In this magnificent statue, which we can admire in the Roman museum in Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme, the sculptor masterfully captured both the drama of the moment and the movement of the dying woman. However, in order to fully appreciate this work, one must remember the context in which it was created. The myth of Nioba and her children was a very popular motif in ancient art.
Let’s recall it in two words:
The mythical Niobe was the queen of Greek Thebes. She boasted that she had given birth to seven sons and seven daughters and that for this reason, she deserves more respect than the goddess Leto herself, who gave birth to only two children – Apollo and Artemis. Offended, Leto went to complain to Apollo and Artemis, complaining that the mortal woman had dared to insult her. These are the words W. Marcusowska puts into Leto’s mouth (Myths of the Greeks and Romans):
– Behold, Niobe, daughter of the impious Tantalus (…) has dared to violate the sacrifice at my altar, blaspheming that this honour belongs to her divinely as the mother of seven daughters and seven sons. Her wicked and cowardly people put out the sacred fires in my grove and began to sing hymns to the glory of their impious queen.
According to the myth, Apollo and Artemis did not stay idle – they drew their golden arrows and began to shoot Niobe’s children with them one by one. The sons fell first, and as their sisters tried to save their dying brothers, the deadly arrows struck them too. Soon, fourteen dead bodies lay at the feet of a pained Niobe, who only then understood what a mistake it was to exalt herself above the vengeful goddess. According to the myth, the god Zephyr then carried Niobe to Lydia, where she was petrified from despair. All those inhabitants of Thebes who witnessed this cruel revenge of the gods also turned into stones. And since for this reason, there was no one to bury the bodies of the dead Niobids, at the end, they were placed in the graves by the immortals themselves.
Let’s go back to the sculpture. Here we see a young woman – the sculptor captured her in an extremely dramatic moment when hit by an arrow in the back, she bends into a bow out of pain, and her legs bend under her. Note her robe flowing down her thigh. One can imagine how a moment earlier the girl was trying to escape from the threat, and the flowing fabric clung to her hips by the force of the air rush. As the mortally wounded woman suddenly stopped, the same robe now hung on her leg. Niobe’s daughter falls to the ground, her left knee still hanging in the air for a moment. But we have an irresistible impression that it too will soon come into contact with the stone ground, because the body may have been in this unnatural position only for a moment. So we see her in the last seconds of her life when she instinctively reaches her back as if with superhuman efforts she wanted to extract a deadly arrow from them. We know that her efforts will be in vain. We know that having given her last breath, the girl will die in a moment. But Niobe’s daughter will never fall to the ground – she froze in this mortal pain, suspended by her creator between life and death, as a warning to all those who would like to exalt themselves above the gods.
The myth of Niobe was extremely popular in ancient Rome, and sculptures depicting dying children of the queen of Thebes, usually forming whole groups, adorned not only the Gardens of Sallust but also, for example, Caesar’s Gardens in Trastevere or Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. Unfortunately, no set has survived to our times, but only individual elements of the entire composition, such as the one I describe above. It is all the more valuable that it is undamaged. Usually in museums, we can only see fragments of Niobid sculptures – cracked, without limbs or heads.
Recently, I found a sarcophagus in the Glyptotheque in Munich, on which the story of Niobe is depicted. Roman sarcophagus from the Munich glyptotheque depicting the myth of Niobe. In the lower part, we see a scene of a massacre. The one on the left is Artemis and the one on the right is Apollo. The gods draw their bows and strike the children of Niobe with deadly arrows. The Niobids fall one by one. The moment is extremely dramatic. Participants in this macabre scene try to escape, cover each other, and support the falling bodies of their comrades. All in vain. On the lid of the sarcophagus, there is a scene illustrating the landscape after the slaughter: the dead Niobid bodies lying side by side, in complete disarray. This is how the sculptural groups of Niobids decorating the gardens of Roman emperors and aristocrats could have looked like.