- Museum number
Pottery: red-figured kantharos showing the myth of Ixion.
(a) Suppliant at altar, seized by serpent, probably Ixion pursued by the Furies. In the centre is an altar with an Ionic capital, necking of zigzags, and three taeniae, or splashes of blood, on the shaft: upon this a bearded rough-haired man, probably Ixion, has fled for refuge, and kneels on it on his left knee en face; in his right hand he holds up a sword, in his left a scabbard, and from his left arm hangs a mantle. A large snake, probably a Fury, coiled round his waist, bites him in the left shoulder; he looks in terror to left, where a beardless youth, falls dead to left, stabbed in the right breast, from which the blood flows; his body is partly concealed behind the altar, a mantle hangs over his shoulders, and his eyes are closed. On the left Thanatos, a bearded winged figure, bends forward to receive him, raising him gently with a hand under each of the youth's arms. On the right of the altar is a laurel (?), beside which a bearded figure in an himation and laurel (?) wreath, and holding in his left a dotted staff or sceptre, runs forward towards the central scene, holding out in his right hand a stone, as if to hurl it at the man on the altar.
(b) The punishment of Ixion. On the left in a high-backed throne Hera is seated, in a long chiton, a radiated stephane, and a mantle which conceals all but her face. Before her Ares on left and Hermes on right lead by the arm Ixion, a figure resembling the kneeling figure in a, who looks at her, as does also Ares, who has long hair and beard, a cuirass over a short chiton, and a spear leaning obliquely against his right shoulder. Hermes is bearded, and has a short tied chiton, chlamys, petasos, and high endromides, and a caduceus in his left hand. These three figures are all en face. Hermes looks to right towards Athene, who addresses him, holding upright with her left hand, on its edge, the winged wheel of four spokes. She wears a long chiton with apoptygma and diplois, undertied, and a helmet with raised cheekpieces, which are painted black; her long hair falls loose on her shoulders.
Purple blood, cord of petasos, and sword-belt. Brown inner markings, shading of altar, and of snake's body. A line is drawn across the ankle. Eye in profile. Round the lip, egg pattern.
- Production date
- 470BC-460BC (circa)
Height: 24.13 centimetres
- Curator's comments
BM Cat. Vases
Panofka, Cabinet Pourtalès, pl. 7, p. 37; Raoul-Rochette, Mon. Ined. pl. 40, p. 207; Nuove Mem. Dell’ Inst, ii, p. 388 (Klugmann, who was the first to identify the subject of b as Ixion), Klein in Arch. Zeit. 1880, p. 189, and Murray, Handbook of Gk. Archæology, pl. viii, 1, all give a; Robert, Thanatos, p. 43; Robert, Bild und Lied, p. 210; Hübner in Nord und Süd, 35, p. 371; Brunn in Deutsche Rundschau, 29, p. 211; Schneider, Laokoon (Encykl. d. Wiss. u. Künste, ii, pp. 42, 87); Overbeck, Her. Bildw. p. 745; Vogel, Scenen Eurip. Tragod. pp. 116, 141; Winter, Jung. Att. Vas. p. 55; Gorlitz Verhandl. 1890, p. 306 (Forster); Classical Review, 1895, p. 277.
Klein's identification of the subject of (a) as that of Laocoon has been shown by Robert to be incorrect. Elsewhere (Thanatos, p. 43) Robert had been led by a similarity of appearance between the suppliant on a and the Ixion on b to think of an earlier crime, in which Ixion had craftily caused the death of his father-in-law. But as the incidents of that crime, including the pit with fire carefully concealed, are circumstantially given by Pherekydes, and as they are completely at variance with the scene on the vase, he let the matter drop. The account of Pherekydes is given by the Scholiasts to Pindar (Pyth. ii, 39) and to Apoll. Rhod. loc. cit., from which it appears also that Ixion was purified by Zeus from that earlier crime. Since then Smith (Classical Review, loc. cit.) has argued for this view, but without any fresh evidence. So that the difficulty remains insuperable as before of reconciling the scene on the vase with the circumstantial account of Pherekydes, supported as it is by Pindar himself (Pyth. ii. 32), where he says that Ixion's murder of his relative was ουκ aτερ τέχνας.
For the object which Athena holds, τετράκνημον τροχόν, see Schol. Apoll. Rhod. Arg. 3, 62
The images on both sides of this exceptional kantharos illustrate the theme of divine eternal punishment through the myth of Ixion. Ixion is one of the great mortal ‘sinners’ of Greek myth and features alongside the likes of Tityos, Tantalos and Sisyphos in literary accounts of the Underworld such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses (10.40-44).
It is the preparation for his punishment that is shown, uniquely, on one side of this kantharos. On the left in a high-backed throne sits Hera, wearing a long chiton and a radiated stephane, wrapped in a mantle concealing all but her face. Before her stands the naked Ixion, having been led there by the gods Ares and Hermes, who flank him and hold him by the arms. Ares, god of war and son of Zeus and Hera, is long-haired and bearded and wears a cuirass over a short chiton, a spear leaning against his right shoulder. Hermes is bearded, with a short tied chiton, mantle, petasos, high winged boots, and a herald’s staff in his left hand. Beneath her cloak, Hera raises her left hand in a gesture that, we may conjecture, signals her condemnation of Ixion. To the right of the scene, watched over by Hermes, Ixion’s punishment is being prepared by Athena, daughter of Zeus. Athena holds the winged four-spoked wheel (which she, as patron goddess of craftsmanship, might even have fashioned herself), to which he will be tied. She wears a peplos and an Attic helmet with raised cheek pieces, her long hair falling loose on her shoulders, and appears to be talking to Hermes, to whom she gestures with her right arm.
An earlier episode in the story is likely to be represented on the other side of the vase. Here, a suppliant – almost certainly Ixion – kneels on a blood-splashed altar beside a tree, seeking divine protection. He is bearded, rough-haired and nude except for a mantle hanging from his left arm. A large snake coils round his waist and sinks its teeth into his left shoulder; this must be a Fury (Erinys), avenger of the most reprehensible murders, here exceptionally rendered as a snake. With his right hand the suppliant raises the sword, drawn from the scabbard in his lowered left, and looks past it to the events unfolding on the left. Here, a young man with curly hair, a mantle over his left shoulder, collapses dead behind the altar, his eyes closed. Blood flows from his right breast, where – we may presume – he has just been stabbed by the suppliant. As he falls to the ground, he is caught by Thanatos, the personification of death, who pulls him aside by the arms so as to carry him off to the Underworld. Thanatos appears, as he typically does in Greek art since the late 6th century BC, as a bearded winged figure, but exceptionally here he is on his own and not with his twin brother Hypnos (Sleep), nor is he performing his standard task, known since Homer’s Iliad, of lifting a dead warrior off the battlefield. From the right, behind the tree, a stately bearded figure rushes towards the scene. Wearing a himation and wreath, he lowers the banded sceptre in his outstretched left hand towards the drama unfolding at the altar, while in his right he raises a stone ready to hurl. This must be the god Zeus, intervening so as to save and purify Ixion.
According to myth Ixion, King of the Lapithes in Thessalia and father of the mixed race of Kentauroi, was punished harshly for violently desiring the goddess Hera, queen of heaven, in spite of Hera’s husband, Zeus, previously having shown Ixion great favours by pardoning a murder he committed. In punishment for his ingratitude, Zeus had him tied to an eternally revolving winged wheel flying through the air or - in later versions – stationary in the Underworld. The myth of Ixion appears very rarely and relatively late in Greek art. It enjoyed a particular vogue in the first half of the 5th century BC, when we find it both in Greek literature and on a few Athenian vases, including our kantharos (it later resurfaces on some 4th century BC South Italian vases). Of all representations – which usually focus on Ixion and the wheel – it preserves a uniquely elaborated rendering that, unusually, spans both sides of the vase, featuring two elegantly composed episodes full of drama and suspense.
Pindar’s second Pythian ode is the first to recount Ixion’s story. It refers to his two crimes and his punishment and highlights Ixion’s murder as the first ever murder of a relative (2.31), a detail that also serves to explain the presence of a Fury on our kantharos. Aischylos, too, in his play Eumenides (717-8), staged around 458 BC, mentions Ixion’s purification for this murder by Zeus. Another contemporary source, Pherekydes (FGrH 3 F51) adds further details: Ixion’s victim was his father-in-law and he killed him trapping him in a pit – thus clearly contradicting the scene on the kantharos. Because of this discrepancy, the vase-painting has long been controversially discussed and several alternative interpretations to Ixion have been proposed, including Laokoon, Philoktetes or Orestes. On balance, however, it seems most plausible that the kantharos depicts a variant of Ixion’s story that is not preserved in literature.
ARV2 832 no. 37, 1672; Para 422; Add2 295; Smith 1896, 143-144 no. E155; Furtwängler und and Reichhold 1932, 274-276, pl. 163.2; CVA Great Britain 5, British Museum 4, III.I.c 6, pls (GB226) 33.2 and (GB228) 35.2; Simon 1955, 5-16, figs 1-2; Schefold 1981, 154-155 figs 204-205; Chamay 1984, 147-148 no. 4; LIMC V (1990), 858, s.v. Ixion 1, 860 s.v. Ixion 27, pl. 554 [C. Lochin]; Carpenter 1991, 79-80, fig. 132; Shapiro 1993, 159-168, fig. 123; LIMC VII (1994), 906 s.v. Thanatos 28, pl. 618 [J. Bažant]; Shapiro 1994, 83-89, figs 58-59; de Cesare 1997, 49 fig. 5; ThesCRA II (2005), 15 no. 33, pl. 3.GR66 [O. Paoletti]; ThesCRA III (2006), 211 no. 90, pl. 45.90 [L. Faedo].
- On display (G20a/dc3)
- Exhibition history
2014-2015, 11 Dec-8 Feb, Athens, Museum of Cycladic & Ancient Greek Art, Beyond
- Acquisition date
- Greek and Roman
- Registration number