The suicide of Ajax – Exekias

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I have already introduced you to the work of Exekias through this post and you will some similarities on this vase. This is a black-figure amphora made around 540/30 BC whose decor is presented in panels. The vase is now preserved in France, in the museum of Boulogne-sur-Mer.

The panel on side A shows an important part of the Trojan War, the suicide of Ajax. Odysseus and Ajax fought for Achilles’ armor and Odysseus was victorious. Ajax, who went to pick up Achilles’ body, was upset and struck by madness. He killed an entire herd, taking them for his companions. When he came back to reason, he understand what he had done and committed suicide, because this kind of behaviour was unforgivable for the Greeks. The image depicted by Exekias is not unheard of since we can find it in Corinthian ceramic. However, Exekias innovated in the way he represented Ajax’s suicide. Indeed, Exekias depicted the moment right before he commits it, the most poignant moment and the one that is most arresting.
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On the left, there is a palmtree which is there to evoke the Orient and Troy. This is one of the rare elements of landscape in the Attic black-figure ceramic of the 6th century BC. On the opposite side, Ajax puts down his armor. This set up and the fact he is nude in the center enhances his vulnerability. Ajax is squatting and takes some dirt to hammer his sword into the ground. This is a tragic moment that is recurrent in Exekias’ work. A specialist, whose name escapes me now, once said “this is the prettiest vase that talks to us about silence in Greek art.” Mackay, a specialist of Exekias’ work, noticed a point of irony in the panel. Indeed, the sword he is hammering in is actually the one described in the Iliade during Hector and Ajax’s fight. The gods couldn’t decide who would win so they separated them. Hector gave his sword to Ajax while Ajax gave Hector his crimson belt. So the irony is that Ajax uses the sword from his most noble opponent to commit suicide.   Capture d’écran 2015-06-03 à 08.39.05

On the side B, there is a chariot with a couple of secondary characters. This side is not very well preserved, and the scene is common and the technique is not as good. All of this makes the dating process complicated. Lots of specialists would like to give different dates for each face but this sounds unlikely. Maybe we don’t really know how to date his work, or Exekias varied the quality of his work. Another explanation is that he could have given that panel to a colleague not as talented as himself to paint.


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