On Wednesday 13th November 2019 Lucretia sold for €4.8 million establishing a record price for the work of the 17th Century Female Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi.
The subject matter, the suicide of Lucretia, is the founding event of the Roman Republic. Sextus Tarquinus, the son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (last King of Rome) raped the virtuous wife of the chief magistrate Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. In front of her husband and father she accused her rapist and took her own life in shame. Her self sacrifice led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the Roman Republic.
Lucretia is one of those memes that has re-occured in art through the centuries, an icon of virtue, an innocent despoiled by brute power. The rape itself forms one subject and the suicide another, both lurid, sexualised and even pornographic.
The story is a patriarchal morality story. Despite her innocence the “path of virtue” for Lucretia is to take her own life. That way she does not saddle her upstanding father and husband with “damaged goods”.
When Christianity rose to power suicide was deemed a sin. But the raped innocent was expected to commit a symbolic form of suicide. She was removed from polite society. If she was pregnant she was sent away to bear the child in secret, in a convent if rich or in a Magdalene Laundry if she was poor. Many an Irish girl was put on a boat to England to have her child abroad, or to avail of an abortion. Good Catholic families specialised in sweeping their morality under the carpet of convenience.
To this day the legal systems in most countries are weighted in favour of the rapist and against the victim. Her silence is rewarded with discretion as the rapist trots off to find his next victim. Her accusation is questioned in detail and her character is torn to shreds in the courtroom where her sexual history and clothing choices will be used to paint her as a loose woman, a woman of dubious virtue, no Lucretia.