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 already gone up to Olympos to a life of bliss. It is suggested that the account of Herakles’ ascent to Olympos are later added, and that the eighth century is completely ignorant of Herakles’ apotheosis. The last hundred lines of Theogony also mention Herakles’ residence on Olympos as in Odyssey. Yet it is also possible that the lines are an interpolation into Hesiod’s original work.
Ehoiai, which explains Herakles’ descent into Hades before ascending to Olympos, is much smoother in the flow of thought. Considering the artistic representations of the chariot procession that emerge not much later than Ehoiai, art historians tend to date the beginning of the tale of Herakles’ apotheosis to the seventh century. Because of the ambiguity of literary sources, it is sometimes through the means of visual arts that the evolvement of Herakles’ popularity is seen most clearly.
Herakles’ heroic deeds are extremely popular in the Archaic period, appearing on a large number of private art works, such as gems, shield bands and vases, as well as public monuments such as architectural monuments. During the fifth century, there is a sharp decline in Herakles’ popularity as a subject of private works. However, it is also during that period that Herakles appears on the metopes of some major public buildings in Olympia and Athens, including the famous Temple of Zeus at Olympia. Both scenes on my vase have been frequently depicted among all representations of Herakles.
The Nemean lion is undoubtedly the Archaic artists’ favorite. The majority of artists choose to show the moment of the fight, and occasionally we can see depictions of Herakles skinning or dragging the dead lion. It is difficult to determine the time when the artistic tradition began, since numerous early representations depict a man and a lion for which there are not enough evidences to identify. Toward the end of the seventh century, clear illustrations emerge as the two figures fight with each other.
There are variances in the fighting poses, with an overall trend to evolve from an upright position to a more intense kneeling position. While in most vases Herakles fights bare-handed, several vases show him fighting with a sword, such as the Polyphemus amphora of about 530 BC. Apparently, this representation contradicts with the preceding literary sources which state that the lion’s hide is invulnerable. Since we could not find surviving literature that mentions the vulnerability of the lion’s hide, there are two major possibilities that scholars suggest.
Some scholars proposes to assume that the artists portrayed Herakles killing the lion with weapon before comprehending that the strangling is the only means. Others point out the likelihood that this type of depiction is borrowed from an early earlier eastern model where a fight between a king and a lion is a common scene. In addition to vase paintings, sculptural statues of Classical times also document Herakles wrestling the lion. The vase paintings depicting the apotheosis are divided into two main categories—Herakles being led on foot to Zeus and him riding in a chariot usually with the company of Athena to the foot of Olympos.
The former scene is popularly painted during the second and third decades of the sixth century, and the latter reaches its height in the last thirty years of the century. However, it is debatable whether the procession scenes in fact depict the apotheosis, and it is suggested that only the presence of Zeus would guarantee the meaning. The Introduction Pediment from Akropolis, from which we can recognize Herakles in lion skin being introduced to the seated Zeus, is a notable example of sculptural representations of the apotheosis.
The flourishing art works regarding Herakles’ deeds in the Archaic and early Classical period reflected an explosion in Herakles’ popularity as a hero. He was indeed a magnet for all Greeks, not only because of his extraordinary physique, but also because of his unique dual identity as both a human and a divinity, which resonates with how Greeks perceive themselves—descendents of the gods. A shift of interest from his physical strength to his humane aspect occurred toward the end of the fifth century, where his appearance in romantic scenes such as admiring Hesperides or Amazon are more frequent depicted.
Illustrations of Herakles are not confined in ancient Greek art. As the myths about his heroic deeds pass on through generations, later artists turned back to Herakles as subject matters for different reasons. For example, Roman Emperor Commodus relates himself to Herakles, and orders statues representing him as the hero, with the lion’s skin over his head, the club, and the golden apples. He claims himself as reincarnation of Herakles in order to symbolically demonstrate his own physical power and dominant rulership.
In the Baroque period there is a revival in artists’ interest in mythological scenes, and Francois Lemoyne paints the apotheosis of Herakles on the ceiling in Salon d’Hercule of Versailles, but in a contemporary artistic manner. Looking again at my museum object, well-preserved, showing two detailed snapshots of the Herakles’ exploits, we know that the artist must confidently has two clear stories in mind as he executes the painting. However, despite its visual clarity, we cannot know for certitude the full extent of the stories in his mind from the snapshots.
The great number of related contemporary art works and literatures allow us to take more informed speculations, as we incline to believe that the lion’s hind is impenetrable and that the main scene depicts the apotheosis. Nevertheless, questions still remain on the originality of the literatures and the reasons for unconventional visual representations, which prevent us from drawing a definite conclusion. Therefore, it is crucial for us as today’s viewers, to incorporate ancient sources in interpreting ancient Greek art, and to stay open to various possibilities instead of attempting to make a single judgment.