The Sarpedon Krater by Nigel Spivey

On a dark and stormy night, in Eturia in late December 1971, a ragged band of diggers called the tombaroli unearthed a masterpiece of Greek art: the Sarpedon Krater. These were a covert group of men. We do not know who they were. Omertà, the ancient code of honour has prevailed to this day.

On a dark and stormy night, in Etruria in late December 1971, a ragged band of diggers called the tombaroli unearthed a masterpiece of Greek art: the Sarpedon Krater.

These were a covert group of men.

We do not know who they were. Omertà, the ancient code of honour has prevailed to this day. We can imagine them- handsome and nattily dressed. The healthy glean of their sun kissed skin, kept young with a healthy Italian diet, visible from the light of their torches. Their muscles bulging beneath their sweat stained Salvatore Piccolo shirts. Sports jackets, the day to day uniform of Italians from that time, lying nonchalantly on rocky walls. A man stops here to comb his hair, another, perhaps, takes off his sunglasses for a second to massage the bridge of his nose. Then back at it. Long poles with spikes (spillones) piercing the earth rhythmically like the V8 engine in a 33 Stradale. When they hit something, the team turns and works on that point. Now the sound of shovels digging the rocky soil in unison, syncopated and fast, is like hot jazz.

The terroir of Eturia is rich in tombs.

No words are spoken, but a frisson moves through the group. A lock out on the edge, still wearing his Barena sports jacket and black turtleneck against the night’s chill, glances back. He thinks he sees a bowl and several smaller cups drawn up from the earth and then nothing. A shiver runs down his spine and he lights a cigarette.

The men pack up and drive off. They head to the lights of town, to drink in cafes, to dance and make love. Nothing is said of what they have done that night. They are paid about $ 800.

A year later Robert E Hecht, a shady American antiques seller based in Rome sells, to the Met Museum in New York a krater signed by one of the ancient world’s most revered artists for $1,200,000. In 2008 it was repatriated to Italy as part of a negotiated settlement.

So much for dramatic starts. If there’s a Netflix director looking for a new true crime story, they will find it here. Drama is not my forte, but Spivey’s gripping narrative is as exciting and shocking as anything on TV.

The Pioneer Group

The Sarpedon Krater depicts the moment in the Trojan War when Sleep and Death carry off the slain body of Sarpedon (the son of Zeus). The king of Lycia (Turkey), he was one of the greatest of the men fighting on the Trojan side, but he is felled by Patroclus. The Greeks seize the amour of the fallen warrior, but Zeus asks Apollo to carry his body to Lycia to be buried with honour. Apollo took the body and cleaned it, before handing it to Sleep and Death.

The Sarpedon Krater shows an image of Sleep and Death struggling beneath the weight of the awkward body. The arms dangle pathetically. Blood flows from his wounds. It is visceral and immediate. Even within the limitations of the red figure, the artist Euphronios (active from about 520 BCE) is able to create a powerful and vivid scene with a lucid line.

Sarpedon Sode A
Death and Sleep carry the corpse of Sarpedon from the war, overseen by Hermes. Sarpedon Krater Side A

A krater is a large dish used to mix water and wine. Ancient wine was harvested slightly later. Sweeter and more alcoholic, it made for a headier drink and wilder nights. The act of mixing was important in the ritualised drinking parties called symposia. At 5 drachma, a krater was the equivalent of a week’s wages. There is a possibility that they were commissioned for individual symposia (as opposed to say the traditional wedding gift of a punch bowl in the Nineteenth century that would last a life time). This one was kept. It shows signs of ancient repairs.

In classical Athens, a symposium was a civilised debauch with music, poetry and debate facilitated by Heterai, female companions or courtesans. Many kraters show images of these women.

The other side of the krater shows Athenian youth arming themselves. Perhaps the krater was used for a symposium of young men (called Ephebes). Yet the contrast is telling and adds a elegiac note to the whole.

Sarpedon Krater Side B
Athenian youth donning armour. The Sarpedon Krater, Side B

Many Greek vases that have survived to the modern day have been excavated in Etruria in Italy, the region of the ancient Etruscans. It seems that pots were produced in Athens for export to Italy. At Etruscan drinking parties, husbands and wives drank together. There is a possibility therefore that women depicted on krater were perceived as wives.

Euphronius the painted of the pot signed his name. He was identified as belonging to the Pioneer Group of Greek pot painters by the classicist John Beazley. Beazley studied Greek vases carefully and identified artists based on small details such as earlobes or fingernails. It is a precise science that takes years of slow work to master, but which is largely intuition. Unlike other types of art, no literature survives from the Ancient World detailing or celebrating these pots.

Yet they are clearly masterpieces. The sensuous shape and curve of the krater is just as important as the decoration.

Afterlife of an image

The image of a comrade drawn from the melee of battle has a long history. It resonated with photographs from conflicts, including Vietnam and the First World War.

Spivey draws on the work of Aby Warburg. Warburg was an influential art historian who collected a massive library in order to study the transmission of classical imagery from antiquity. At heart of his project was a visual atlas of imagery taken from books and prints.

A fascinating man, he forfeited his right as eldest son to the family bank to his young brother on the promise that his brother would buy him any books he requested. He set up a library in Hamburg. He died in 1929. In 1933, under the threat of the Nazis his library was taken to the UK, where it formed the basis of the Warburg Institute in London.

In Panel 42 of  Warburg’s atlas, you can see how similar images to the Sarpedon Krater have been transmitted, especially the dropping arms of the dead.

This imagery has a long history from antiquity, especially on sarcophagus. Suetonius describes how Caesar was carried home to his widow:

All the conspirators made off, and he lay there lifeless for some time, and finally three common slaves put him on a litter and carried him home, with one arm hanging down.

Suetonius, Caesar, 82:3

In Signorelli’s Lamentation of Christ, the disciples of Christ struggle to carry the corpse of their beloved teach. Christ’s arms droops forlornly by his side. Like the Sarpedon Krater, it is an image of great emotional immediacy and gives the sense of a moment frozen in time.

Signorelli Lamentation
Signorelli’s Lamentation

David’s Death of Marat is another example. The strange death is dignified and made epic by the sparse palette, the flowing robes and the epic pose of the dangling arms. Unlike the Signorelli, this is not a moment frozen in time, but a record of a moment of stillness. The power comes from the shock, the moment between realisation and comprehension.

Spivey traces the trope back to Euprhonious with carefully chosen words:

The Christ of Signorelli’s ‘Lamentation’ is based upon no ‘real-life’ model, but rather draws upon the heroic somatotype [body type] embodied by Sarpedon as projected by Euphronios.

Was Euphronius the absolute source of this imagery? We can never really know, but perhaps it isn’t important. The pot works because it is the perfect summation of what art should do: to look good, make you feel things and communicate your (economic and cultural) wealth.

The painting, the pot, the colours, everything: the Sarpedon Krater is the perfect example of Ancient Greek art and its back story reveals the long history and complicated of classicism. A well written and lucid account, published in a gorgeous binding, what’s not to love about this book.

The Sarpedon Krater Cover
The Sarpedon Krater

The Sarpedon Krater by Nigel Spivey is published by Head of Zeus as part of the Landmark Series.

Photo references

Images of Sarpedon Krater Side A and Side B have been released into the public domain by its author, Jaime Ardiles-Arce.

Signorelli’s Lamentation of Christ Public Domain 

Cover of book. Copyright owned by Head of Zeus. Used under Fair Use as part of review.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics