Connecting to the Hero: an Overall Analysis of an Attic Black-Figure Hydria Depicting Herakles’ Exploits

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Connecting to the Hero:
An Overall Analysis of an Attic black-figure Hydria depicting Herakles’ Exploits

Ancient Greek vases attract us not only for their significant aesthetic and narrative appeals, but also for their value as bridges connecting today’s viewers to the ancient Greek world, an advanced civilization richly influenced by myths. My museum object, a late sixth century black-figured hydria that depicts the beginning and the end of exploits of the hero Herakles, is reflective of a major vase painting development and the rapid circulation of myths of Herakles in its period. In this paper, I am going to explore my vase in detail by placing it in its historical context with comparison to both textual and artistic sources, and by investigating the continuing influence of Herakles’ Labors beyond the ancient times. My vase is made in approximately 520-510 BC, a crucial transitional period in Greek art when black-figure technique reaches its pinnacle and begins to be replaced by the red-figure technique. The overall high quality of black-figure painting of the period is visible in my vase through the vividly depicted figures and details such as the folds in clothes and the additional use of white and red colors for female skin and decorations. Specifically, my vase exemplifies the styles of the Antimenes Painter and that of the Leogros group, both are active in the last two decades of the sixth century. The Antimenes painter is the most prolific Attic artist who specializes in painting hydriae and neck amphorae at his time. His vases are identified by stylistic traits such as the primary picture on the front of the body, a subordinate one on the shoulder, the linear pattern at the bottom of the neck, the ivy pattern framing the body and the ray pattern at the predella. The artist has a special fondness for chariot processions and Herakles as subjects. One of his other hydriae closely resembles my object in terms of subject matter and composition, with Herakles fighting the Nemean lion on the shoulder and his apotheosis (as determined by the museum label) on the body. Yet variances remain in the wrestling poses and the position of the figures in the procession. The Leagros Group is a group of late Archaic black-figure vase painters that partly overlaps in style with the Antimenes painter, also favoring large vase especially hydriae. The group is distinctively known for the power and vigor of their paintings, which is evident in the muscular bodies of the fighting figures on my vase. In addition, the complex composition of the scenes on my vase, which balances a number of figures and visual elements with the innovative use of overlapping, shows the influence of the emerging red-figure techniques. The difficulty for us to understand Herakles’ Labors lies within the limited number of early literary accounts as well as the various versions of the same stories documented by different ancient authors and artists. We are able to infer killing the Nemean Lion being Herakles’ first labor, since the majority of literary sources make the lion skin his distinctive costume. Hesiod tells us in Theogony the creatures’ descendent from Orthos and the Chimaira, his fostering by Hera, terrorizing of Nemea, and defeat by Herakles. In about 480 BC, the motif of the Lion’s invulnerable hide is hinted at by Pindar and stated clearly by Bakchylides, who then concludes that Herakleds fights bare-handed. Later literary accounts adhere to the tale of the invulnerable lion skin. The literary sources considering apotheosis are by no means consistent. Illiad indicates Herakles’ earthly death in Achilles’ conversation to his mother Thetis: “not even mighty Herakles escaped doom, he who was dearest to Zeus Kronion, but Moira and the strong wrath of Hera overcame him.” In Odyssey, Odysseus met the apparition of Herakles, who complained to him the hard labors he has endured. The despondent attitude of Herakles seems absurd, since he has...
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