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About This Artwork
Belly-Amphora (Storage Jar), About 550/540 BC
Terra-cotta, decorated in the black-figure technique
28.2 x 21.6 x 19 cm (10 3/4 x 8 1/2 x 7 1/2 in.)
Katherine K. Adler Memorial Fund, 1978.114
Ancient artists frequently depicted events from the life of the demigod Herakles, especially the Twelve Labors he had to complete to attain immortality. On this belly-amphora (storage jar) the great hero completes his first assignment—to kill a lion with an invincible hide that was terrorizing the village of Nemea. Here the contest has been decided; Herakles strangles the lion, whose jaws he has pried open with his bare hands. To one side stand Athena and Hermes; on the other stand a pair of balancing figures. In subsequent episodes, Herakles often wears the lion’s head as a helmet and either wears or carries its pelt as a protective cloak.
These vases were used for the transport and storage of items such as wine and olives, and they were given as prizes in athletic competitions. Many vases have been broken, either in antiquity or in modern times, and repaired. However, this amphora remains intact, with only a few losses, like the chips on the rim, and some surface abrasion. The vivid white gloss that highlights the women’s skin and the shield is especially well preserved.
The scenes painted on Greek vases provide a wealth of detail about life in antiquity. For example, here the painter depicted the inner side of two shields, allowing the modern viewer to understand how ancient soldiers maneuvered them in hand-to-hand combat. A soldier would slip his forearm between the wall of the shield and a stabilizing strap—here rendered in white—that extends from the upper to the lower edge, and grip a fixed handle, allowing him to quickly move it at will.
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M.D. Stansbury-O'Donnell, Vase Painting, Gender, and Social Identity in Archaic Athens (Cambridge, 2006), p. 14, fig. 4.
Karen B. Manchester, Recasting the Past: Collecting and Presenting Antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2012), p. 32, 59, fig. 9.1.
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