THE SARPEDON KRATER: The Life and Afterlife of a Greek Vase

Nigel Spivey 

Head of Zeus (2018) h/b 256pp £18.99 (ISBN 9781786691613)

The Landmark Library is noted for concentrating on high achievements in the arts and beyond: architecture, music, literature, history. S. raises the question of whether a pot with painted figures, made in Athens c. 500 BC and excavated from an Etruscan tomb no more than 50 years ago, is fit to be set alongside these artistic giants and demonstrate that it is indeed ‘an eminent and influential achievement within world culture’ (p. 10). 

Its modern history is mired in controversy and scandal, involving rogues and scholars, sometimes without distinction, in the scramble to own and display this masterpiece of Athenian craftsmanship. Once Spivey has cleared the murky foreground, he follows the story of the painters and potters at work in Athens and of the image painted on the front of the mixing bowl: the dead body of the Trojan hero, Sarpedon, lifted by the winged figures of Sleep and Death from the battlefield of Troy, to be conveyed to his home in Lycia, as told in Homer’s Iliad. 

Other vase-painters chose the same theme but never in so grand a manner. After enlarging on the context of epic themes in Greek vase-painting and on their importance in the burial customs of the Etruscans in northern Italy to which many were exported, the author concentrates on echoes of the image of the transfer of the dead warrior as it makes its progress down the generations into the Roman world and is transformed into images of warriors of the line and everyday figures, even children. 

Such a figure is to be found on bronzes, gems, relief sculpture, and especially sarcophagi. With the Christianization of the classical world, the motif, in whole or part, was translated into a Deposition in paintings, drawings and sculpture, with Signorelli painting (1501-2) the ‘heroic somatype embodied by Sarpedon as projected by Euphronios’ (fig. 70 and p.217). Spivey also points to Marat’s limp right arm in David’s painting (1793) (fig.72) as ‘enough to signal Marat as the classical hero’ (p.220). The author certainly vindicates the place of Euphronios’ Sarpedon krater in the Landmark Library. 

Brian A. Sparkes 

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