LASTMAN, Pieter Pietersz.
(b. 1583, Amsterdam, d. 1633, Amsterdam)

Orestes and Pylades Disputing at the Altar

Oil on panel, 83 x 126 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The paintings Lastman made shortly after his return from Italy to Amsterdam in 1607 effectively use landscape to help set a mood. They show the profound influence of Elsheimer. Around 1610 he also began to make history pictures with the landscape subordinated to many figures, a type of painting that became his speciality. At first his crowds were scattered,and it is sometimes difficult to distinguish protagonists from secondary figures; but by the end of the decade he was able to use a crowd to enhance the dramatic action of a story.

In this painting Lastman made a definite distinction between the brightly illuminated figures in the foreground, the dimly lit figures in the middle distance and the blue-grey illumination of the group in the background. Most of the light falls on the protagonists, Orestes and Pylades, standing to the left of the altar, discussing which of them will have to sacrifice himself. Here Pieter Lastman portrayed the crucial moment in a classic drama.

The Greek writer Euripides (c. 4871-406 BC) described how Orestes, son of the hero Agamemnon, travelled to Tauris, together with his faithful friend Pylades, in order to steal the famous cult statue of the goddess Artemis. The priestess of the temple that housed the wooden statue was none other than Iphigenia, Orestes' sister, whom Artemis had secretly brought to Tauris years earlier. Orestes did not know that she was still alive. Before the friends could put their wicked plan into action, however, they were found out and taken prisoner. Orestes and Pylades were led along to the temple, where they were to be sacrificed - the fate of all strangers who set foot on Tauris. Iphigenia took pity on them and decided that one of them would be allowed to live, leaving it to the men to decide who should be sacrificed. Although each wanted to die to save the other, they finally decided that Orestes would be sacrificed. At the moment he was to die, however, Iphigenia recognized her brother. The sacrificial banquet was called off, and Iphigenia and the young men fled to Mycenae, taking the statue of Artemis with them.

Lastman portrayed this complicated story in a skilful manner. The illumination and colour scheme were used to set off the protagonists from the dozen of supporting actors. Typical of Lastman's early work is the crowded composition, in which throngs of people can be distinguished far into the background. They form a colourful procession of spectators, winding their way from the temple to the altar, carrying armour, human heads on poles and the wooden statue of Artemis.