The Sarpedon Krater:
The Life and Afterlife of a Greek Vase
By Nigel Spivey
University of Chicago Press/256 pages/$25
Reviewed by Ed Voves
Of the thousands of ancient Greek vases which fill museum cases around the world, one is particularly notable. Had this review been written a decade earlier, the Sarpedon Krater would more likely have been described as "notorious" than notable.
Thereby "hangs a tale," as the old saying goes.
The story of the Sarpedon Krater has been brilliantly told by Nigel Spivey, author and presenter of the BBC television series, How Art Made the World. Spivey traces the strange and wondrous journey of the Sarpendon Krater from ancient Athens in the sixth century B.C. to the present.
The Sarpendon Krater's notoriety resulted from its theft by a gang of Italian tombaroli or tomb robbers in December 1971.The crime scene was the Etruscan burial ground of Greppe Sant'Angelo located in Tuscany. These cliff tombs housed the ashes and grave goods of Etruscan nobles from the ancient city state of Caere, now called Cerveteri. The vase was part of the rich store of Greek luxury goods purchased by the Etruscans. Their wealth from vast deposits of iron and copper ore enabled them to buy the best that the Greeks had to offer.
In the autumn of 1972, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it had purchased the Sarpedon Krater, the "finest Greek vase there is" according to a Met publicity release from the time. Almost immediately, "red flags" began waving. Where had this incredible red-figure Athenian krater or wine-mixing vase come from? It was a very good question and an inconvenient one.
The two officials of the Met who were responsible for purchasing the Sarpedon Krater should have examined its provenance more closely. The curator in charge of the Met's celebrated Greek and Roman galleries was Dietrich von Bothmer, one of the world's greatest authorities on ancient art. The Met's director, Thomas Hoving, was a master-mind of publicity and revenue-generating exhibitions. Neither could resist the temptation of adding the Sarpedon Krater to the Met's collection.
The third figure in the million dollar transaction was Bob Hecht, an art dealer whose reputation was hedged in question marks. Hecht claimed that the Sarpedon Krater came from the collection of an elderly Armenian, Dikran Sarrafian, who needed to provide for his retirement. Sarrafian died a few years later in suspicious car accident.The murky, tortuous plot, with Italian officials in pursuit of the tombaroli and Hecht, is deftly handled by Spivey and need not detain us.
From the standpoint of the visual art scene, however, it is important to acknowledge the role of Philippe de Montebello, who replaced Hoving as director at the Met. In a brilliant stroke of damage control, de Montebello repatriated the Sarpedon Krater to Italy in 2008. By way of compensation, the Italian government has provided generous cooperation in mounting many of the outstanding exhibitions which the Met has featured since then.
Perhaps the greatest long-term benefit of returning the Sarpedon Krater is liberating it from the contention which shrouded its time at the Met. De Montebello's decision has given the Sarpedon Krater the opportunity to be studied and appreciated as the profoundly moving work of art which it is. Nigel Spivey does exactly that, in a book that is a model of insight, concise detail and thoughtful, immensely readable prose.
There are two signatures on the Sarpedon Krater: Euxitheos and Euphronios. The first of these craftsmen was the man who shaped and fired the vase. Euxitheos the potter, despite the high caliber of his work, has only a "walk-on" role. The tale of the creation of the Sarpedon Krater is the story of Euphronios.
The Sarpedon Krater (detail)
The Sarpedon Krater depicts a scene from the Trojan War. Two spiritual beings clad in military uniforms are shown grasping the bleeding, prostrate body of a handsome young warrior. The divine messenger, Mercury, directs the duo, Thanatos (Death) and Hypnos (Sleep), as they prepare to transmit the dead warrior, Sarpedon, to his tomb.
The great vase or krater which Euxitheos and Euphronios jointly created was, almost certainly, made for an elite gathering of Athenians, a symposium. Students of philosophy will recognize this familiar term from the writings of Plato.
A symposium mixed serious discussion with wine drinking and - very often - drunken revelry. Spivey discusses the symposium in great detail, reflecting on why such a scene such as the burial detail of Sarpedon should have been the subject of the wine krater for a symposium. And it was not just the vase which was decorated in such an alarming fashion. A kylix or wine cup often had images of celestial beings gathering fallen heroes in their arms.
Eos with the Body of Memnon, ca. 490-480 B.C.
© Musée du Louvre
After draining your cup of joy, your eyes would behold a sobering sight. In the celebrated example (above) from the Louvre, Eos mourns for another slain Trojan, Memnon. At least for the first few rounds of a symposium, there would be no escaping from reminders of mortality.
The Sarpedon Krater is signed by Euphronios but most of the masters of Athenian vase painting are not known by their proper name. Instead, an artificial title has been conferred upon them by modern art scholars. The most famous case of such an I.D. process is the career of the "Berlin Painter." This contemporary of Euphronios received his title based upon a work in the collection of a Berlin museum which was closely studied by Sir John Beazley, a British scholar of Greek vase painting around the time of World War I.
Beazley established a methodology by which characteristic details of drawing, often very small and idiosyncratic, can be used to establish the identity of Greek vase painters. Frustratingly, Euphronios did not feature any absolutely unique details which separate him from other Athenian vase painters. Yet it is possible to ascribe a signature "brand" to Euphronios and one, moreover, of the highest quality. Spivey notes:
Regardless of minor details, Euphronios fund a style, and a mode of composition, that enabled him to broach grand themes of drama and epic - themes that would suit large- scale painting well enough, but required skill and distillation if they were to fit upon a vase.
The "grand themes of drama and epic" of the vases painted by Euphronios appealed to Etruscan nobles, who placed Athenian masterpieces in their tombs. However, the Sarpedon Krater, and others like it, did not simply disappear into the burial chambers of the Etruscans. Examples of death scenes from mythology were featured on elaborate sarcophagi which remained above ground during the Roman era. Many of these featured the death scene of the hero Meleager, from the poems of Ovid.
Marble sarcophagus fragment depicting the death of Meleager, 2nd century A.D.
© Metropolitan Museum of Art
The example of a Meleager sarcophagus, above, comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Spivey uses other versions from Italian collections in his book, but I especially value this one which was restored during the 1500's. From Euphronios and the Roman sarcophagi sculptors there is a direct line of transmission to the masters of the Renaissance, which Spivey expertly traces in his concluding chapters.
Raphael, Pen-an-ink study of the Deposition, ca. 1507
© British Museum
Raphael's pen-an-ink drawing of the deposition of the body of Jesus was one of sixteen preparatory sketches for a 1507 oil painting, commissioned for the chapel of an aristocratic family, the Baglioni of Perugia. He was clearly influenced by Meleager sarcophagi from antiquity. The "wheel" has come full-circle from Euphronias, but the instinctual human attempt to find transcendence in the face of death goes on.
This very fine book deals with universal issues which one day will directly concern each of us. A sobering reflection perhaps, like drinking the last of the wine in a symposium kylix and glimpsing the picture of a warrior's corpse being readied for burial. But the Sarpedon Krater is also a noble affirmation of the imperishable human soul, much in keeping with John Donne's reminder to Death to "be not proud."
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Cover Illustration of The Sarpedon Krater, courtesy of The University of Chicago Press and Head of Zeus Publishing, Ltd, London
Euphronios and Euxitheos, The Sarpedon Krater, ca. 515-510 B.C. Attic red-ware ceramics: 45.7 cm. (18 inches) Height, 55.15 cm. (21.7 inches) diameter of mouth. Cerveteri, Museo Archeologico.
Eos with the Body of Memnon, interior of a kylix by Douris, from Capua, ca. 490-480 B.C., Paris, Musée du Louvre, G 115
Unknown Roman artist, Antonine era, Marble sarcophagus fragment depicting the death of Meleager, mid-2nd century A.D. Marble (Luni and Pentelic): 38 1/8 in. × 8 3/4 in. × 46 7/8 in. (96.8 × 22.2 × 119.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rogers Fund, 1920. #20.187
Raphael (Italian, 1483 - 1520) Pen-and-brown study for the Deposition (also called the the Baglione 'Entombment', ca. 1507. Pen-and-brown ink on paper: 213 millimetres (height) X 319 millimetres (width), inscribed: "R.V." British Museum. #1963,1216.1