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A vase with a rounded body, curved handles and a floral motif pattern on the neck. The vase features an illustration of two men with spears in combat. - click to view larger image

PATRICIA KARVELAS: This is another very special object, brought to Australia for the first time for display in this exhibition. The vase depicts the death of the Amazon queen, Penthesilea, at the hands of Achilles, and was made by arguably the greatest of the Greek black-figure vase painters, the artist Exekias. Greek vase painting does not get better than this. Look at the quality and economy of the lines, the exquisite detail of the Amazon’s clothing.

We know the vase was produced by Exekias because it carries his signature. You can see it if you look at the left of Achilles’ elbow. The inscription reads ‘Exekias epoiese’, ‘Exekias made this’. From this we know that Exekias was responsible for potting the vase as well as decorating it. There are 3 other inscriptions on this side of the vase. Two identify the main characters. Achilles’ name is placed near his helmet, Penthesilea’s runs outwards from her shield. The final inscription on the right which, together with the artist’s signature forms a frame for this image, is a kalos inscription. These were homoerotic inscriptions that paid homage to well-known and particularly attractive youths in the city, in this case a young man called Onetorides. We see a similar use of inscriptional labels on the back of the vase, where the figures Dionysus and his son Oinopion are identified and, once again, Onetorides is praised for his beauty.

Exekias is famous for the dignity and emotional intensity of his scenes and these aspects are well illustrated here. The scene is taken from a now lost Greek epic that formed part of the cycle of stories told about the events of the Trojan War. Penthesilea arrived in Troy carrying blood-guilt for accidentally killing one of her companions. She was purified of this guilt by King Priam of Troy and in gratitude, she brought back an army of Amazons to assist the Trojans when they were attacked by the Greeks. Penthesilea was a fearsome warrior and only Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, was able to defeat her. It is said that when Achilles removed her helmet and caught sight of Penthesilea, he fell instantly and passionately in love with her. This image captures the tragedy of this moment. Achilles and Penthesilea stare into each other’s eyes. Achilles’ moment of triumph will be his moment of greatest despair. Death and love, the greatest forces in the universe, are here intertwined.

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This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 17 December 2021

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