The Niobid krater – Classical Greek vase (5th century BC)

In this post, I will present to you a very important vase: the Niobid krater. I will do my best to describe it and then give you some hypotheses concerning its iconography which, I think, are the best part in Art History.

The Niobid krater was made around 460 BC in Greece but it was found in the necropolis Crucifissio del Tufo in Orvieto. This 54 cm high vase is now in the quiet Campana Gallery in the Louvre museum. This calix krater has a very high bowl with small handles which leaves a large area for painting.

On side B, we can see Apollo and Artemis killing Niobe’s children. Niobe bragged, saying she had more kids than Leto, and therefore she was better than Leto. Leto’s children avenged their mother by killing the Niobid. On this vase, the Niobid Painter depicted the relief with a white line (today almost invisible) which was new in ceramic. He tried to show a mountainous landscape. The Niobid are in this landscape, either dead or running away. They are all in different positions with different expressions. The gods are shown in glory. Their faces are regular and show the classic style. They both are with their bow shooting at the Niobid. The muscles of Apollo are very detailed, similar to sculpture of the same period.

B detail

© 1994 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

The A side is the more mysterious of the two. Eleven characters are staged in a calm attitude, as it is  before of after an action. Herakles is in the center of the composition and has typical his attributes (club, Nemean lion’s skin, bow). Next to him, there is Athena with the aegis, a helmet, and a spear. They are surrounded by 9 warriors in diverse positions, either naked or with an armor but always with a spear, sword or helmet. The composition highlights Herakles, and all of the lines underline the composition in a V shape to direct your eyes. As with Apollo, his muscles are very detailed and he also has “circles” under his eyes. Some saw the circles as a sign of tiredness and others (such as Martine Denoyelle, who was in charge of the vases in the Louvre) saw it as a sign of maturity.

This vase has similarities with sculptures and frescoes of the same period and this is important for possible interpretation of the side A, since it is most likely it is a copy of a fresco. There are quite a lot of hypotheses  and I’ll try to do my best to present them concisely and clearly.

  • Carl Robert (1882) and Ernest Gardner (1889).

Robert believed the Dioskouri are depicted naked over the handles and that Theseus is between Athena and Herakles. According to literature, those 4 heros are part of the Argonauts and they could be in Iolcos before their departure. However, if this is right, important details are missing such as the boat Argo. For this hypothesis, we can think about the fresco of the Anakeion in Athens (temple of the Dioskouri). Gardner saw Theseus as the lying warrior and Pirithoos as the siting one.

  • Jan Six (1919) and Erika Simon (1963).

With the identification made by Gardner, Six set the scene in the Underworld. He saw in it the descent in to the Underworld of Herakles to bring back Theseus and Pirithoos. However, no fresco with this subject has been found. Six thought it could have been on the 4th wall of the Theseion, because Pausanias described only 3. Simon saw there the allegory of Cimon bringing back Theseus’ body in Athens in 475.

  • Hauser (1909) and Eve Harrison (1972)

Hauser thought he recognized elements from Pausanias description of the Battle of Marathon painted in the Stoa Poikile. Then Harrison linked this hypothesis with a passage of Herodotus, who would have seen the 4th painting of the Thesesion and was inspired by it for his book. She saw an allegory for the preparation of the Battle of Marathon. It would be the moment where Miltiades (the one with the snake) asks the help of the Spartans.

According to Denoyelle, we should focus our attention on Marathon. Herodotus said Athenians went to a sacred enclosure dedicated to Herakles. When the vase was restored in 1995, specialists saw there were black lines part of the definitive composition. There are creating steps similar to the ones we can observe on funeral lekythoi. Herakles would be standing on a base with a man sitting on it and another one lying at the bottom. Then Herakles would be a sculpture in a Heraklion. Therefore, the warrior offering his helmet to Herakles is trying to get his protection.


© Musée du louvre / Collection Solo

If this is true, then this vase is a historical painting which is very rare in Greek ceramic. This is an atypical vase which presents a quiet and an active side, as we can see on Greek pediments. It is an important vase with lots of references to the sculpture and frescoes.


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