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MFA for Educators

Engage your students with the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to illustrate themes and concepts in any discipline.

Exploring Classical Art at the MFA: Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey

  • Introduction to Homer's Iliad...

    Slide Notes

    The Trojan War was a source of endless fascination for both the Greeks and the Romans; although its historicity has sometimes been doubted, many scholars believe that the epic clash of the Achaean Greeks and the Trojans may reflect actual conflicts that took place in the late Bronze Age, and the probable site of Troy has been identified in what is now northwestern Turkey.

    Preoccupation with the wars being waged in real life found creative outlet in enduring myths centered on legendary battles. Probably generated by oral tradition for centuries, various versions of the story were eventually written down. The most familiar telling, and probably the earliest to be recorded, is that of Homer in the Iliad, which narrates part of the final year of the siege of Troy, and the Odyssey, which recounts the voyage home of Odysseus, one of the Achaean leaders.

    The encounters of Trojan and Greek warriors were adapted by visual artists for an array of media settings, from large-scale public monuments such as the Parthenon to smaller personal objects such as gems and sealstones. In the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., Greek vase painting was a popular medium for visual interpretations of these tales. Their depiction on objects for daily use illustrates the dual role or education and entertainment.

    Artworks were not mere illustrations of literature; rather, art and text evolved side by side, both drawing on cultural trends to expand upon existing myths in an ongoing interpretive process. In this way, myths were kept alive and responded to each generation’s needs.

    Details

    Water jar (hydria) with the chariot of Achilles dragging the corpse of Hektor

    about 520–510 B.C.

    the Antiope Group

    Dimensions

    Height (to mouth): 50 cm (19 11/16 in.); diameter (of mouth): 26.1 cm (10 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Black Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    63.473

    Collections
    The Ancient World
    On View
    Greek Archaic Gallery - 113 More Info

    Description

    A hydria with the dramatic scene of Achilles dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot; to the left Priam and Hecuba, parents of Hector, mourn him in the Trojan palace as Achilles with round shield stares at them; to the right, the tomb of Patroklos with his soul charging out from it; snake in front. Winged figure of Iris sent to plead for a ransom of Hector's body. Greek inscriptions of the name 'Hector' (HECTOR) above the body of Hector, and 'Patroklos' (PATROKLOS) on the tomb. On the shoulder: Two quadrigae, one driven by Athena. Herakles pursues Kyknos while Ares rushes from left.

    Multimedia

  • Homer

    Slide Notes

    The Iliad and the Odyssey are attributed to the great poet Homer and provided an important source of inspiration for later Greek art. Scholars question whether a single poet was in fact responsible for these two works, though it is conceivable that an exceptional bard reworked the epics into the form eventually preserved in writing. The poems stem from an oral tradition and were originally sung. Since illiteracy was widespread in the ancient world these tales were transmitted primarily through oral and visual representations - people learned these stories by hearing or seeing them unfold.

    By the 7th century B.C., Homer’s poems had become very popular, with the Trojan legends evolving into a sort of epic primer for noble behavior. Trojan tales essentially outlined what was expected of a good Greek as a host, king, father or wife. 5th century Athenians looked to Homer as a guide for everything from fighting and dying honorably to activities such as chariot racing. The visual adaptations of the stories served to underscore these lessons for their audiences. Many of the vases featuring Trojan themes were used at drinking parties (symposia), where the imagery was meant to inspire lively discussions. Trojan themes were incorporated into the decoration of homes, temples and tombs throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods. The images served as visual reminders of the lives of the epic heroes, whose stories were the cultural inheritance of viewers in ancient times - much as they are today - as part of the foundation of Western civilization.

    Though it is unclear whether Homer even existed, the poet was a legendary figure even in Classical Greece, and in the early 5th century B.C., artists began to invent a likeness of Homer. By the Hellenistic period, known for an interest in representing unique individuals, imaginary portraits of the poet took on a recognizable form. This early Roman masterpiece is a version of a widespread Hellenistic portrait of Homer, an idealized conceptualization of a wise thoughtful poet.

    Homer was thought to be blind, according to the ancient tradition of the blind bard or seer, which the artist tried to depict with deep set eyes and a raised brow. Homer’s face is finely modeled in a myriad of planes, conveying intensity and passion, and the hair is intricately carved with thick massive curls—both features of the Hellenistic “baroque” style. The band around Homer’s head is a sign of his poetic prowess, while his advanced age, expressed through his balding head and copious wrinkles, is meant to underscore his wisdom as well as his connection to the distant past. Homer’s works provided a link to the earlier, golden age of heroes, making him all the more venerable.

    Looking Questions:

    1. What do you notice about this portrait?

    2. Why do you think the Roman artist chose to portray Homer this way?

    3. Can you identify features that are connected to Homer’s character and position in the Classical world?

    Details

    Homer

    late 1st century B.C. or 1st century A.D.

    Dimensions

    Height: 41cm (16 1/8 in.); length (of face): 21 cm ( 8 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Marble (probably from Mt. Pentelikon near Athens)

    Classification

    Sculpture

    Accession Number

    04.13

    Collections
    The Ancient World
    On View
    Greek Archaic Gallery - 113 More Info

    Description

    Rare pseudo-portrait of Homer of late Hellenistic date, probably based on the earlier baroque style of the second century Pergamene School. This is an Invented image of the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Unruly hair, knitted brow, suggest the intensity of the sage; treatment of the eyes reflect the ancient tradition of the blind bard. The base of the neck is worked for insertion. Most of the nose is missing, as is a fragment from the right side of the neck. Otherwise, the preservation of the surface is almost perfect, and the sculpture has a clean, very light yellow appearance.

    Multimedia

  • The Judgment of Paris and the...

    Slide Notes

    One side of this amphora depicts the Judgment of Paris, a myth that sets the foundation for Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War.

    Hermes, identified by his hat, long staff and winged shoes, walks with his dog on the right. He leads the three goddesses; Hera holding a long scepter, Athena in her customary armor and Aphrodite, to the Trojan prince Paris. According to the myth, a golden apple inscribed with the words “for the fairest one” caused the three goddesses to argue over which of them was the most beautiful, and therefore deserving of the apple. The mortal Paris was asked to judge. Each of the goddesses attempted to bribe him; Athena offered him wisdom and battle skills, Hera offered him kingdoms and power, while Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful woman, Helen of Sparta. Choosing Aphrodite, he was awarded Helen, taking her to Troy. King Menelaus, Helen’s rightful husband, calls on his brother, King Agamemnon, and they lead the Greeks to Troy in order to retrieve his wife. This is considered to have caused the outbreak of the Trojan War.
    On the other side of this vase, Menelaus, with his sword drawn, takes hold of Helen’s cloak, after the Greek’s victory over Troy.

    Passed down orally for hundreds of years before finally recorded as text, these stories are central to Greco-Roman culture. Their depiction on objects for daily use illustrates the dual role of education and entertainment.

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. What is going on in this painting? What figures can you identify?

    2. Why do you think the artist depicted the beginning and the end of the war on either side of the same vase?

    3. Both scenes portray female figures led by a male figure. Compare the similarities and differences of these scenes while considering each group’s destination, as well as the figures’ mortality and power.

    Details

    Two-handled jar (amphora) depicting the Judgment of Paris and the recovery of Helen

    about 510–500 B.C.

    the Group of Würzburg 199

    Dimensions

    Overall: 44 x 14.6 cm (17 5/16 x 5 3/4 in.) Other (H): 27.7cm (10 7/8in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Black Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    60.790

    Collections
    The Ancient World More Info

    Description

    Side A: Judgment of Paris. Hermes, with a dog walking beside him, leads Hera, holding a long scepter, Athena, fully-armed, and Aphrodite. Side B: Scene from the Iliupersis. Menelaos walking right, looks back and turns to seize veiled Helen by the edge of her himation while threatening her with his sword. Behind her, a warrior (Agamemnon?) carrying two spears and a shield walks left, looking back.

    Multimedia

  • The Departure and Recovery of Helen

    Slide Notes

    The beginning and the end of the Trojan war are presented on this small display cup. The artist responsible for this beautiful and complex rendering of the framing episodes of the Trojan conflict was Makron, one of the most influential red-figure painters in early 5th century B.C. Athens.

    On one side, Paris leads Helen away, and on the other, Menelaus comes to reclaim her. An initial scene shows Paris (identified by his alternate name, Alexandros) leading Helen away from Sparta and the Palace of Menelaus. Helen was reluctant to leave her home, husband and son (probably the small boy beneath one handle), until Aphrodite filled her with love - embodied by the tiny winged Eros close to her face - for Paris. Combining forces, Aphrodite veils Helen while Peitho (Persuasion) waves her on. Accompanied by Aeneas, with a lion shield, Paris grasps Helen’s hand, a gesture signifying both abduction and marriage, two concepts often conflated in the ancient world.

    In the concluding scene, set in Troy during the fall of the city, a vengeful and fully armed Menelaus finds Helen in the sanctuary of Apollo. Once again, Aphrodite comes to Helen’s aid this time removing her veil so that Menelaus, overcome by her beauty, drops his sword. At left, the priest of the sanctuary, Chryses, and his daughter, Chryseis, witness the action, as does Priam, the king of Troy, who is seated under the handle at the right. These supporting characters flesh out additional details of the conflict: Priam, too old to fight, watched many of the battles from the city’s walls, and Chryses and Chryseis figure prominently in the first book of Homer’s Iliad, bringing both plague and internal conflict to the Greek forces.

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. What is going on in this painting? What figures can you identify?

    2. Why do you think the artists chose to depict these two scenes on the same vessel?

    3. Why do you think the two scenes progress in opposite directions? How can we identify the direction of each scene? 

    Details

    Drinking cup (skyphos) with the departure and recovery of Helen

    about 490–480 B.C.

    Makron

    Dimensions

    Height: 21.5 cm (8 7/16 in.); diameter: 27.8 cm (10 15/16 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Red Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    13.186

    Collections
    The Ancient World More Info

    Description

    Side A: Paris (named Alexandros here) is leading Helen away from Sparta and the Palace of Menelaos. Aeneas, with a lion shield, accompanies Paris. Aphrodite and Eros flank Helen. Peitho, the personification of persuasion, follows behind Aphrodite. The boy under the handle is thought to be Helen's son by Menelaos. Side B: During the sack of Troy. Helen fleeing to the Sanctuary of Apollo. Menelaos, at the right, sees Helen and draws his sword to kill her. Aphrodite is behind Helen, present as an intervening force. Menelaos is in the act of dropping his sword, overcome by Helen's beauty. The priest of the sanctuary, Chryses, and his daughter, Chryseis are also present (at far left). Priam is seated under handle at the right, watching the story unfold. Painted inscriptions: "Aineas"; "Alexandros"; "Aphrodite" (twice); "Priam"; "Helen" (twice); "Kriseis"; "Kriseus"; "Menelaos" Scratched on handle: "Hieron made (it)" (HIERON EPOIESEN) Painted under the opposite handle: "Makron drew (it)" (MAKRON EGRAPHSEN) The size of this vessel suggests it was made for display, rather than use, and like huge kylikes (parade cups) of the same period which could not have been used for drinking.

    Multimedia

  • The Arming of Achilles

    Slide Notes

    The Iliad opens with a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon in the ninth year of the siege on Troy. Agamemnon had taken Chryseis, daughter of the Trojan priest Chryses, as a concubine, but once the priest’s prayers were heard by Apollo, who sends a plague among the Greeks, it was decided that Chryseis must be returned to end the plague. Reluctant to give her up, Agamemnon does so but takes Achilles’ prize, Briseis, as recompense. Though Athena, in the form of common sense, holds Achilles back from slaying Agamemnon, the loss of his prize and his honor is so terrible that he withdraws completely, willing to watch his fellow Greeks suffer in battle without the aid of their greatest asset.

    In Book 9, Odysseus, king of Ithaca, Ajax the great warrior and Myrmidon warrior Phoenix all visit Achilles in an attempt to persuade him to rejoin the Greek ranks. Each of the men offers a stirring oration, but Achilles dismisses their speeches and refuses to join the battle until Hector attacks their ships and tents.

    Patroklos, one of Achilles’ closest friends, begs him to return to battle in Book 16, and although he refuses, he permits Patroklos to wear Achilles’ own armor, thereby instilling morale unto the Greeks. Confusing Patroklos for Achilles, Hector slays him.

    When Achilles learns of Patroklos’ death, his wailing is heard by his mother, Tethis, who consoles her son but warns him that though he will slay Hector, he himself will be slain after. Determined to join the battle and avenge Patroklos, Achilles receives a new set of armor that Thetis commissions from Hephaestus, god of the forge, blacksmiths and metals.

    The jar on the right depicts Hephaestus polishing Achilles’ new shield in the presence of Thetis, surrounded by a pair of greaves (similar to shin guards), a helmet, tongs, hammer and saw. The jar on the left depicts the arming of Achilles. Achilles stand at left, receiving the shield from his mother, Thetis, while the rest of the armor is brought forth at right.

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. Compare the designs on the shields on each vase. Which symbols appear on the shields and what do they represent?

    2. Why do you think they were chosen to decorate the shield of the great warrior Achilles?

    Details

    Two-handled jar (neck-amphora) depicting the arming of Achilles

    about 550 B.C.

    The Camtar Painter

    Dimensions

    Height: 39.5 cm (15 9/16 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Black Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    21.21

    Collections
    The Ancient World
    On View
    Greek Archaic Gallery - 113 More Info

    Two-handled jar (amphora) depicting Hephaistos polishing the shield of Achilles

    about 480 B.C.

    the Dutuit Painter

    Dimensions

    Height: 34.2 cm (13 7/16 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Red Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    13.188

    Collections
    The Ancient World More Info

    Description


    Side A: Hephaistos polishing the shield of Achilles in the presence of Thetis. In the field, a pair of greaves, a helmet, tongs, hammer and saw. Meaningless inscription. Side B: Nike walking to right, her face to left, holding oinochöe and patera. The figures on a meander base. Palmettes under the handles. [Label text]: Hephaistos and Thetis, the mother of Achilles are depicted on this amphora. As his role as the god of the forge, Hephaistos made armor for the Trojan War hero Achilles. On the wall can be seen some of the warrior's accouterments, as well as the tools of the blacksmith.

    Multimedia

  • The Death of Hector

    Slide Notes

    This vase depicts one of the most poignant episodes in the Iliad, and is one of the most dynamic and complex examples of Greek vase painting. Achilles, the Greek army’s most accomplished warrior, has killed the Trojan prince Hector in revenge for his having killed Patroklos. One of Achilles’ best friends, Patroklos was killed when he took Achilles’ place on the battlefield while the hero was sulking in his tent because of an insult to his honor. Instead of allowing the Trojans to retrieve Hector’s body for burial, Achilles, in a sacrilegious act, used a chariot to drag his body in front of the walls of Troy and around the tomb of Patroklos.

    In fact, the connection between Hector’s Patroklos’ deaths is emphasized in Book 22 of the Iliad, where the description of Hector’s death is identical to the lines used to describe Patroklos’ demise: “Death enfolded him, as he uttered these words, and, wailing its lot, his spirit fled from the body down to Hades, leaving youth and manhood behind.”

    This scene is filled with action, all happening in a shallow, stage-like space. Hector’s parents, King Priam (with a white beard) and his wife Hecuba (whose hand is placed on her forehead in a gesture of mourning) are shown in the royal palace (indicated by a roof supported by a column) in the hilltop city of Troy. Facing them is Achilles, turning to glare defiantly at the grieving parents as he mounts his chariot on the battlefield below the city. To the right, is the white tomb mound of Patroklos, from which his soul – a miniature winged warrior – emerges. A snake, another symbol of the spirit of the dead, appears at the bottom of the burial mound.

    The artist has created an emotionally powerful image by bringing together events that, in the Iliad, happened at two different times and places. The final moment in this episode is illustrated by the winged messenger-goddess Iris, who appears to join the two halves of the story. After many days of discussion, the Olympian gods sent Iris to Achilles to suggest that he end the dispute by giving Hector’s body back in exchange for a ransom.

    The scene is all the more dramatic because of its striking use of black-figure palette and the juxtaposition of horizontal and diagonal lines, making it one of the most successful vase paintings in black figure.

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. What is going on in this painting? What figures can you identify?

    2. How did the artist emphasize the emotion in this intense scene?

    3. Compare this with the “Arming of Achilles” or “Scenes from the Odyssey.” How has the artist conveyed a greater sense of movement and activity? Consider overlapping figures, figures cut off at the edge of the scene, diagonal lines, etc.

     

    Details

    Water jar (hydria) with the chariot of Achilles dragging the corpse of Hektor

    about 520–510 B.C.

    the Antiope Group

    Dimensions

    Height (to mouth): 50 cm (19 11/16 in.); diameter (of mouth): 26.1 cm (10 1/4 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Black Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    63.473

    Collections
    The Ancient World
    On View
    Greek Archaic Gallery - 113 More Info

    Description

    A hydria with the dramatic scene of Achilles dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot; to the left Priam and Hecuba, parents of Hector, mourn him in the Trojan palace as Achilles with round shield stares at them; to the right, the tomb of Patroklos with his soul charging out from it; snake in front. Winged figure of Iris sent to plead for a ransom of Hector's body. Greek inscriptions of the name 'Hector' (HECTOR) above the body of Hector, and 'Patroklos' (PATROKLOS) on the tomb. On the shoulder: Two quadrigae, one driven by Athena. Herakles pursues Kyknos while Ares rushes from left.

    Multimedia

  • Achilles and Ajax

    Slide Notes

    This scene, known from other representations in Greek art, depicts the fearsome Greek warriors Achilles and Ajax playing pessoi, an ancient game akin to backgammon, during a lull in the fighting. Both heroes wear their armor and hold spears. In the black-figure scene their shields and helmets stand behind them, while the red-figure scene depicts the heroes wearing their helmets with their shields leaning behind them.

    The two heroes face each other across the table as equals; no winner is declared. Their equality emphasizes their distinction - often mentioned by Homer - as the strongest of the Greeks.

    Although this scene is not included in any written account of the Trojan War, more than 150 renditions survive in Greek vase painting, raising the possibility that it sprang from the imagination of the artist, rather than that of a writer.

    Vases that have both red-figure and black-figure decoration are called “bilingual.” This vase is attributed to two central artists - the red-figure scene was likely painted by the Andokides Painter while the black-figure scene is attributed to the Lysippides Painter.

    In its earliest form, the red-figure technique was essentially a reverse of the black-figure, and for a short time artists employed both in tandem. Despite the similarity between both scenes, a comparison reveals the advantages of the red-figure technique. The composition is more fluid, Ajax and Achilles gesture with their spears and their helmets overlap the upper vegetal border. This style of painting also allows for a greater emphasis on the human form, all hallmarks of the movement toward naturalism that would dominate later Greek art.

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. What do you notice about this object? What do you think it is? What do you think it was used for in ancient Greece?

    2. Many of the Trojan War images we’ve seen depict battles and action-packed scenes. Why do you think the artist chose to portray the two powerful warriors at play?

    3. Compare the images of Achilles and Ajax. Are the heroes similar or appear different from each other? Why do you think that is?

    Details

    Two-handled jar (amphora) with Achilles and Ajax

    about 525–520 B.C.

    the Andokides Painter

    Dimensions

    Height: 55.5 cm (21 7/8 in.); diameter: 34 cm (13 3/8 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Black Figure and Red Figure (Bilingual)

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    01.8037

    Collections
    The Ancient World
    On View
    Greek Archaic Gallery - 113 More Info

    Description

    This amphora is decorated on both sides but in different painting techniques. One side has a scene depicted in the Red Figure style, and the other side shows the same scene in the Black Figure style. This type of decoration puts the vase into the so-called Bilingual group. The traditional attributions for the painter is: the Red Figure (side A) is by the Andokides Painter, and the Black Figure (side B) is by the Lysippides Painter. This scene, known from other representations in Greek art, depicts the heroes Achilles and Ajax playing a board game. The warriors wear their helmets and hold two spears each. Ajax has his right hand near the board, ready to play when his turn comes. Both heroes wear short tunics (chitoniskoi), and are armed, with corslet, cushes, greaves; they wear short cloaks over their armour. Behind them, their shields lean against something, with their helmets perched on top; behind them, or beside them at arm's reach. Both sit with the hither leg drawn back; Ajax is farther from the table than Achilles, although he sits farther forward on his block (thakos). Condition: Large pieces have been restored. On Side A, heads are restored.

    Multimedia

  • Achilles Ambushing Troilos

    Slide Notes

    Troilus was a young prince of Troy whose story is referenced in the Iliad, but presented in later myths. After learning the prophecy that Troy would not fall if he matured into adulthood, Troilus was ambushed by Achilles. Troilus loved horses, and was riding when Achilles sprung out from behind a well, seized him by his hair, dragged him to a nearby temple of Apollo, and beheaded him. This sacrilege by Achilles brought on Apollo’s personal vendetta against the warrior, climaxed when he assisted the trajectory of Paris’ poisonous arrow that found Achilles’ heel.

    This amphora depicts the youthful Troilus, accompanied by a bearded attendant and a dog, riding toward a fountain where his sister Polyxena is filling a hydria from the lion-head spout. At left Achilles, fully armed, crouches behind fountain and tree.

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. Can you tell Achilles is hiding, ready to ambush Troilos? How?

    2. How has the artist set the scene for Troilos’ death, emphasizing that Polyxena, Troilos and his attendant are calm and unaware of the danger?

    Details

    Two-handled jar (amphora) depicting Achilles ambushing Troilos

    about 530 B.C.

    The Painter of the Vatican Mourner

    Dimensions

    Height: 43.5 cm (17 1/8 in.); diameter: 19.6 cm (7 11/16 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Black Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    1970.8

    Collections
    The Ancient World
    On View
    Greek Archaic Gallery - 113 More Info

    Description

    Side A: The ambush of Troilus by Achilles. Troilus rides toward a fountain where Polyxena is filling a hydria from the lion-head spout. Behind him, a bearded attendant and a dog. Achilles, fully armed, crouches behind fountain and tree. Bird in flight above. Side B: Departure of a Warrior. A warrior carrying a shield and spear steps toward his horse which is led by a groom who rides the second of the pair. On either side, a man stands to the right.

    Multimedia

  • The Fall of Troy

    Slide Notes

    Used for mixing wine and water, this exceptionally large krater features dramatic scenes from the end of the Trojan saga, when the Greek forces finally overrun the city of Troy. The Sack of Troy (Ilioupersis), considered one of the grandest subjects in Greek mythology, is not described in Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey but related by Virgil in the Aeneid and by other ancient writers. Many scholars believe the scenes on this vase are derived from a lost monumental wall painting.

    After a ten-year siege, the Greeks breached the walls of Troy with a wooden horse, a clever ploy devised by Odysseus. The final capture of Troy by the Greeks involved all the worst atrocities of war, illustrated here. Although the action appears sequential, the events occurred over the course of one night. Placing them side-by-side on the vase evokes the chaos of war and the collapse of Troy.

    On the right King Priam, seated on an altar that he hopes in vain will protect him, is about to be murdered by Neoptolemos. Neoptolemos also grasps the baby Astyanax, Hector’s son, and is about to throw the child off the walls of Troy to his death, thus eliminating both the past and future of the city. On the left is Priam’s daughter Cassandra; stripped naked, she clings to a statue of Athena as the warrior Ajax the Lesser tries to pull her away. The frontal, archaic statue of Athena may represent the Palladion, a legendary statue said to have been sent to Troy by Zeus and stolen by the Greeks prior to the sack of the city. Father and daughter reach toward each other across the vase.

    The other side shows a group of Trojans escaping their city. Aeneas, the ancestor of the Romans, carries his aged father, Anchises on his back while his wife, Creusa, follows behind. Finally, a nameless Greek fights an anonymous Trojan, perhaps representing the countless soldiers who challenged each other on the battlefield over ten years of war.

    Unlike other scenes that emphasize the warrior-spirit as something heroic and grand, this scene focuses on the atrocities of war. The Trojans here evoke sympathy, while the Greeks are portrayed as brutal violators of the ancient codes of correct behavior. This may stem from the Athenians’ own recent encounter with the horrors of war in the 5th century B.C..

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. How are the Greeks portrayed? How are the Trojans portrayed? How are they similar? How are they different?

    2. Why might the Greeks have valued such an image and such events? Why would they matter?

    3. Compare the treatment of the figures to other vases you’ve seen. What is similar or different?

    4. How is the heroism depicted here compared to other vases, such as those portraying scenes from the Odyssey?

    Details

    Mixing bowl (calyx krater) with scenes from the fall of Troy

    about 470–460 B.C.

    the Altamura Painter

    Dimensions

    Height: 48 cm (18 7/8 in.); diameter: 49 cm (19 5/16 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Red Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    59.178

    Collections
    The Ancient World
    On View
    Greek Archaic Gallery - 113 More Info

    Description

    Ilioupersis (Sack of Troy) Side A: Cassandra at the Palladion, an attendant hastening with a box to the left. Cassandra is being menaced by Ajax the Less. To the right, Neoptolemos prepares to hurl Astyanax (son of Hector) from the walls of Troy. Priam is seated on the altar. At the extreme right, two warriors fighting or quarreling. Side B: Aeneas carrying his aged father Anchises from Troy. Creusa follows behind and a warrior leads the way. He may be Ascanius or Hermes in the guise of Aeneas's son.

    Multimedia

  • The Killing of Agamemnon

    Slide Notes

    Both sides of this vase illustrate tragic scenes from the story of King Agamemnon’s return to Mycenae after the fall of Troy, relayed in Homer’s Iliad.

    While Agamemnon was away at war, his wife Clytemnestra took Aegisthos, Agamemnon’s cousin, as her lover. Clytemnestra was alienated by her husband’s sacrifice of their daughter Iphigeneia to obtain the favorable winds needed to sail to Troy. Upon the king’s return home, Aegisthos and Clytemnestra plotted to kill Agamemnon n his bath.

    In one scene, Aegisthos gets ready to plunge a sword into Agamemnon, wet from the bath and trapped in a net. Behind him, Clytemnestra carries an axe to assist her lover, while three other women witness the horrific crime. These women are perhaps Chrysothemis and Elektra, Agamemnon’s daughters, and Cassandra, Trojan King Priam’s daughter who was raped by Ajax and later taken by Agamemnon as a war prize. Their presence as well as the Ionic columns under the handles of the vase emphasize that this scene takes place inside the palace at Mycenae, framing the scene indoors.

    Following the first brutal murder, the honorable children of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon avenged the death of their father. On the other side of this krater, Agamemnon’s son Orestes, whipped to action by his sister Elektra, enters the palace to kill Aegisthos who is seated playing the lyre. Elektra stands to the right encouraging her brother’s actions, while her mother Clytemnestra rushes in from the left with a double axe aimed at her son’s head.

    The subject matter on the opposite sides of vases is not always thematically matched, but vessels that feature Trojan scenes often combined related episodes.

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. What is going on in this painting? What figures can you identify?

    2. Why do you think the artists chose to depict these two scenes on the same vessel?

    3. Compare the two images of Aegisthos, who appears once as a murderer and once as a victim of a murder. How did the artist visually emphasize his different positions in each scene?

    Details

    Mixing bowl (calyx krater) with the killing of Agamemnon

    about 460 B.C.

    the Dokimasia Painter

    Dimensions

    Height: 51 cm (20 1/16 in.); diameter: 51 cm (20 1/16 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Red Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    63.1246

    Collections
    The Ancient World More Info

    Description

    Both sides of this vase illustrate tragic scenes from the story of King Agamemnon's return to Mycenae after the fall of Troy. While Agamemnon was away at war, his wife Klytemnestra took as her lover Agamemnon's cousin Aegisthos. On the king's return home, Aegisthos and Klytemnestra plotted to kill Agamemnon. In one scene, Aegisthos gets ready to plunge a sword into Agamemnon, wet from the bath and trapped in a net. Klytemnestra carries an ax to assist her lover. Three other women witness the horrific crime. These women are perhaps Chrysothemis and Elektra, Agamemnon's younger and older daughters, and Kassandra, his slave. Following the first brutal murder, the honorable children of Klytemnestra and Agamemnon avenged the death of their father. Orestes, whipped to action by his sister Elektra, enters the palace to kill Aegisthos who was seated playing the lyre (barbitos). Elektra stands to the right encouraging her brother's actions, while her mother Klytemnestra rushes in with a double axe aimed at her son's head. The Ionic columns under the handles suggest the place of Agamemnon and Klytemnestra at Mycenae.

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  • Odysseus and Polyphemos

    Slide Notes

    The Odyssey tells of the 10-year period after the Trojan War in which one of the Greek commanders, Odysseus, travels a serpentine route back to his homeland of Ithaca. During his long and tumultuous journey, Odysseus loses his ships, men, and spoils from the war, all the while no one from his homeland knows what has happened to him.

    One of Odysseus’ most famous exploits takes place when he and his men sail to the land of the Cyclopes, a race of dangerous one-eyed giants. They come upon a cave full of sheep, milk and cheese, and greedily, they linger there. When the cave’s occupant, the Cyclops Polyphemus, returns he blocks the entrance to the cave with a giant stone and eats two of Odysseus’ men, locking up the rest for future meals. Cunning Odysseus devises a plan for their escape. The next morning, after Polyphemus set out to tend to his flock, Odysseus sharpened and hardened olive wood in the fire. Upon Polyphemus’ return, Odysseus offers him wine from their ship, causing the Cyclops to become thoroughly drunk. When the intoxicated Polyphemus asks Odysseus his name, he replies to the giant, “My name is Nobody.”

    Seizing their chance when Polyphemus collapsed from drunkenness, the men drove the heated wood spike into the giant’s single eye, blinding him. Clamoring in agony, other Cyclopes come to his aid but when Polyphemus tells them that “Nobody is killing me,” they think he is being hurt by divine power and leave.

    The next morning, when the blind giant moves the boulder to allow his flock out to graze, Odysseus and his men cling to the bellies of the sheep. Unable to see, Polyphemus feels the backs of the sheep leaving the cave to make sure his captives don’t escape, missing the men tied below. Odysseus and his men reach their ship and sail off, but unable to resist, Odysseus calls out his real name to the giant. His inability to control himself gave Polyphemus the substance needed to call upon his father Poseidon to curse Odysseus. So began Odysseus’ battle with the sea.

    This vase shows Odysseus’ escape from Polyphemus, strapped to the underside of a ram. The tree behind the figures indicates that he has successfully escaped, while the unsheathed sword in his right hand shows that he is ready to cut himself down.

    In this sculpture of Polyphemus, his contemplative, rather than drunken, expression suggests that the giant may be considering his unrequited love for the sea nymph Galatea, as related by the Hellenistic poet Theocritus in his Idylls. The positioning of the lone eye on the bridge of the nose is an innovation that probably dates from the Classical period in Greek art. Earlier artistic interpretations of Cyclopes on vases set the eye in the middle of the forehead. This iconic change makes Polyphemus, as much as he is a monster, appear very human.

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. What is going on in this image? What can you identify?

    2. How is the figure of Odysseus treated? What does he look like?

    3. Does this representation of Odysseus fit into your ideas of what a hero might look like? Why or why not?

    4. Why might Greeks who valued the heroism of Odysseus be interested in this specific scene? Why did the artist choose it?

    5. Look closely at the sculpture of Polypehmus. Does he look like the evil and menacing Cyclops described in the Odyssey? Why or why not?

    Details

    Two-handled jar (pelike) depicting the escape of Odysseus from the cave of Polyphemos

    about 490–480 B.C.

    the Goettingen Painter

    Dimensions

    Height: 30 cm (11 13/16 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Red Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    61.384

    Collections
    The Ancient World More Info

    Head of Polyphemos

    about 150 B.C. or later

    Dimensions

    Height: 38.3 cm (15 1/16 in.)

    Medium

    Marble, Dolomitic from the Greek island of Thasos

    Classification

    Sculpture

    Accession Number

    63.120

    Collections
    The Ancient World More Info

    Description

    Side A: This scene shows a scene from the myth we know from Homer's Odyssey: Odysseus' escape from the cyclops Polyphemus, who he has just blinded. Here Odysseus is seen strapped to the underside of a ram, so that Polyphemus, touching the backs of his flock, might think only the animals are exiting his cave. The tree behind the figures indicates that he has successfully escaped. The unsheathed sword in his right hand shows that he is ready to cut himself down. He is wearing a leather cuirass, and the emtpty scabbard of his sword is visible. Side B: A warrior with a helmet, shield, sheathed sword, and spear in right hand lunges to right. Broken and repaired, with area filled-in to right of shield and with in-painting below figures on both sides.


    This head comes from a group, probably of the blinding of Polyphemos, similar to that constructed from fragments found in the grotto at Sperlonga, along the Italian coast southwest of Rome. Polyphemos is based, in details of hair and beard, on a Pergamene centaur. The sculptor was wise in rejecting the older tradition, one seen in Hellenistic terracottas, of showing the monstrous giant as a kind of fat-faced baboon, with large ears and his eye set like a beacon light in the middle of his forehead. Here the rugged, animal power of the creature has been stressed. Broken off through the neck and the lower whiskers, the head is in relatively excellent condition, save for the damage to the beard below the mouth. The marble has a yellow-buff tone. This is the head of the one-eyed, man-eating Cyclops whom Odysseus finally outwitted and blinded. Here the monster is in a peaceful mood, either waiting to receive the cup of wine offered him by Odysseus, or, more likely, gazing love-struck at the indifferent sea nymph Galatea. The head comes from a sculptural group that might have adorned a public fountain or a luxurious seaside villa. The type originated in the second century B.C., yet the lively and direct style of this piece makes difficult to judge whether it is a contemporary variant or a Roman copy. Scientific Analysis: Marble has been scientifically tested with X-Ray Diffraction and determined to be Dolomitic. Harvard Lab No. HI363: Isotope ratios - delta13C +3.85 / delta18O -3.03, Attribution - Thasos-Cape Vathy, Justification - Dolomitic by XRD.

    Multimedia

  • Odysseus and Circe

    Slide Notes

    During his long voyage home, Odysseus visited Aeaea, the island of the sorceress Circe. A number of Odysseus’ men are sent ahead and offered food and drink by Circe. After they ate their fill, she transformed the men into swine, but one of them manages to escape back to the ship and warn the rest of the men. Hermes, sent by Athena, presents Odysseus with a protective herb and following Hermes’ advice, Odysseus succeeds in freeing his men from Circe’s spell.

    Odysseus and his men remained on the island for a year, Odysseus becoming Circe’s lover till his men finally persuade him to leave.

    An enormous amount of detail is packed onto the side of this kylix, compressing Homer’s narrative into one scene. Circe stands in the center, stirring and offering a cup to a companion of Odysseus who is caught in the midst of transformation: his head is that of a boar, but his hands are still those of a human. Other half-humans - with lion, wolf and boar parts - stand about. Eurylochos, who held back from Circe’s spell and returned to the ship to give warning, runs off to the right; from the left, Odysseus rushes in with his sword drawn to rescue his men.

    Some of the details on the kylix don’t appear in the Homeric text and may be signs of the artist’s attempt to flesh out the story even further. For example, Homer recounts the transformation of Odysseus’ men into swine, not into lions and wolves, as depicted here. The artist may have been inspired by Homer’s mention of tame lions and wolves running around Aeaea. Odysseus’ other adventures are also depicted here - the other side of the kylix shows Odysseus offering wine to the Cyclops Polyphemos.

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. What is going on in this painting? What figures can you identify?

    2. Compare Homer’s version of the story with the depiction on this vase. What is similar? What is different?

    3. Why do you think the artist chose to portray the story this way?

    Details

    Drinking cup (kylix) depicting scenes from the Odyssey

    about 560–550 B.C.

    the Painter of the Boston Polyphemos

    Dimensions

    Height: 13.2 cm (5 3/16 in.); diameter: 21.7 cm (8 9/16 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Black Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    99.518

    Collections
    The Ancient World
    On View
    Greek Archaic Gallery - 113 More Info

    Description

    Side A: Circe and the companions of Odysseus, eight figures. Circe appears in center mixing her potion for Odysseus' men. The men have animal heads and arms, but retain their human lower bodies. Eurylochus escapes the scene at far right and Odysseus enters at far left. Side B: Odysseus in the cave of Polyphemos, seven figures. Polyphemos is the central figure, kneeling on one knee in a state of drunkenness. Odysseus' companions bring more wine from the left. Odysseus appears at right with an oinochoe containing more wine. Athena stands behind Odysseus, as his guardian. Meaningless inscriptions. A large break in B. Entire foot restored.

    Multimedia

  • Odysseus and Elpenor in the...

    Slide Notes

    This storage vessel, a variation on the amphora form called a pelike (pell-ee-kay), illustrates an episode in the 11th book of the Odyssey. Odysseus travelled to the entrance of the underworld, where he hoped to speak to the spirit of the Theban seer Teiresias to find out what the future held in store for him (especially in the matter of getting home).

    Following the instructions given to him by the sorceress Circe, Odysseus dug a pit and sacrificed black rams. The first spirit to arrive was that of Elpenor – a surprise for Odysseus, who did not know that his comrade had fallen from the roof of Circe’s palace as the Greeks prepared to leave the enchanted island. Since Elpenor’s death went unnoticed and he had not been buried with the customary rites, he could not truly enter the world of the dead. Funerary rituals, especially for soldiers, were sacred to the ancient Greeks.

    The vase shows Elpenor asking Odysseus for a proper burial; the sacrificed rams are between them, and Hermes (who guides souls to the underworld) looks on. The artist was probably inspired by Homer’s description of the two former comrades facing each other with Odysseus’ sword drawn.

    The artist added white to Odysseus’ beard, making him appear old, and pushed his traveler’s hat back as a reminder of his weary journey. In contrast, Elpenor’s young, fresh face and heroic physique echo the Greek ideal. This legendary figure stands in for the many youths who fell in battle in the prime of their lives, never to return home - a reality of war in ancient Greece.

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. What do you notice about this object? What do you think it is? What do you think it was used for in ancient Greece?

    2. What is going on in this painting? What figures can you identify?

    3. How does the body language of each character reflect his role in the story?

    4. Compare the central figures, Odysseus and Elpenor. What is similar/different? Why do you think each figure is depicted this way?

    Details

    Jar (pelike) with Odysseus and Elpenor in the Underworld

    about 440 B.C.

    the Lykaon Painter

    Dimensions

    Height: 47.4 cm (18 11/16 in.); diameter: 34.3 cm (13 1/2 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Red Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    34.79

    Collections
    The Ancient World More Info

    Description

    Odysseus, having slain two rams, seated on a rock conversing with the shade of Elpenor. Hermes stands at the right. Reverse: Poseidon pursuing Amymone. [Label text]: Homer tells us in the Odyssey about Odysseus' journey to the underworld to learn how to return to his homeland of Ithaca. While in Hades, Odysseus meets Elpenor, the youngest member of his crew. Elpenor had died on the island of the witch Circe; half-drunk and half-asleep, he fell from the roof of Circe's house. The scene of their reunion in the Underworld is pictured on this pelike. Having not received the proper funeral rites on Circe's island, Elpenor persuades Odysseus to give him a proper burial. Odysseus has sacrificed the two rams that lie at his feet to honor Elpenor and to keep the other spirits in Hades from tormenting him. Hermes stands behind Odysseus in his typical winged helmet and boots and with his caduceus. Although the messenger god does not appear in Homer's telling of the story, it is appropriate for him to be a part of this scene as he often acted as a guide to the souls in Hades. The painter shows Odysseus deeply concentrating on the words of the dead sailor while Elpenor speaks. The mysterious scene of Hades depicted here was once highlighted in white pigment to draw out the details of the rocky landscape of the underworld. On the opposite side of the vase, Poseidon, the god of the seas and enemy of Odysseus, pursues Amymone, one of the fifty daughters of King Danaus and Europa. Poseidon carries the fisherman's spear that often identifies him in art. Her kingdom having no water, Amymone went in search of it. In the scene represented here, she carries a water jug. Poseidon fell in love with Amymone and rewarded her for her affection by creating the spring of Lerna. The result of their affair was Nauplius, a great sailor. The woman behind Poseidon is perhaps one of the many sisters of Amymone.

    Multimedia

  • Odysseus and Nausikaa

    Slide Notes

    When Odysseus sets sail from Calypso’s island, Poseidon, still harboring resentment towards Odysseus for blinding his son Polyphemus, sends a storm to shipwreck him. With the help of Athena, he washes ashore at Scheria, home of the Phaiakians. Princess Nausicaa discovers Odysseus on the beach and receives him into palace, where he is welcomed by her parent’s, King Alcinous and Queen Arete of the Phaiakans.

    This pyxis cover (a pyxis was a box used for makeup) depicts the meeting of Nausicaa and Odysseus. After being shipwrecked, Odysseus is discovered naked by the princess’ hand maidens. He appears at the bottom of the cover, by the olive tree he slept under. Athena, with helmet and spear, directs him forward, as two hand maidens ran from him n either side, while a third woman continues to wash her clothes by the water. At the top of cover stands Nausicaa, regally upright and unafraid.

     

    Looking Questions:

    1. What do you notice about this object? What do you think it is? What do you think it was used for in ancient Greece?

    2. The figures on this pyxis are depicted “in action,” each character reacting differently to the unfolding scene. How does the artist visually portray the figures’ reactions?

    Details

    Pyxis depicting the meeting of Odysseus and Nausikaa

    About 420 B.C.

    Aison

    Dimensions

    Height: 4.6 cm (1 13/16 in.); diameter: 13.6 cm (5 3/8 in.)

    Medium

    Ceramic, Red Figure

    Classification

    Vessels

    Accession Number

    04.18a-b

    Collections
    The Ancient World More Info

    Description

    Circular pyxis decorated with laurel wreath; cover representing the meeting of Odysseus and Nausikaa. Names inscribed: (add Greek) Missing: knob and part of the rim (restored) of cover; small pieces of box. On the cover of this small container, the vase painter has represented the meeting of Odysseus and Nausikaa.

    Multimedia