Black-glaze mug, showing Perseus beheading the Gorgon Medusa
Greek, about 440-430 BC
Made in Athens, Greece; found in Capua, Campania, Italy
An ambitious figure scene
The hero Perseus rashly promised to acquire the head of Medusa to appease his mother's suitor Polydektes. However, anyone who looked on the face of Medusa or either of her sister Gorgons (Stheno and Euryale) was turned to stone. Perseus was fortunate to receive help from the gods Athena and Hermes, who gave him winged sandals, a cloak or helmet that made him invisible, a bag in which to put the head and an extremely sharp knife. Thus equipped, he succeeded in striking off Medusa's head.
The decapitated Medusa collapses to the ground at the far right of the scene. From her neck springs the winged horse Pegasos, while the infant giant Chrysaor, also born at the moment of her death, kneels at her side. Perseus and Hermes rush from the scene, pursued by Medusa's sisters. Athena waits at the left. The figure scene is framed by sphinxes perched on tall Ionic columns.
The black coating of 'black-glaze' vessels is not actually glaze at all but a fine slip of the same clay that was used to form the body of the vase. From the mid-fifth century BC onwards many black-glaze vessels were decorated with stamped or incised designs before the black slip was applied. Usually the designs were floral or linear, but occasionally more ambitious figure scenes appear.
B. Sparkes, 'Black Perseus', Antike Kunst, 11 (1968), pp. 3-16
D. Williams, Greek vases (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)