Greek Archaic black-figure Olpe with Herakles Mosikos and Athena
Period: Late 6th Century B.C.
Material: Greek Ceramic
Dimensions: Height: 20.5 cm
Ex-Gübelin Collection, Lucerne, collected before 1970.
The piece is whole and very well preserved; the paint has retained most of its luster, except around the neck where it has faded slightly. Details overpainted in purple and white (a barely visible shade) embellish the decoration.
Like the oinochoe, the olpe was a jug intended to serve wine at symposia: this example, with its elongated profile and trefoil lip, echoes the shape spread in the Attic repertory from the early 6th century on by the Gorgon painter.
A metope with a figural scene is approximatley centered on the surface of the vase: viewed frontally, the scene is too far left of the handle. The painted figures, who stand on a black and red line, are easy to recognize: there is Athena, armed with a long spear and wearing an Attic crested helmet, in the company of one of her favorite heroes, Herakles. A bow, a quiver, a sword and a lion’s skin are the usual attributes of the hero, but he is represented here in an uncommon posture, holding a large zither, which he plays with a plectrum used to pluck the strings of the instrument.
Herakles mousikos (Heracles the musician) images first appear on Attic black figure pottery during the last decades of the 6th century B.C.; the theme enjoyed some success until the beginning of the following century, before being abandoned. The motif reappears in other iconographies in late Hellenistic and Roman art. During the Archaic period, the hero usually plays the zither, which is sometimes replaced by the lyre or the double flute; he is depicted in profile and often stands on a podium (bema) as if he was participating in a musical contest. He is usually accompanied by Athena, and sometimes Hermes or, rarely, other deities (Dionysos, Zeus, Poseidon, etc.). The presence of the bema and of other landscape elements (here, the vine tree) suggests that the scene takes place on earth rather than in Olympia.
Some scholars explain these scenes as allusions to the mythical history of Athens. During this period, Athens was ruled by the tyrant Pisistrates and his sons: in order to celebrate and heighten the importance of Athens and of its patron goddess, Athena, The Pisistratides revolutionized the Panathenaic games by introducing a Homeric Recital competition, among other things. Given the fundamental role played by Herakles under these tyrants, it is possible that this iconography was created by artists who wanted to illustrate the hero as a musician, inspired by the innovation of the Athenian musical world in the late Archaic period. This olpe was certainly painted by the same artist – whose name has not yet been identified – who decorated an oinochoe found in Corinth, now in the National Museum of Athens: both scenes are virtually identical, even in its smallest details. The style of this painter is not devoid of a certain originality that recalls the finest productions of the late 6th century (the Edinburgh Painter, the Theseus Painter, the Athena Painter).
BOARDMAN J., Herakles, Peisistratos and Eleusis, in Journal of Hellenic Studies, 95, 1975, pp. 10-11.