“Another thing” is a series of occasional posts, each presenting a particularly interesting, beautiful or unusual object on display at one of the museums or sites on our tours.
Look at him: A young man standing in a thoughtful pose, his left foot placed on a rock, the knee supporting his left arm, on which, in turn, his chin his resting. His face expresses contemplation, a moment of deep thought about what lies ahead of him. Clearly, this is a temporary halt, a fleeting moment of rest before some action will take place, as suggested by his muscular body, his strange winged hat and sandals, and the two spears he is holding in his right hand.
Who is he? If you know Greek mythology, you may be able to guess, but hold on – there is a surprise in store.
Before all that, however, do note the superb quality of the drawing. Eschewing the use of bold colours, extensive shading or elaborate detail, it is nearly deserving of the term minimalist, limited to bold black outlines and slightly lighter lines for internal detail. It is evident that we are looking at the work of a skilled artist, gifted at composition and blessed with a light and subtle brush when drawing. Have a look at the facial features from mouth to eyebrow, expressing thought and emotion in just a few lines, at the wonderful black curls, or at the right hand, strongly grabbing the spears and indicating the tension underlying this moment of pause.
This image was actually one of the major things I looked forward to seeing when I set out for Sicily in February. Of course, I primarily did so to view the great ancient temples and medieval cathedrals of Italy’s largest island, but in truth, I was as eager to finally see this piece – I had been admiring photographs of it since my student days.
It decorates a krater, a vessel used for mixing water with wine, painted in Athens around 430 BC, in the so-called white-ground technique. We know other works by the same vase painter; his actual name is unknown but scholars call him the Phiale Painter. The vase is on display in the Archaeological Museum at Agrigento, as it was found in an ancient cemetery near there, probably having been exported to Sicily as a luxury item. It certainly marks a point of high achievement in Classical Athenian vase painting.
The figure depicted is, as some will have guessed already, the demi-god Perseus, on his way to rescue the princess Andromeda, who is about to be sacrificed to a sea-monster (she is shown to his right, tied to two posts, but unfortunately I do not have a photograph of that part of the vase). That juxtaposition would make him recognisable easily enough, as would the winged sandals and cap he borrowed from Hermes, the Messenger God, for the occasion. Additionally, Perseus is actually identified by an inscription of his name just above his head (also not shown here). Question answered?
Not quite. There is a second inscription to the right of Perseus. It says “Euaion, son of Aeschylus, is beautiful“. “Kalos inscriptions” are common in Athenian vase painting at the time, praising young men for their beauty. The young man in question, Euaios, apparently was a popular actor, perhaps not surprisingly for the son of Aeschylus, one of antiquity’s greatest playwrights. He is assumed to have played Perseus in the drama “Andromeda” by Sophocles around 440 BC. The vase thus portrays Euaion playing Perseus – two in one. Its presence at Agrigento might indicate that his fame had spread across the Greek World.
The “Andromeda” is lost and we have little idea of its content, a retelling of the Perseus and Andromeda story. A later drama on the same theme by the third great Athenian playwright, Euripides, was staged at the Dionysia in 412 BC. It appears to have laid emphasis on the moment when Perseus falls in love with Andromeda. In one surviving fragment, the hero implores Eros, the God of Love: “…either don’t teach us to see beauty in what is beautiful, or help those who are in love to succeed in their efforts as they suffer the toils that you yourself have crafted“.
Although we do not know Sophocles’ play, the Agrigento krater appears to evoke a similar scene: Perseus has stopped to draw breath and consider his options before attacking the monster (shown neither on the vase nor in the play), and to realise that the girl in front of him is more than a hero’s prize. Along with other vase paintings of the time, it illustrates the increasing engagement with personal human emotion that can be traced in the development of Athenian art and literature in the second half of the 5th century BC.
So, what we are looking at is not just an image of a popular Greek hero. It is also a portrait of an actual person, the famed actor Euaion. Beyond that, it is a depiction of a work of (lost) literature, and even more importantly, of a supreme emotion we all (hopefully) know: love.
You can view the Perseus/Euaion krater on our Exploring Sicily tour.