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Harvard 1960.339: Theseus and Poseidon

The obverse of the Harvard krater represents the visit of Theseus to his divine father, Poseidon, who in some accounts slept with Theseus' mother Aithra on the same night as his mortal father, Aigeus. When Theseus went to Crete, Minos challenged him to prove his divine parentage by retrieving a ring thrown into the sea, a feat he accomplished with Amphitrite's help. In the Harrow Painter's version, Poseidon and Theseus are the focal point, shaking hands in the center. Poseidon wears a fillet, a dotted chiton with folds in dilute glaze, and a himation. In his left hand he holds a tall trident, which overlaps the frame above. Theseus wears a wreath, short chiton with a belted overfold, and a fringed shawl. The sword hanging at his waist is presumably the weapon left under a rock at Troizen by Aigeus. His hair is shorter than the god's and is tied in a short queue; thinned glaze is used for his budding sideburns. The round object in his left hand is certainly not a ring; it looks more like an apple. Standing at the left are an old man and a younger woman, identifiable as Nereus and one of his daughters, a Nereid. A slender Doric column stands between them. The Nereid holds an oinochoe in her right hand and a phiale in her left; she is pouring a libation to mark Theseus' arrival. Nereus, leaning on a tall staff, turns back to look at his daughter, whose elaborate dress has been described above. Nereus is more modestly attired in a chiton and himation. His stubbly beard and close-cropped hair are rendered in dilute glaze. At the far right, behind Theseus, stands Poseidon's queen, Amphitrite. She raises her right hand to crown the hero with a wreath of added red, now nearly invisible. She has a long fillet in her hair and is dressed in a chiton, himation, and dotted earrings. Her face and that of Theseus are drawn in a manner characteristic of the painter in his more careful work, with heavy, rounded chins, narrow eyes, hooked nostrils, and slightly parted lips. The way Theseus' pupil is attached only to the upper contour of the eye is somewhat unusual and gives him a rather sleepy look; Poseidon's eye is more characteristic. The treatment of Nereus' head is paralleled by the seated old man on another column-krater by the painter, in Basel.1

This and other versions of this subject may be based loosely on Bacchylides' account of Theseus' visit to Poseidon's underwater palace (megaron theon), here represented by the column (Bacchyl. 17.97-116).2 In Bacchylides' account, it is Amphitrite who helps Theseus find the ring, and Poseidon is not present. This is the version drawn by Onesimos on a cup in Paris, who omits Poseidon but admits Theseus' divine sponsor, Athena (Louvre G 104;

).3 Bacchylides says Theseus received a mantle and a wreath from Amphitrite. The mantle must be the unusual, fringed garment draped over Theseus' shoulders. The red wreath held by Amphitrite is somewhat superfluous, as it pales beside the carefully drawn crown which the hero already wears. In two other contemporary versions of the subject, by the Briseis and Triptolemos Painters, Amphitrite again stands behind Theseus, proffering a wreath.4 On the Briseis Painter's cup, Theseus faces Athena; on the pelike by the Triptolemos Painter, it is Poseidon who stands before the seated youth. The one consistent motif — Amphitrite standing behind Theseus with a wreath — may be an element borrowed from a common visual source.

One possibility is mentioned by Pausanias (Paus. 1.17.2), who says the subject was depicted by the artist Mikon in a painting in the sanctuary of Theseus in Athens. Mikon's painting most likely dates to Kimon's renovation of the Theseion, sometime between 478 and 470 B.C., the very period when these vases were painted. Another possibility, considering his undoubted influence on the Harrow Painter, is that the composition was copied from a lost work by the Berlin Painter. Other versions of the subject are differently composed. On a calyx-krater by the Syriskos Painter, Amphitrite stands behind Poseidon, who shakes hands with Theseus.5 Sometimes only Poseidon and Theseus are represented, as on an oinochoe at Yale (Yale 1913.143, the name-vase of the Painter of the Yale Oinochoe;

).6 In other contexts, Theseus also shakes hands with his mortal father, Aigeus, who welcomes him to Athens.7 A related scene on an amphora by the Oinanthe Painter is interpreted by Pollitt not as Aigeus greeting Theseus, but rather as Pittheus shaking Theseus' hand as he departs from Troizen.8

This impressive vase, with its rare mythological subject inspired by poetry and, perhaps, by the work of a major muralist, might have been regarded by the Harrow Painter as one of his better works. It is that, but it is also somewhat ponderous and not a little dull. Nonetheless, it might have served as the mixing bowl at a symposium of aristocratic supporters of Kimon, whose connection with Theseus was cemented by his discovery of the hero's bones on Skyros. One feels that the Harrow Painter labored long over such a showpiece, but with less result than in some of his more modest works.

1 Basel, ex Ludwig collection; Para., 354, 64 bis. R. Lullies and F. Brommer wonder if the old man might be Aigeus, with the figure facing him being Theseus; see R. Lullies, in E. Berger, ed., Antike Kunstwerke aus der Sammlung Ludwig (Basel 1979) 121-22, no. 44. Beazley, however, is surely correct in calling the second figure a female.

2 See Gentili 1954 (supra); P. Jacobsthal, Theseus auf dem Meeresgrunde (Leipzig 1911); J. Neils, The Youthful Deeds of Theseus (Rome 1987) 90; and F. Brommer, Theseus: die Täten des griechischen Helden in der antiken Kunst und Literatur (Darmstadt 1982) 77-83, pls. 22-23.

3 ARV2, 318, 1.

4 Briseis Painter: New York 53.11.4 (ARV 406, 7); Triptolemos Painter: Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg 2695 (ARV2, 362, 19).

5 Paris, Cab. Méd. 418 (ARV2, 260, 2).

6 ARV2, 503, 25.

7 Louvre G 195, by the Brygos Painter; ARV2, 381, 174.

8 London E 264 (ARV2, 579, 1); see Pollitt 1987 (supra) 11.

hide References (2 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (2):
    • Bacchylides, Dithyrambs, 17
    • Pausanias, Description of Greece, 1.17.2
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