This monumental work by Antwerp history painter Michiel Coxcie the Elder depicts the vengeance of the Massagetae Queen Tomyris on King Cyrus of Persia in 530 B.C. After a successful campaign in which Cyrus took numerous strategic territories including Babylonia, he set out to conquer the nomadic tribes in the east. Cyrus' strategy involved a decoy camp filled with stores of wine that the Massagetae drank in the frenzy of their plunder and that caused them to fall into a drunken sleep. Cyrus then returned and captured the drunken soldiers, among them a general who was the son of Queen Tomyris. After demanding her son's release and receiving no reply from the Persian camp, Tomyris gathered a large force and destroyed most of the Persian army including Cyrus, who was killed in the fighting. Herodotus relates that, after the battle, Tomyris located Cyrus' body, beheaded him, and threw the head into a skin that had been filled with blood, thereby giving the bloodthirsty Persian King his fill.
The central figure of the Queen commands Coxcie's composition, her stance bold and her expression calm. She holds Cyrus' head by the hair as the inscription to the right records her words: 'You bravely thirsted for blood, O Cyrus, thus, drink blood!' The soldier at the left places his sword back in its sheath as a servant holds the vessel into which the Queen lowers the King's head. The turban and jeweled gown worn by the Queen indicate both her eastern origin and the antiquity of the event while the ladies at the right, the one closest to the viewer perhaps the patron of the painting, identify the setting as her palace.
This subject of Queen Tomyris' victory over Cyrus was regarded by medieval theologians as a prefiguration of the Virgin's defeat of Satan and was popular as decoration for town halls and other judicial buildings. A painting of this subject is recorded in the Ghent Town Hall in 1587 and a later version of Coxcie's painting still hangs in the Court of Justice at Bruges. Rubens' depiction of the subject, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, once hung in Brussels in the palace of Isabella Clara Eugenia, the governor of the Spanish Netherlands. Coxcie's combination of quintessentially Netherlandish types, such as the woman holding the vessel, with the large scale of the figures within the composition and the idealization of the female facial types, speaks to his assimilation of Italian art. Coxcie spent ten years in Rome and was a pivotal figure in the transition of early Netherlandish art to what could be described as the Flemish Renaissance idiom.