New Acquisition: Black-figure skyphos: symposium of Hermes and Herakles
The Art Museum recently added to its fine collection of ancient Greek pottery an Attic skyphos, a type of clay wine cup with a deep bowl, two handles, and a disk foot. The cup was decorated in the black-figure technique by an anonymous vase painter known as the Theseus Painter, after his fondness for representing the Athenian hero. Active in the years 500–480 B.C., he was a versatile artist who painted a wide range of subjects, most often on skyphoi and lekythoi (oil bottles). Long after most vase painters had switched to red-figure, the Theseus Painter continued to work in the traditional black-figure technique.
This skyphos is extraordinarily large, a cup for a serious drinker. The figures on either side are framed by an ivy vine on the lip and a band of black-and-red tongues on the lower body. The two scenes are nearly identical, with Hermes and Herakles reclining on the ground at a sort of Olympian picnic, taking refreshment in the manner of mortal participants in a symposium, or drinking party. It is uncommon to find the same subject on both sides of an Attic vase, but the Theseus Painter painted double versions of this subject on four other skyphoi.
On one side, the half-brothers Herakles and Hermes are shown shaking hands. Each was the son of Zeus, but by different mothers. Hermes was born a god, but Herakles was a mortal—he had to perform many heroic deeds before being granted immortality in Olympus. The brothers lie in a rustic setting; the grapevine growing in the background suggests the symbolic presence of another son of Zeus: Dionysos, the god of wine. In the foreground, cuts of meat are represented in cherry-red slip, while the folds of the earth are in white. In the vine’s branches Hermes has hung his sword and cap (petasos), the latter a particular attribute of the god. The bow and quiver hanging above Herakles are among his attributes, as is the wooden club that he cradles in his left arm.
On the reverse, shown here, the composition is essentially the same, but instead of shaking hands, Herakles offers Hermes a cornucopia, a goat horn filled with fruits and cakes, offerings that mortals owe to the gods. It may be that Herakles is demonstrating to the users of this cup the ritual honors that are due to the Immortals. Bow, quiver, sword, and cap all hang in the vine as before, but now Hermes wears a second petasos, a redundancy that makes his identity even clearer.
In both scenes there are a number of brown drip marks above the figures. Before decorating a cup, while the clay was still “leather hard,” an Attic vase painter would apply a thin wash of ochre that, in the firing process, heightened the reddish-orange color of the clay. In this case, the application was apparently excessive, so that the wash ran when the cup was set, upside down, on a drying rack. Unnoticed until it was fired, the accidental result provides insight into the production technique and reminds us that the colors, including the rich black of the figures, are the result of carefully applied clay slips and a complex firing process, and that there is no added pigment in these extraordinary “paintings,” only clay.
J. Michael Padgett
Curator of Ancient Art
Curator of Ancient Art