Monumental Apulian Red-Figure Krater with a Narration of the Children of the Boeotian King, Athamas

Greek · Apulian, middle of the 4th century B.C.




H: 84 cm (33 in)





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This monumental krater demonstrates a very complex design. In addition to the rich subsidiary decoration composed of plastic elements (swan heads, Medusa heads) or painted (large palm leaves, friezes of volutes or leaves, languettes), both sides feature figural scenes. The main side represents scenes with about ten people and several animals or sea monsters: it is based on a large-scale narration about the children of Athamas, the Boeotian king, from his first union. The boy, Phrixus, depicted at the center of the upper register, rides a white ram and tries to hold his sister Helle, who slides from the animal’s back. She will eventually fall into the sea that the two young people are crossing, which therefore took the name of Hellespont, the modern-day sea of Marmara separating Europe from Asia. The two young people tried to escape their stepmother, Ino (the second wife of Athamas), and headed to Colchis, where only Phrixus arrived safely. There, he sacrificed the ram, whose skin became later the famous Golden Fleece, the object of the expedition of the Argonauts victoriously led by Jason. According to a variant of the legend, Helle, who had fallen into the sea, would have escaped from drowning: hosted by the Nereids, she was loved by Poseidon, and had a child with him, Paeon. The first register of this large scene is completed with the figures of Ino (who became a Bacchante), of Nephele (the first wife of Athamas, mother of the two young people, who deploys her coat to protect them), of Poseidon, seated on a rock, and of the son born of the union of the god with Helle (Paeon, who plays the syrinx). The landscape of the lower register, populated by huge seahorses and fish, represents the kingdom of the sea, where Helle (surmounted and crowned by a small Eros) lived with the Nereids at Poseidon’s side. The painter was probably influenced by Attic theatre; Sophocles and Euripides devoted tragedies to Phrixus and his story.

The development of the mythological episode refers to the contemporary beliefs about the existence in the afterlife promised to the de-ceased: taken in the air beyond the sea and from the land of the living, he would have reached the afterlife (which, according to some myths, was located in Colchis, the final destination of Phrixus) thanks to the sacrifice of the ram, which would serve as a soul carrier, literally and figuratively. On the other side of the krater, a funerary scene is represented: a stele crowned by a cup filled with fruits is placed between four figures (two seated and two standing) holding offerings for the deceased (a cake, fruits, wine, garlands). The style of the vase painting does not differ from the figures painted by artists such as Darius or his close collaborators.


Reassembled; minor scratches, cracks, and dents; the white abraded and partially lost; minor flaking of black glaze.


Art market, prior to the 1950s;

Ex- Mr. and Mrs. R. Lévy Collection, Switzerland, collected at the end of the 1950s.


Phoenix Ancient Art 2020 /39, no. 17


Sense and Sensibility: Women in Antiquity, New York, 2021