Birmingham 57.263

Attic Red-Figure Amphora of Panathenaic Shape Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Herbert Rydings, Jr. and Hirschl and Adler Gallery, New York (57.263) Attributed to the Tyszkiewicz Painter [Bothmer] 500-490 B.C. Height: 39.3 cm. Diameter: 26.3 cm. Side A: Zeus pursuing a woman. Side B: Man and woman at an altar.

On side A, Zeus strides forward, bent over slightly as if swooping down on the woman, who raises her right hand in a gesture of fear and aversion and runs off to the right. The god is identified by the scepter, the symbol of kingly power, and by the wreath of what seem stylized oak leaves on his head. He holds the scepter near its lower end, as if to reach out and bar the woman's way. The identity of the woman is uncertain without an inscription or any distinguishing attributes. Zeus' loves were legendary, in every sense of the word; the younger Olympian gods were his children by various goddesses and nymphs, and his human mistresses were innumerable. Every noble family in the Greek world traced its ancestry back to a hero born of a god and a mortal woman, and more of them claimed Zeus as ancestor than any other god. In a comic interlude in the Iliad, Zeus' wife Hera seduces him on a mountaintop in order to distract his attention from the battlefield of Troy. He expresses his sudden lust for her rather tactlessly, giving a list of goddesses and mortal woman he has loved, ``But never with as great a passion as I now feel for you!"

The scene on the reverse is a complete contrast. A man and a woman stand on either side of an altar on which a fire is burning. He leans on his walking stick and holds out a phiale, a cup for pouring libations to the gods, which she fills with wine from a jug. The figures are at ease, the atmosphere calm; they may be man and wife sacrificing on some family occasion (birth of a child?) or at a family celebration during one of the great Athenian festivals. The contrast between the two scenes is surely intentional: on one side the two mortals, harmoniously and soberly carrying out a traditional rite, an embodiment of the normal pattern of human relationships with one another and with the gods; on the other side, the violent expression of an unequal passion. Zeus' heavily muscled legs, broad shoulders and thick neck embody the irresistible power of the god, but also the equally irresistible power of love, violent in its onslaught and its expression. Against this double force she is helpless; she runs, but there is no escape. In other versions of this scene Zeus carries a thunderbolt, the annihilating weapon of supreme power, a reminder that for mortals (creatures of a day, ephemerai, the gods call them) even the love of gods is as dangerous as their anger. The painter may have been influenced by early tragic drama, in which the difference in power between gods and mortals is a mainspring of the action. In Prometheus Bound, produced slightly later than this vase, Aeschylus shows the sufferings of Io, a girl whom Zeus loved and Hera transformed into a cow and drove wandering over the earth in perpetual torment. The horrified chorus of sea nymphs prays, ``May I never share the bed of Zeus or attract a god as lover. Only in an equal match is there no fear."


ARV2,292,35. For gods as lovers of mortal women: Kaempf-Dimitriadou 1979.

Lucy Turnbull

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