Ajax and Cassandra

I ran across this wonderful painting today while looking for images to illustrate the Classical myth of Cassandra. This is “Ajax and Cassandra” The subject is rape. And yet I couldn’t stop looking. I still find it disturbingly beautiful. Full of such a power and emotion! Wanted to share with you…

“Ajax and Cassandra” by Solomon J. Solomon (1886). It hangs in the Art Gallery of Ballarat in Victoria, Australia.

As the Greeks sacked the fallen city of Troy, they raped and pillaged. “Little” Ajax (the son of Oileus, not the more famous son of Telamon) is said to have dragged the Trojan princess Cassandra from the very altar of Athena and raped her on the spot. The impious act cost him his life on the return voyage, when the outraged goddess saw to it that he was shipwrecked (and in one version of the myth, impaled on a sharp rock).
This is perhaps the most famous painting by Solomon J. Solomon (1860-1927), a British artist who was influenced by Leighton and Alma-Tadema. For the academic painters of the day, mythological subjects offered a “respectable,” even prestigious opportunity to paint nudes. Solomon’s painting, however, is unusual in its overt eroticism. His interpretation is notable among Victorian works for celebrating male nudity as much as female. Ajax’s powerful, heavily muscled body contrasts with the soft curves of Cassandra. His biceps, forearm and clenched fist form a counterpoint to the feminine arm and hand reaching out in supplication to Athena.Circular cracks in the paint around Ajax’ nipple and Cassandra’s crotch suggest that someone once struck these areas with a blunt object. In a different context, Cassandra’s pose could be one of sexual abandon. Her face is deliberately obscured, so that the viewer can freely enjoy her body without taking her personhood into account.  Meanwhile Ajax glares at the viewer, as though to challenge any opponent who might dare to dispute his prize.
Solomon’s painting, then, is not an image of a rape, but of a rape fantasy. This painting is full of eroticism.

Rape fantasies cause a lot of angst and soul-searching among women, some of whom feel guilt if they find them arousing, and indignation if other people do. Human sexuality is complex, and our sexual urges are influenced by mammalian behaviors of dominance and submission. I think that woman’s rape fantasy is the opposite of a rape, because she is always in control of what happens. But what of a man’s rape fantasy, a fantasy of being the aggressor? Will be interesting to hear your point of view…

Sincerely yours, Cassandra

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