more likely that there were Imperialist motives behind it. Troy was too rich and too powerful in the eyes of the Greek allies, too independent and too self-willed. 


Homer's story revolves around three women, victims of brutal male violence: the kidnapped Greek Helena, and the also kidnapped Briseis and Chryseis from the vicinity of Troy. They do not remain the only victims of the belligerents in the "Iliad". The story begins with a deadly disease in the camp of the Greeks, an epidemic it seems. The seer Kalchas declares that it is a punishment from the god Apollo because Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief, treated a priest of Apollo very unworthily. This priest, Chryses, from Thebes, which was connected to Troy, wanted to ransom his daughter Chryseis, who had been given by the army as spoils of war to Agamemnon.. Agamemnon drove the priest out of his camp with terrible curses. This priest again called upon his god Apollo, who then passed invisibly through the Greek camp, shooting poisoned arrows, first at dogs and mules, then at the people he encountered. 


Agamemnon decides, after intense pressure, to release the young woman and to offer atonement sacrifices to Apollo. In exchange, however, he wants the spoils of war from Achilles: Briseis, the stolen wife of a king's son from the vicinity of Troy. Achilles is furious, even reaching for his sword, but he is eventually forced to comply with this demand of his commander-in-chief. However, he decided not to fight in the war anymore and not to deploy his men anymore. In addition, he urges his mother Thetis – she is a sea nymph who has a special bond with Zeus – to ask the supreme god to allow the Greeks to suffer great losses. Zeus agrees. He sends Agamemnon a deceptive dream in which it is made clear to him that he can conquer Troy without the help of Achilles. That later turns out to be a misconception. 


The Trojans are advancing, the Greek army is faltering, even their boats on the beach are being attacked and are in danger of being set on fire. The divisive Olympian gods also interfere personally in the war. Zeus is at his wits' end. Now that the situation threatens to become untenable for the Greeks, Patroklos, the bosom friend of Achilles, asks to be allowed to go to war in his armor and with his army. The Trojans will think that Achilles is participating again and that will frighten them. That turns out to be the case, but Patroklos, who has become overconfident due to the successes, is killed by Hector, the Trojan prince and army commander and intended heir to the throne. 


Achilles is mad with anger and grief at the death of his beloved Patroklos. He resumes the fight and defeats Hector in a duel. He ties his corpse to his chariot and drags him three times around the walls of Troy. Back in his camp, he continues to dishonor Hector's corpse. With the help of the devious god Hermes, the old king of Troy, Priam, manages to get unseen into the camp and even into Achilles' tent with a large treasure of gold. Impressed by Priam's courage and grief, Achilles allows Hector's corpse to be released and a ceasefire declared for the duration of the mourning ceremonies and the cremation of the king's son. 


That, in short, is the story of the "Iliad". A story about two rival leaders of the Greeks, about the tragic fate of stolen women, about the death of beloved people in both camps and about the fate brought about by wars. Not long after Hector's death, Achilles will die on the walls of Troy, wounded in his vulnerable heel by a poisoned arrow. The city will fall, possibly by a treacherous horse. However, these last things, the death of Achilles and the history of the horse, are not in Homer's "Iliad". They were later supplemented by other authors, such as the Roman poet Virgil (70 – 19 BC) for example, in the epic "Aeneid". 





My "Iliad Retable", an altarpiece of war, is an installation on table legs with sliding panels. The whole thing is about the core of the "Iliad", the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles, the fate of Chryseis and Briseis, and about the intervention of Patroklos in the war that will eventually lead to his death, as well as that of Hector, the hope of Troy. There are six painted panels. Two panels are 100 cm wide and 120 cm high. Four panels are 50 cm wide and 120 cm high. One of the large panels depicts the face of Briseis. The other large panel shows the faces of Hektor and Patroklos, faces that merge into each other, as well as their sad fate. Two of the narrower panels show halves of the faces of Achilles and Agamemnon. Achilles is green-eyed and Agamemnon is blue-eyed. Their faces are otherwise almost identical. These are power-hungry and violent leaders. The other two small panels show the halves of Chryseis' face. 


Initially, I conceived the installation as a triptych. My wife Beate, however, thought that the power of expression would be strengthened if each of the panels could be moved. "Shifting panels", it does justice to the content of the Iliad, and it does indeed increase the expressiveness of those painted panels in their ever-varying combinations. The panels are now on six rails with a length of two meters. Each panel has its own rail. As a result, all panels can be moved from left to right, and vice versa. They slide in front of and behind the other panels. Each shift always shows a new overall picture. Thus the two women, Briseis and Chryseis, may be flanked by one or two of their oppressors: Achilles, the slain, and Agamemnon, the opportunist. They are at their side in the installation, but this should be understood as a positioning, not as a support. Chryseis and Briseis are about 'torn' women: spoils of war, slave girls, concubines, victims of rape. In the second book of the "Iliad" (verses 354 – 356), a statement by the old Nestor - often unjustly presented as a symbol of an old, wise man - illustrates how reprehensible often protagonists in this Homeric story really are and think. When many of the Greeks want to flee in the ninth year of the war, because they no longer believe in a profitable outcome for them, Nestor makes a plea to dissuade them: "Let no one rush home until every Achaian has slept with the wife of a Trojan in order to avenge himself for all his pain and trouble with Helen." It is reminiscent of modern-day terrorist organizations, of calls for and the commission of brutal rape. 


We do not yet know exactly where Priam's Troy was. Remains of several cities have been found in layers at the presumed site by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. His assumption about finding the city of Priamos is incorrect. The layer he characterizes as Homeric Troy is an older city. The location, however, is probably correct. We know that Troy has been destroyed. At the same time, Troy is still in the midst of us, as a metaphor for violence that people inflict on each other. Terrible wars have taken place since then, and wars are still raging in the world, wars that we did not prevent. Terror has not been eradicated. We still know Agamemnons today. Troy is the symbol of a dystopian future. In order for this not only to be a hopeless perspective, we must not cease to tell the story, over and over again as an urgent warning. Perhaps that was Homer's intention: not to tell a "heroic epic", but to hold up a critical and warning mirror, a reflection of losers, because that is what all the protagonists in the Iliad ultimately were. 




Installation, acrylic on canvas, 2024, in a cabinet with rails 


Six panels on canvas (twice: H. 120 cm, W. 100 cm; four times: H. 120 cm., W. 50 cm) 


Total: H. 120 cm, W. 200 cm, without base cabinet (the panels are ready, the cabinet with rails still needs to be built)