During the 9th and 11th centuries, Vikings came to settle in the area known as Rus (modern-day Belarus, Russia, and the Ukraine). When Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan visited the area in the 10th century he witnessed a Viking ship-burial and wrote about it in his journal. He stated “In the case of a rich man’s funeral, they gather together his possessions and divide them into three portions, one third for his household, one third with which to cut funeral garments for him, and one third with which they ferment alcohol which they drink on the day when his slave-girl kills herself and is burned together with her master.”
Siemiradzki took his cues from Fadlan when constructing this funeral scene: at top we can see the dead nobleman slumped in his finest golden garments, his skin already sunken and greying. Beasts of burden are recently slain. The slave girl looks distressed as she holds out the poisoned drink she is about to drink. Other women lament her demise, except for the deceased’s wife dressed in black atop the ship; she rolls up her sleeve and wields a blade, ready to pounce should the slave girl refuse to drink. A scuffle breaks out below; perhaps the slave girl’s love interest attempts a rescue but is suppressed by the other men. A half-clothed man in the crowd stands ready with the torch that will burn the whole ship and contents down in a few moments time.