LISS, Johann
(b. ca. 1590, Oldenburg, d. 1631, Verona)

The Death of Cleopatra

Oil on canvas, 97,5 x 85,5 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, committed suicide to avoid being taken prisoner by Octavius, who had conquered Anthony, Cleopatra's lover and Octavius' rival for supremacy in Rome. Plutarch reports that the Queen wished to die by a serpent's bite, for the ancient Egyptians believed that this death ensured immortality.

The artist has not chosen to portray the dramatic climax, nor the decision to commit suicide, nor even the snake bite itself, but the moment in which the tension begins to subside. The serpent has done its deadly work, and the young black servant boy holding the basket of flowers is staring with terror-struck eyes at the snake in it, while a servant woman supports her swooning mistress. On the surface of things, very little seems to be happening in this picture, with everything concentrated on the transition between life and death. All the light falls on the young Queen, bathing her body in warm and sensuous colours. All of life itself seems to be concentrated in the colour of her flesh on the threshold of death, whose advent is suggested by her sinking arm and overcast gaze. The central moment in this painting is one of transition, and this is reflected in the move from light to darkness and in the strong graduation of colours from the background to the foreground.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 14 minutes):
Jules Massenet: Cleopatra, Cleopatra's aria