A Greek pot in black and terracotta with scenes of figures seated and standing in a garden, and a horse-drawn chariot, graphic designs, a fluted neck and handles

History's most famous pot: the Meidias hydria

By Alexandra Villing, Archaeologist and Curator of Greek collections

By Amy C. Smith, Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of Reading

Publication date: 24 November 2023

As the 'Meidias hydria' leaves London for the first time in 250 years, on loan to special exhibitions in Athens and Paris, we trace the eventful story of the life of this exceptional ancient Greek pot to understand its enduring significance.

The Meidias hydria

A large greek pot in black and terracotta with scenes, graphic designs, a fluted neck and handles
The Meidias hydria: Athenian red-figure hydria (water jug) signed by Meidias as potter and attributed to the Meidias Painter as painter. Pottery, made in Attica (Greece), about 420 BC, excavated in Italy.

When the Meidias hydria entered the British Museum collection 250 years ago, it was already a celebrity. 'The finest and most beautiful drawing in the world', enthused Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–68), the founder of ancient art history, when he saw this ancient Greek vessel's painted decoration. Others clearly agreed and designs from the vessel – multiplied through drawings published in books – soon adorned upper-class living rooms across the UK and Europe on tapestries, furniture and the antiquity-inspired ceramics that Josiah Wedgwood produced in Staffordshire.  

Since its acquisition in 1772, the Meidias hydria has been a centrepiece of the British Museum's galleries of ancient Greece. Its shape is that of a typical Greek water jar known as a 'hydria', with which women might go to the fountain to fetch water. Made in around 420 BC, the Meidias hydria was no simple household vessel. The masterpiece of the Athenian potter Meidias, who signed it with his name, it is richly decorated with mythical images, finely drawn and sparkling with gilded details, and full of symbolism reflecting contemporary Athenian life.  

Why was the hydria decorated with such elaborate images? What did they mean to ancient Athenians and to the people in southern Italy who buried the vessel with one of their dead? What does the hydria's discovery in the 18th century have to do with a scandalous affair between Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton? And how did it become one of the most influential ancient Greek pots of all times, a style icon of the 18th and 19th centuries?  

Love at first sight

The modern story of the Meidias hydria starts with Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803), British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples and the two Sicilies. He bought the pot as soon as he arrived in Naples in 1764. Though he did not note the hydria's precise findspot, Hamilton records that 'ancient sepulchres at Nola' are where 'the most choice of my collection of vases now in the British Museum were found'. At the time, Nola and most of Campania, the area around Naples, were caught in a frenzy of collecting, driven as much by fascination with ancient objects as by the prospect of material gain: ancient tombs were being dug up all over the place and their contents sold to European collectors. Of the hundreds of Greek painted pots (which are often called 'vases', but which actually were not in fact vases for flowers at all) in Hamilton's collection, the hydria was to become his favourite: the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds included it, like a pet at Hamilton's feet, in his 1777 portrait.

A more irreverent take on Hamilton's attachment to his pot was delivered by satirist James Gillray (1756–1815) when he caricatured a person with an aristocrat's wig and military epaulettes in the distinctive form of the hydria.
 

A print in yellow, mint and sage green of a man seen from behind in court or military uniform, a white wig and a black hair ribbon
James Gillray (1756–1815), From Sir Willm Hamilton's Collection. Hand-coloured etching, 1801.


The etching's title – From Sir Willm Hamilton's Collection  – makes clear the reference to Hamilton, while an enigmatic inscription on the plinth below the figure – QVISSON ('cuisson', firing) – clearly refers to the 'terra cotta' or 'baked earth' out of which the pot was made. Mischievous Gillray probably did not intend this to portray Hamilton himself. Some have suggested the depiction was really of Hamilton's friend, Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805), referring to a scandal that rocked Naples and London at the time: Hamilton's wife, the clever and vivacious Emma (1765–1815), was openly conducting an affair with Lord Nelson, hero of the Battle of the Nile, seemingly with Hamilton's blessing. 

A style icon

This was the time of the Enlightenment, when European artists and thinkers, as well as collectors, greatly admired ancient Greece and saw it as a model for reforming the tastes of old Europe. Like other aristocratic travellers and collectors at the time, Hamilton was keen to share his collection of antiquities, which he sold to the British Museum, in 1772, so as to help inspire and improve the arts in England. By 1777, therefore, he produced 100 copies of a monumental four-volume catalogue – Collection Of Etruscan, Greek, And Roman Antiquities From The Cabinet Of The Hon.ble W.m Hamilton His Britannick Maiesty's Envoy Extraordinary At The Court Of Naples – written by the French art historian Pierre-François Hugues, Baron d'Hancarville, one of the most lavish books ever made.  
 

Engraving in black and terracotta of a scene of four-horse-drawn chariots, people lounging among olive groves and a woman running away
Engraving of the upper scene of the Meidias hydria, from Collection Of Etruscan, Greek, And Roman Antiquities From The Cabinet Of The Hon.ble W.m Hamilton His Britannick Maiesty's Envoy Extraordinary At The Court Of Naples by Pierre-François Hugues, Baron d'Hancarville, 1766–67. 

The centrepiece of the first volume is a flattened version of the drawings on the shoulder of this hydria. The graceful drawing of young women carried off by youths, featuring elaborate hairstyles, jewellery and dresses that cling to the body, epitomise the florid style of late fifth-century BC Greece that caught the Enlightenment imagination. The opulence of the catalogue combined with Hamilton's fame and significance increased the impression the drawing made, with the result that the hydria became one of the most admired and famous Greek pots of all times, a true style icon for the Enlightenment and beyond. So influential was this drawing that its image is to be found on the painted walls of country houses, tapestries, furniture and ceramics.

Hidden inscriptions

Throughout all of this, however, the imagery on the jar remained something of a puzzle. It was only in 1839 that German archaeologist Eduard Gerhard (1795–1867) finally noted, read and published the numerous Greek inscriptions on the pot: name labels for 26 of the painted characters as well as an artist's signature: ΜΕΙΔΙΑΣ EΠΟΙΗΣΕΝ ('Meidias made me').
 

Greek letters in white visible on the black neck of a Greek pot above terracotta figures
Inscriptions on the Meidias hydria, brought out through photography using a combination of cross polarised light and direct spot-light. Pottery, made in Attica (Greece), about 420 BC, excavated in Italy.

Hardly any of the pot's admirers — with the possible exception of Winckelmann — had noticed these letters, painted in white, that had largely faded. Their discovery further fuelled collectors' enthusiasm for the work of named ancient artists, as with the Parthenon sculptures that were attributed to the celebrated Pheidias. That the inscriptions were in Greek script also confirmed that the pot was made in Greece and not in Italy (by Etruscans), as many had previously assumed. While Meidias is the name of the potter or workshop owner (and quite possibly both), the anonymous craftsman who painted the vessel to this day is merely known as 'the Meidias Painter'.

 

The top of a large Greek pot with a black background and terracotta scenes of chariots and people fleeing
The Meidias hydria: the abduction of the Leukippides by the Dioskouroi. Pottery, made in Attica (Greece), about 420 BC, excavated in Italy.

The labels make it clear that the hydria's upper zone shows the abduction of Elera and Eriphyle, the daughters of the legendary Spartan king Leukippos by Kastor and Polydeukes, also known as the 'Dioskouroi' ('sons of Zeus'). The sisters struggle but none too violently, and indeed it seems as if the rape is sanctioned by the gods. As the brothers drag the women onto their chariots, their divine father Zeus looks on approvingly from the wings while Aphrodite, the goddess of love and union, watches from beside her altar. The stiff white figure atop a platform who stares out from between the chariots is a cult statue (a statue depicting a deity that is the focus of worship), suggesting the abduction takes place in her sanctuary. Clearly Aphrodite's assistant Peitho, the personification of Persuasion, has convinced everyone to turn this into a double wedding. She is the figure who rushes away to the right, turning guiltily to look back at what she has done.  

From Sparta to Athens

The myth of Leukippos' daughters is set in Sparta, which was locked in a long and deadly war with Athens when this pot was made, so why is it so prominent on an Athenian vessel? The ancient travel writer Pausanias tells us that, not long before, the famous artist Polygnotos had painted this same scene on the wall (or a panel) in Athens' Temple of the Dioskouroi. Athenian warriors worshipped Kastor and Polydeukes here as patrons of military life. The fact that Athens and Sparta were at war made the image particularly poignant. Another favourite hero of warriors appears in the scene below: Herakles, who is sitting at ease on his characteristic lionskin, enjoys the company of the young women surrounding him. They are the Hesperides, daughters of Hesperos (the personification of Evening), who Greeks believed lived in the far west of the world. Their blissful garden was one of the places that ancient Greeks associated with life after death. Here the girls guard the snake-entwined apple tree that bears the apples of immortality Herakles has been tasked to steal. Again it seems that love, not war, will do the trick, as the ladies seem taken with his charms.
 

A detail of a Greek pot in black and terracotta, of a man seated in a garden with a man standing, and women surrounding them
The Meidias hydria: detail showing Herakles and his companion Iolaos seated in the garden of the Hesperides; to the right of them stands the sorceress Medea surrounded by two young women. Pottery, made in Attica (Greece), about 420 BC, excavated in Italy.

Overall the mood of the images is strikingly idyllic: there are lush gardens, a young and beautiful crowd, characters named 'Goldie' (Chryseis) or 'Health' (Hygieia), and tales of love and immortality. At the same time the painter made sure to brand the images as distinctly Athenian: included among the cast are some of Athens' 10 'eponymous heroes', mythical heroes who gave their names to the tribal structure of Athenian democracy. Hygieia, the goddess of health whose cult had recently been introduced to Athens, is also present. There is also the sorceress Medea, characterised as a foreigner by her patterned dress, whose tragic story (abandoned by her Greek husband, she poisons his new lover and kills their two children) had recently been put on the Athenian stage by the playwright Euripides. Here she holds her box of magic potions. Hygieia and Medea embodied different perspectives on health and medicine both of which were a major concern to Athenians who had just emerged from a devastating epidemic of plague. 

An Athenian paradise

Was this Athenian paradise, blending gods and heroes, love and immortality, meant to celebrate the wedding of an Athenian warrior? Images of Aphrodite and her retinue of figures personifying love, happiness and harmony were certainly a speciality of Meidias' workshop and they often decorated pots such as water jars, perfume oil flasks and pyxides (boxes for make-up), which were popular wedding gifts – but were also placed into the graves of those who never had a chance to marry.
 

A small black and terracotta pot adorned with two white figures with wings
Athenian red-figure pyxis (toilet-box) showing the chariot of Aphrodite drawn by two Erotes, labelled Pothos (Yearning) and Hedylogos (Sweet-talk), beside Hygieia (Health) picking fruit from a tree. Painted in the manner of the Meidias Painter and said to have been found in a grave in Eretria, Greece, together with an ivory stylus (writing implement) and pair of gold earrings. Pottery, probably Greece, about 420–400 BC.

For the Meidias hydria we may never know what motivated its creation because even in antiquity it was exported to southern Italy. There, wealthy locals had long appreciated the superior quality of Athenian pottery, which they used for feasts and funerals. Like many other Greek vessels, the hydria finished its life in a tomb in Campania. Was it perhaps made for such export? The painted scenes, with their allusions to immortality and a blissful (after)life, would not have been out of place for the final journey of a wealthy Campanian.  

Enduring relevance

Looking at the jar today, the florid 'flying drapery' style may seem rather too ornate for 21st-century tastes, but it remained hugely popular and influential well into the 20th century. We can see its influence in the female figures dancing in the garden of the Hesperides on a vase made in about 1900 by Pilkington's Lancastrian Pottery & Tiles company in Clifton, Lancashire.
 

A tall narrow vase with a rich red background, and adorned with a large gold figure of a woman dancing in a garden
Earthenware vase showing the Hesperides dance around the apple trees guarded by a snake, painted in gold lustre on red ground. Earthenware, made in Manchester by Pilkington's Tiles & Pottery Company Ltd, 1906. 

What inspired this flowery style? And why in particular was it so popular at a time when Athens prospered, but also suffered the aftermath of a devastating epidemic and ongoing hardship of a long war with Sparta? Art historian Jerome J Pollitt (b. 1934) hit the nail on the head when he compared Meidian images to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing their way through Hollywood during the Second World War. This is escapism in times of crisis.  

The relevance of Meidian imagery is about to be explored in new contexts. The first leg of the hydria's travels will be at the Akropolis Museum in Athens in December 2023, where an exhibition on Meanings: personifications and allegories from antiquity to today will highlight the way ancient Greek artists were the first to give tangible shape to abstract ideas such as Love and Health. In 2024 the exhibition Olympism: a modern invention, an ancient legacy at the Musée du Louvre in Paris will explore the little-known role the hydria played in the imagery of the modern Olympics.