In Roman mythology, Apollo was the sun god who lived in Mount Olympus, and who, in the guise of the sun, rode his chariot drawn by four horses across the sky each day. In this painting one of the priestesses stands barefoot inside the temple of Apollo looking up towards the sky, perhaps awaiting Apollo’s return in the evening. She wears a spectacular leopard skin tunic, and has a wreath of ivy in her air. These symbolic ornaments, as well as her business in serving wine, suggest her licentious behaviour in the temple.
The subject matter is unusual for Alma-Tadema who, from the 1880s onwards, generally painted the ‘happy, inconsequential everyday incidents in the lives of anonymous though well-to-do inhabitants of Rome or Pompeii’ (Becker, p.11). Alma-Tadema had first travelled to Italy in 1863, visiting the ancient archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. He revisited several times taking photographs of architectural details and artefacts which were used as reference material for his paintings when he returned to England. The golden jug that the priestess is holding and the large silver urn may have been amongst the recently excavated objects. The inclusion of the ‘latest archaeological discoveries enhanced the sense of immediacy, for spectators who would recognize the artefacts’ (Becker, p.36). Alma-Tadema’s 167 albums of photographs are now housed at the University of Birmingham.
At the time A Priestess of Apollo was painted, Alma-Tadema had risen to prominence in the London art world and had begun to entertain on a lavish scale at his large house in Grove End Road, St Johns Wood. He was knighted in 1899 and awarded the OM in 1907.
Christopher Wood, Olympian Dreamer: Victorian Classical Painters 1860-1914, London 1983
Edwin Becker, ed. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, exhibition catalogue, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam 1997