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
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?