Imagining the Afterlife through Ancient Vases
It’s a very different language of imagery. A very different vocabulary, in a way, of expressing things.
Interview of Dr. David Saunders
J. Paul Getty Museum
“The underworld, the afterlife, is fairly dank, dark, shadowy; quite frankly, it’s a bit boring. Somewhat like waiting at a bus depot.”
Homer’s Odyssey depicts an afterlife that is relatively dull, with heroic actions and glory reserved for the living. Nonetheless, people in Southern Italy in the fourth century BCE were captivated by the underworld and decorated large funerary vases with scenes of the afterlife—the domain of Hades and Persephone, where sinners like Sisyphus are tortured for eternity and heroes like Herakles and Orpheus performed daring feats. Little is known about precisely how these vases were used and seen in death rituals. A new book by Getty Publications, Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife in Ancient South Italian Vase Painting, brings together 40 such vases and explores new research on them.
In this episode, Getty Museum curator of antiquities David Saunders discusses these enormous and often elaborate vases, explaining the myths they depict and what is known about the ways in which they were used. Saunders is editor of Underworld.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
DAVID SAUNDERS: The underworld, the afterlife, is fairly dank, dark, shadowy; quite frankly, it’s a bit boring. Somewhat like waiting at a bus depot.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Getty Antiquities curator, David Saunders about his recent book, Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife in Ancient South Italian Vase Paintings.
In 2018, the Getty Villa organized an exhibition inspired by the so-called Altamura krater on loan from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy after a two-year conservation treatment. This funerary krater features an underworld scene, with Hades at the center surrounded by Greek gods like Herakles and Hermes and mythic figures including Sisyphus and Orpheus. The exhibition in turn prompted a book published by the Getty entitled Underworld: Imaging the Afterlife in Ancient South Italian Vase Painting.
I met recently with David Saunders, associate curator in the Museum’s Department of Antiquities and editor of this recent volume, to learn more about the rare and compelling images of the afterlife depicted on South Italian funerary vases dating from the fourth century BC.
Thank you, David, for speaking with me on this podcast episode.
DAVID SAUNDERS: Thank you, Jim. It’s a pleasure to be with you.
CUNO: Now, your book on the afterlife of ancient South Italian vase painting was inspired by a Getty conservation campaign on a krater, a particular krater in the collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, Italy. Tell us about that project and about that krater that prompted it.
SAUNDERS: Gladly. I guess to start with the krater itself, and it appears on the front cover of the book. A krater is a mixing bowl, essentially, which is a very common shape in ancient Greek pottery. And in Southern Italy, there is a trend for producing enormous, huge kraters that are primarily destined for funerary purposes.
And over the years, we have developed a very productive relationship with our colleagues in Naples. Over the last decade, we worked on a bronze Apollo from Pompei; a huge statue of the Emperor Tiberius that was found at Herculaneum. And this krater, which was made in the fourth century BC was the sort of third in this series. And since then, we’ve also worked on the drunken satyr that was in the Villa dei Papiri exhibition.
So this project is sort of based on a, I would say, a long-term partnership with our Italian colleagues, and also draws upon expertise we have here at the Villa. My colleague Erik Risser led the conservation project. Our colleagues in Naples identified this as an object that needed care and attention. The krater was found in fragments in the middle of the nineteenth century, and was put back together again by one of the leading vase restorers of the day, who did a superb job. But 150 or so years later, the pot was in need of care and attention to ensure its long-term stability.
And Erik’s work was developing a new internal support and documenting the history of this object, in order for then us to be able to display it and then return it to Naples for them, likewise, to be able to display it in their galleries. So that was a project between 2016 and 2018. And it then fed into an exhibition we had here at the Villa, looking at the underworld and the afterlife in Greek thought and in Southern Italy.
And for a variety of reasons, we didn’t produce a book to coincide with that show, but rather, I had the liberty and opportunity to pursue, I suppose, further inquiries and develop this book, which came out at the beginning of this year, 2022.
CUNO: Well, it is an extraordinary book, so congratulations on that. But tell us about the iconography of this particular krater and how that sets the stage for all the subsequent kraters that we’re gonna be looking at.
SAUNDERS: This krater is I think it’s not an exaggeration to say sort of monumental. It’s a meter and a half high. So it’s a colossal ancient investment of time and production. And it provides an enormous, if you will, canvas for imagery.
And like many of its contemporaries, this pot is decorated with a really rich and dense mythical scene. And in this particular case, what you’re seeing is a depiction of the underworld, of the domain of Hades. And the derivation of Hades, the Greek word, is something like the unseeable. So this is a really interesting, I suppose art historical opportunity to kind of display what is literally unimaginable.
And so at the heart of it, you have the palace of Hades and Persephone, the rulers of the underworld; and surrounding them are many of the famous, or maybe not so famous, mythical figures that are dwelling in the afterlife. I often sort of would describe it as a kind of movie poster, if you will. It kind of presents the kind of key figures, the heroes, the— the stellar cast, if you will, of the Greek underworld.
And so, you know, you have Orpheus playing his lyre; you have Sisyphus rolling his rock; Heracles and Cerberus—all the kind of figures you would expect to encounter, that you would’ve heard about in Greek mythology—all depicted on this monumental pot that was presumably deposited in a substantial burial.
CUNO: Now, the subject of your larger study focused on South Italian, particularly Apulian, vase painting of the fourth century. Tell us what’s so special about South Italian vase painting of this particular period.
SAUNDERS: For one thing, there is an extraordinary amount of material and it’s incredibly rich for study. And so much of it that you see in museums and in collections is decorated with a real efflorescence of mythical scenes, of images of ritual activity, of symposia, of funerary scenes, of depictions of heroes, of gods and goddesses. And for much of the period that Classic period, 600 to 400 BC or thereabouts, Athens was the major producer, and exported both the sort of black figure pottery that we talk about, and red figure, all over the Mediterranean.
But towards the latter decades of the fifth century, we start to see the emergence of local production within Southern Italy and Sicily. And this is the time of the Peloponnesian wars, there’s the plague that we know of. And so it’s possible that a number of maybe more entrepreneurial potters and painters sought new opportunities in Southern Italy and set up shop locally there.
And with that, you see a sort of shifting, in a way, of the momentum and of the gravity that Southern Italy, for certainly much of the fourth century, becomes the dominant producer of these richly-decorated painted pots, catering to what is largely a local market, specifically for funerary customs and burial rituals.
CUNO: Now, I may be wrong about this, but when I see these vases, they seem to have a distinct look about them that distinguishes them, let’s say, from the Greek vases that we know so well.
SAUNDERS: Absolutely. Yeah, you’re— It’s a very different language of imagery, if that makes sense. A very different vocabulary, in a way, of expressing things. My training, my PhD was in Greek, primarily Athenian, pottery. And coming into South Italian, the same rules don’t apply, in many ways.
And in particular, these big funerary vessels, which are a real distinctive characteristic of a lot, particularly of the Apulian pottery. And this pottery is, in substantial part, catering to their needs and particularly funerary practices of the elite. So yes, you’re absolutely right; there is a different flavor, shall we say.
The other thing I would stress is that—and that this book doesn’t really engage with—but this— these sort of elaborate vessels are living side-by-side with much plainer, simpler, smaller vessels that where we have documented context, you see maybe four or five big red-figure vessels with complex iconography, and then lots of other smaller vessels that maybe just have one or two figures. Some are plain black, some are undecorated. So there’s a real conspectus, of which this is sort of the most elaborate and expressive. Visually, at least.
CUNO: Now, what do we know about the makers of the pots? Where’d they come from, for example?
SAUNDERS: In terms of what we know about the makers, we have archaeological evidence for some of the workshops. One notable thing about the Apulian pottery is that none of it, as far as I know, preserves any signatures, in contrast, say, to Athenian pottery, where there is a long-running practice—by no means universal, but a long-running practice—of potters and painters signing. So we don’t know the names of any individuals who made these pots.
What we do have is the work of modern scholars who have devoted their lives to studying this material and who have attributed all of these unsigned vessels to individual hands or to workshops or to groups. And attributing, through a sort of connoisseurial approach, identifying distinctive mannerisms, traits, stylistic quirks, and identifying pots, identifying fragments, as being by the same painter, as being by the same hand. And this has sort of given rise to the litany of, for want of a better word, nicknames. And so, when you scroll through the Underworld book, you’ll encounter the Lycurgus painter, the Underworld painter, the Darius painter, the White Saccos painter.
But at the same time, it’s, I think, important to remember that these might be actual persons; but a lot of the distinctions between these different hands are often fluid. There is an immense amount of skill and expertise involved in attributing, but it’s by no means a definitive science. And many of these vessels have been reattributed or remain sort of subutige.
I think so often, it’s very easy to focus on privileging the artist as the kind of genius figure or the kind of inspirational creator, and to think of them much more as the product of a broader community of belief and of culture.
CUNO: So what was the functions of these vases? Were they limited to funereal functions, or did they have other functions?
SAUNDERS: The ones in the book, many of them, the front shows an underworld scene and the back shows a grave monument. And you couldn’t ask for a kind of clearer presentation of their intended function. A number of them, like the big Naples krater that we started this project with, as I say, are huge and unwieldy for actual practical use.
As I said, the krater is essentially a mixing vessel, made for blending wine with water, but at this scale, is completely impractical for that purpose. And in many cases, these pots also have holes in the bottom. So they were never actually capable of storing or containing liquid. So they are made expressly for the tomb. And where we have documented context and excavations, we find them as part of a rich array of grave goods.
And so thinking of a number of these elaborate burials, you encounter half a dozen big, elaborately decorated pots, maybe a couple of kraters, a couple of amphorae, maybe a hydriai, or a water jar, and then potentially accompanied with weapons, armor, if it’s a male burial. For female burials, often a lot of jewelry of ambers.
So there is a sort of rich sort of array of funerary goods, of which these pots are a are a key part. They are made to be displayed during the funerary ceremonies and then sort of buried with the deceased. And again, that sort of prompts, for me, lots of questions as to the opportunities that people had to see these. Presumably, they would’ve had to be transported from the kiln to the burial site; and then were potentially accessible for the mourners to potentially see; and then buried with the deceased.
CUNO: What were the different kinds of tombs in which they were found, these vases? And were they always found in tombs?
SAUNDERS: One of the big challenges when studying South Italian pottery is the sheer quantity of material that has no documented find spot. And that profoundly compromises what we can say about these objects. That said, where we do have context, where there have been archaeological excavations, these grand vessels with underworld scenes and with other rich mythological images come from large burials. These may be individual tombs, rock-cut, lined with slabs , often with painting on the interior. Up in Donia, there were a number of actual subterranean complexes of multiple graves that are connected with corridors, if you will, which were filled with a variety of grave goods. But these are the top level, if you will. There is a sort of whole spectrum, ranging from sarcophagi down to sort of simple rock-cut tombs. Burials that are essentially just dug in the earth. And so much, of course, that just doesn’t survive archaeologically. There is a sort of a broad spectrum of options, for burials.
CUNO: Now, what about the images found on the different kinds of Apulian vases? Was there a conventional iconography of the vases?
SAUNDERS: Again, there is an enormous variety of imagery. And the forty or so underworld images are really just the tip of an iceberg. There is a distinct a distinctive number of very dense and often complex, very abstruse, in some cases, number of scenes that depict Greek myth, that in some cases, at least, may well have been inspired by theatrical performances. Some, indeed, actually show some of the comedy scenes, show stages. Those are the vases that you often see prominently in museum collections and publications.
But there is a whole body of maybe smaller vessels that show youths and women; scenes that seem to evoke the sort of nuptial-marriage sphere. Images of women adorning themselves; lots and lots of images of Eros, of Nike; hundreds, if not thousands of images of Dionysus and satyrs and maenads. Again, wine and the drinking of wine is absolutely critical to so much of the function of these pots and the beliefs that are framing them. There are hundreds of pots that simply show female heads in profile. Lots of funerary scenes, right down to single, you know, individual figures, representations of youths, women. A lot of actually quite sort of repetitive imagery, as well as the much more elaborate scenes.
CUNO: Now, you concentrate in this book on the afterlife as depicted by these ancient Greek artists. Tell us about the ancient Greek views of the afterlife.
SAUNDERS: I always become increasingly tentative of saying the ancient Greeks thought X or the ancient Greeks did Y, particularly with something as inherently ungraspable as the afterlife. What we have to kind of base our understanding on is just a tiny selection of sources, of materials that survived. And a lot of this is the literary evidence. In part, this is one of the reasons for doing this book, is to sort of bring the South Italian material together in a way that is convenient and accessible, and so the imagery can be sort of part of this conversation.
So, having provided a number of kind of caveats for myself in saying what the sort of Greek ideas of the afterlife were, it’s impossible with so— as with so much of ancient Greek culture, to escape the legacy of the Iliad and the Odyssey and of Homer. And whilst the Greeks had no canonical textbook that defined for all concerned a sort of set of codified beliefs that everyone would subscribe to, the Iliad and the Odyssey are, if you will, a kind of touchstone, sort of form a kind of a backdrop to everything that follows after. And they themselves are the, I suppose, embodiment of hundreds of years of narrative and storytelling and ritual and myth that were written down, maybe in the eighth and seventh centuries BC. And in the Odyssey, as part of the narrative, Odysseus encounters the underworld. And his recitation of his experience down there provides a framework for all kind of subsequent thought.
And in short, the account that you read in the Odyssey of the afterlife is fairly uninspiring. The underworld, the afterlife, is fairly dank, dark, shadowy; quite frankly, it’s a bit boring. Somewhat like waiting at a bus stop. Everyone is sort of waiting around in the afterlife. The action and activity of life is sort of over, and everyone is, for want of a better word, sort of killing time. All the kind of mental energy seems to be in this world and what those in this world will remember you by, rather than being anxious about what might happen to you in the afterlife.
And so there is not really a kind of articulated “the good people go to the good place and the bad people go to the bad place.” There’s no real sharp division. There are a handful of very famous sinners, like Sisyphus, who do undergo eternal torment. There is a handful of exceptional characters, like Menelaus, who seem to get to go to a special place, to Elysium. You’re sort of seeing the weaving together, potentially, of different strands of belief. As I say, there isn’t sort of one dominant codified authority. The Iliad and the Odyssey weave together a number of different kind of frameworks.
And you can sort of start, almost like an archaeologist, to kind of wade through the kind of different ideas that are kind of circulating. But gradually you start to see the emergence of a what you might call more articulated afterlife. The idea that maybe in this life, you can ensure that you have a better existence in the beyond. And in particular, the establishment of a festival called the Eleusinian Mysteries, which was an annual ritual that took place at Eleusis, not far from Athens, that was focused on a sort of agricultural ritual and trying to ensure a good harvest. And if you participated in these so-called mysteries—and we don’t know precisely what happened at this multi-day festival, because it was kept secret—but through participation in that, you essentially get a kind of pass for not only a good harvest, but a happy afterlife.
And this kind of connection between fertility, agriculture, and the underworld is manifested in the myth of Hades and Persephone. So in this well-established Greek myth, the god Hades, the Roman Pluto, seizes, or essentially rapes, Persephone while she is out plucking flowers, takes her down into the underworld, and makes her his wife. Persephone’s mother, Demeter, who is the goddess of agriculture, is understandably distraught, and goes in search of her daughter and can’t find her. And because she is, you know, so overwhelmed by this loss, all of the crops fail.
And so Zeus intervenes and compels his brother Hades to give up Persephone and return her to Demeter. But just as Persephone is returning, Hades essentially tricks her into eating a pomegranate seed down in the underworld. And because she has consumed something down there, she is essentially tied back into the underworld. And so for the rest of her existence, she has to spend part of her life down there and part of her life back up with Demeter.
So she lives this eternal cycle, emerging up into the upper world and then back down into the underworld. And that is a sort of, if you will, analogy for the harvest or the growth of crops their gradual decay, and then their resurrection, their rebirth the next year. So fertility, agriculture, and death and the afterlife are intricately and intimately connected. And these rituals at Eleusis are a manifestation of that.
But we know from the few texts that we have that participation in these rites could ensure the initiate a better existence in the beyond.
CUNO: What about the poet Sappho, who composed, about a century after the Odyssey and describing the underworld as a dark and mirthless place with these words; she said, “After death, you will be forgotten, and there will never be any longing for you, because you have no share of the roses of Pieria, unseen in the house of Hades, thrown from our midst, you will wander among the shadowy dead”?
SAUNDERS: That nicely and elegantly captures the Homeric vision of the underworld as a rather bleak and dispiriting and kind of—I mean, it sounds sort of silly—but literally, a lifeless place. And again, all the pleasures of this world are lost to the deceased. But again, it’s sort of context-specific.
And Sappho has a sort of particular purpose in writing that poem. Almost sort of acting like as a sort of curse, as a—an insult. If you turn, say to Aristophanes and his play The Frogs, in which there is this sort of raucous descent. Dionysus goes down into the underworld and, you know, Aristophanes plays it for laughs. Pick up, you know, sort of Plato’s writings, and he presents a much more philosophical and complex and quite abstruse description of the underworld.
So each of these writers is, in a way, presenting an underworld that fits their own purposes; but also then plays to a kind of familiar conception that their audience would recognize. There’s a passage from one of Plato—I think in the Republic—where in the mouth of one of his speakers, Plato essentially describes what is, I think, much more of a sort of everyday attitude to the afterlife, which is: as one approaches old age, all of these stories that one heard and one is dismissive of suddenly become much more concerning.
And this kind of very, I think, human dismissal of these—you know, these are myths, presumably, that people would’ve known from childhood, and growing up, you know, maybe you dismiss as just some nonsense and just sort of storytelling. But as one approaches the end of one’s mortal coil, the prospect of having to schlep a boulder up a hill like Sisyphus for eternity becomes a little bit more concerning.
And I think, in a way, turning back to the images on the pots—that what these maybe sort of play to, that they are serving, in some ways, as a sort of consolation or a kind of an optimistic vision of what the afterlife could be like.
CUNO: Did Greek views of the afterlife always include the underworld?
SAUNDERS: For the most part, yes. I think in the fifth century, there’s a passage in Euripides and there’s an Athenian inscription, funerary inscription that seem to sort of allude to souls going up into the ether, going up sort of up into the air. And you find, particularly a little bit in later sources, there are those who are dismissive of the underworld altogether and dismiss any idea of an afterlife.
But for the most part, I think it’s fair to say that a notion of the afterlife and the underworld is fairly commonly held. I think what is variable is what that underworld comprises and contains. Certainly going back to some of the passages of Pindar, the sort of aspirational hope that there is an afterlife that is pleasant meadows, gentle breezes, fragrant trees, free-flowing wine. This is something that crops up in a number of sources, as well.
CUNO: Now, what about the Orphic Gold Tablets? What was their function and their content?
SAUNDERS: So the so-called Orphic Tablets are one of the most enigmatic, fascinating, and devilishly complex areas of Greek material culture that I’ve ever worked on. And I am working on this book, the chance to work with a number of specialists and Roy Kotansky, who wrote an essay on these, has been enormously instructive. And Sarah Iles Johnston’s introductory essay for the book really sort of helps to set out a context for these Orphic Tablets.
These are tiny, little, wafer-thin sheets of gold. And there’s actually one in the Getty’s collection that is the focus of Roy’s essay. And these are tiny, maybe two or three centimeters in width, on which is written Greek text. And these seem to provide guidance for what to do in the underworld. These are your sort of VIP ticket to the special place in the afterlife.
There are around forty or so that are known. So a very small number. They date from the late fifth, early fourth century BC, right down to the second or third century AD. So, a broad span of time. Found in Southern Italy, Crete, Northern Greece, Sicily.
So representative of something that is sort of going on in this whole region, but very, very eclectic, very esoteric. From a number of literary passages, particularly the writings of Plato and others, we know that there were a number of self-styled preachers—gurus, you might call them; charlatans, others might call them—who really capitalized on the kind of fact that for the most part, Greek belief didn’t really offer too much in terms of opportunities for people to kind of ensure their happy afterlife.
These sort of self-styled preachers seemed to have framed themselves as people who had special knowledge, insider intel, if you will, and who could essentially, by sharing this information—and being paid for it, incidentally—could divulge the secrets to individuals to sort of get them behind the velvet rope.
And it seems that Orpheus played a key part in these mystical rituals. Orpheus, famous for going down into the underworld to rescue his bride, and then coming back out. He loses his bride, famously; but the fact that Orpheus was able to go down and come back up makes him a really key figure, someone who had, again, the sort of knowledge of how underworld operates.
And so there seem to have been poems ascribed to Orpheus that sort of recounted the way the underworld may have operated, the layout of the land. And these Orphic Tablets preserve, essentially, instructions for what to say and for what to do, for where to go. You know, literally, a sort of GPS. You know, “take this route, not that route; drink from this fountain, not this spring. There’s a white cypress you need to look out for. These are the things you need to say to the guardians. This is what you need to tell Persephone. You have to claim your purity and lineage.”
The Greek is really hard to decipher. And they are sort of evidently almost sort of like—what’s the word?—sort of mementos from a much sort of broader conversation. And where we have evidence, these were placed in the tomb, sometimes in the hand, sometimes even on the mouth of the deceased. And essentially, providing a pass, a voucher, if you will, to a happy afterlife.
CUNO: Okay, well, take us through a few typical vases, to give us a sense of what it is you’ve been describing. Take the Apulian volute krater from Apulia, number three in the catalog.
SAUNDERS: So almost all of these scenes of the underworld appear on these volute kraters. So these are sort of these big mixing bowls with elaborate handles, and decorated front and back, often with subsidiary scenes on the neck.
And this particular krater in the collection of the Jatta Museum in Ruvo is one of my favorites. This is one of the earlier images, and just shows a little vignette, if you will. Rather than the big, almost, as I said, sort of movie poster scenes that we see on some of the other pots, this just shows a single episode, where Hades and Persephone are watching over this brilliantly-rendered fury. This is a sort of avenging winged figure with a sort of very, very leering, gruesome face, who is binding with a rope, a young man.
And there is a second young man seated, already bound, down below. None of these figures are named, but from other examples, it’s almost certain that these two figures are Theseus and Pirithous. And maybe it is one of the sort of lesser-known underworld narratives. Pirithous, foolishly, thinks it’s a clever idea to go down to the underworld to try to seize Persephone. And he takes Theseus with him for support. And this is a profound transgression of not only mortals and the underworld trying to seize gods.
And as you see on this pot, they are shown being punished. And at least, the way the story goes from the literary text, a little bit later on, Heracles comes down to the underworld to take Cerberus, and he is able to rescue Theseus and able to free him and bring him back to the world above. But he’s not able to save Pirithous, and Pirithous will dwell forever, bound in the afterlife. And so this image on this krater provides a snapshot of a kind of underworld story.
And it’s, again, interesting to sort of think, you know, what would it mean to see a scene like this in a funerary setting? Interestingly, the back of the vase, the other side, shows a much more, I suppose, cheerful scene. You have a youth, a young man of Theseus’s and Pirithous’s age being served drink by Maenads, associates of Dionysus. And in some ways, this is a much more sort of idealizing vision of what a happy afterlife might look like.
CUNO: Tell us about the volute krater from Naples. It’s number seven in the catalog.
SAUNDERS: Yeah, so number seven, as we mentioned at the outset, was the inspiration for this whole project, and is one of the most regularly illustrated of these underworld scenes, together with number six in Karlsruhe and number twenty-two in Munich.
Because these, A, were all discovered in the nineteenth century, so they are sort of well-known and well-documented, and they present really the sort of, I suppose, the fullest presentation of the underworld. So on the big Naples krater from Altamura, at the center, you have Hades and Persephone, the rulers of the underworld, sitting in their palace. And it’s incredibly—
If you sort of look closely, it’s got these wonderful caryatid columns adorning the front of the palace. As I mentioned, this pot was discovered in fragments and put back together. Large sections of the scene are restored, but based on the similarities with some other underworld scenes, we can be reasonably confident in what we’re seeing.
So you have Hades and Persephone as the spoke around which everything else turns. And then you have three or four little clusters of figures that are individual groupings of mythological heroes. So down maybe at the bottom, you have Heracles wrestling with Cerberus. To the left of him, the god Hermes, who is a messenger god who is able to move between the world above and the underworld, is pointing the way out.
To his left is Sisyphus, rolling this colossal rock for eternity. He’s watched over by another of these furies, who has, if I remember, a goad in her hand. So she’s literally sort of overseeing him. Two more furies are standing idly around above her. And to their right is the poet Orpheus, who is plucking his lyre, playing to Hades and Persephone outside the palace. And then at the top left, you have the two sons of Heracles and Megara, who were killed by Heracles in a fit of madness.
And then flipping over to the other side, you have three figures who are most likely Pirithous and Theseus, who we saw a moment ago on the other krater, together with Dike, who is the personification of justice. Down below them, Triptolemus, Rhadamanthys, and Aiakos, who are the rulers, judges of the underworld. And then down below them, three of the danaides, who are, like Sisyphus, condemned to futile labor in the underworld. So as I mentioned, this is really a cast list, if you will, of famous figures that one might anticipate encountering in the underworld.
CUNO: Are we given any kind of direction in the reading of these vases, the iconography of them? In other words, is there some sort of beginning and end in that way, or are they just piling up on top of one another?
SAUNDERS: That sort of question of how to read these really goes to the heart of just day-to-day, in working with material, and likewise for this, in sort of what the response to something like this is.
I mean, on a very specific level, this krater is particularly significant because a number of these figures are actually named. Although we don’t have any painters’ signatures, there are inscriptions on this pot that actually name the figures. And actually, the discovery of this krater when it was published in 1851, that helped scholars decipher some of the other pots that had already been known, and had prompted all sorts of speculation as to who’s who.
But actually, how you go about reading this, the short answer is, you know, we don’t know. And again, how close in antiquity you might get to a krater like this? Would you be seeing this from ten feet away and how apparent these— ’cause these are— again, this is big pot, but these figures are, I don’t know, what, twenty centimeters? I mean, you have to get up close to really understand and really interpret these.
You know, we’ve all sat in enough PowerPoint presentations and been behind other people to kind of find it difficult to see, you know, the precise details. Scholars have maybe sort of suggested that maybe someone of the funerary ceremony would maybe expound based upon these painted images and sort of tell some of these stories to the assembled mourners, perhaps. Again, we really don’t know.
What is, I think, key, is that to get the most out of this imagery, you have to know the stories. There has to be some sort of, shall we say, literacy, some understanding of these scenes and of these figures, to know who they are and why they’re down there. And this is why some Apulian iconography still awaits elucidation and decipherment because we today don’t know, because we don’t have, you know, many of the textual sources that provide a sort of basis for our understanding.
CUNO: Why are a number of the kraters so similar in iconography? Here, I’m thinking of the five Apulian volute kraters attributed to the Baltimore painter. Seems as if you’ve seen one, you haven’t seen them all; but nevertheless, there is some sort of sense of repetition among them.
SAUNDERS: Yeah. And again, that was, I suppose, another of my motivations in wanting to bring them all together in a convenient package. And when I was developing the research and the exhibition and sort of went through articles and PDFs and pulling together what became a very ragged binder of photocopies and just wanting to pull all these scenes into a single compendium—
And as you say, there is a very consistent iconography. To the point that many scholars have surmised there was maybe some individual common template, a source, maybe a wall painting. You know, we know at Delphi, there was a monumental wall painting of the afterlife. By Pausanias’s account, very different to what we see on the pots, but there was certainly a precedent for kind of grand wall paintings that depict the afterlife. And maybe there was some shared model that these painters were drawing upon.
And then the pots that you referenced, all attributed to the Baltimore painter, who again, is one of these unknown artists, if you will, that Trendall identified. And there’s a series of pots that all seem to be very similar, with a warrior shaking hands with Hades, or in one case Persephone. Very, very consistent iconographically.
But once you start looking closely, there are all sorts of little variations, whether it’s in the scene itself or the other images on the pot that it was juxtaposed with. And one of the, I suppose, ideas that I toyed with— You sort of constantly wish for a way to get back into the ancient context. But, were some of these pots being made on commission, being made to measure? Was there a sort of standard template that you might, I don’t know, a family might commission a funerary vessel and might go to their, you know, local workshop and say, “I want one of these underworld scenes”? But then, you know, was the scope to tailor that?
And when you sort of, say, look closely at a number of these very similar scenes and see that there are individual figures who appear either in, you know, uniquely or get omitted here and there, is this maybe being tailored to a particular purpose, to a particular individual for whom a specific narrative might have had associations?
So there is both consistency, but also variability. And again, this is where I hope this book can be, in some way, useful in allowing other scholars and other researchers to pick up these threads and dig deeper into some of these questions.
CUNO: Tell us about the process of the book coming together.
SAUNDERS: So this was, essentially, an offshoot of the research project and then the exhibition, and to have the opportunity to spend more time, if you will, in the underworld and to research these topics more thoroughly.
Particularly doing this during the pandemic, the challenges anyway of sourcing images for this book, and particularly the challenges occasioned by the last couple of years, this is the kind of project that could not have happened without the expertise and skills of my colleagues at Getty Publications and the coauthors and many visitors who came to the show back in 2018, which provided me with the opportunity to road test some of these ideas, to then be able to write up in the book.
CUNO: Well, these are grand and beautiful Greek pots with an aesthetic bold, beautiful, and complex, to suggest a common aesthetic for sure. Thank you, David, for speaking with me today and bringing to life the beauty and mystery of the afterlife of ancient South Italian vase painting. The book is really exceptional.
Originally published by The Iris, 07.06.2022, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.