Henryk Siemiradzki was famous for monumental compositions depicting events from the early days of the Roman Empire as well as idyllic everyday life scenes of the people of ancient Italy, shown against landscapes of the Campania region.
A Christian Dirce is Siemiradzki’s final large-scale history painting. It shows a re-enactment of a Greek myth – performed at the behest of Emperor Nero – in which Dirce, the queen of Thebes, is put to death by being tied to the horns of a bull and smashed against rocks. According to the writings of the Roman historian Suetonius, Nero decreed that during the games in the amphitheatre, a beautiful young Christian girl was to suffer the same fate.
Here, Siemiradzki shows the conclusion of that ruthless spectacle – the moment in which the pleased emperor examines the lifeless girl and the felled beast. The painting’s composition reflects the theatrical and spectacular arrangement that was typical of academic painting. The gallery stretching into the distance and the arches in the background create an effective frame for the depiction of the crowd and the main figures in the centre. In line with the principles of academic art, Siemiradzki demonstrates his technical virtuosity and his erudition, evident in the almost archaeological attention to detail. It is highly probable that the symbolism of the sacrificed beauty (aside from the undeniable eroticism that immediately strikes the viewer) harbours a complicated medley of lofty meanings. Among them, we can identify ones that are universal – referencing the notion of Christianity enduring, as well as those that are national – a hope of Poland regaining independence, and artistic – connected with the artist’s concern about the future of art.
It is worth noting that Siemiradzki’s works were sometimes a source of inspiration for his friend the author Henryk Sienkiewicz, a Nobel laureate and writer of the seminal and much-adapted novel Quo Vadis, which features a similar scene played out by Ligia – a Christian girl tied to the back of an ox.