Friday, April 13, 2007

Ajax Carrying Achilles - The Francois Vase

Ajax Carrying the Corpse of Achilles, Kleitias, The Francois Vase, 570-560 BCE

The overwhelming impression I get from Archaic Art is the influence of Homer. I can't prove it, but I feel the artists here, like Kleitias, responding to the vividness, the life, the sensory details, and above all to the narrative drive of the great epics. Here, in a scene anticipated by the entire Iliad, but which will occur after the epic ends, Ajax, second only in valor and strength to Achilles, carries the body of his dead comrade off the battlefield.

The dead body is heavy and stiff. The hair hangs morbidly down. The eyes are dead. Ajax, in contrast, moves valiantly, struggling on his still active limbs, to manage the bulk of his old friend's dead weight, his eyes lively with intense effort.

Black-figure technique, which evolved about this time, gave artists more control than ever before over not only the contours but over every element in the picture. The muscles strain, the bodies flex and tense, and the faces express the struggle the characters undergo, helping, indeed, to create those characters.

The Francois Vase is a large and richly decorated volute krater from the early to mid 6th century. Such a vase would have been used to mix wine with water at a celebration or symposium, perhaps, given that much of the decoration for this vase is devoted to the wedding of Pelus and Thetis, the parents of our dead hero, a wedding.

Here, from Book Seven of the Iliad, something about Ajax in better days:

[287] Then Hektor said, "Ajax, heaven has granted you stature and strength, and judgment; and in wielding the spear you excel all others of the Achaeans. Let us for this day cease fighting; hereafter we will fight anew till a daimôn decides between us, and give victory to one or to the other; night is now falling, and the behests of night may not be well gainsaid. Gladden, then, the hearts of the Achaeans at your ships, and more especially those of your own followers and clansmen, while I, in the great city of King Priam, bring comfort to the Trojans and their women, who vie with one another in their prayers directed at me. Let us, moreover, exchange presents that it may be said among the Achaeans and Trojans, ‘They fought with might and main, but were reconciled and parted in friendship.’ [303] On this he gave Ajax a silver-studded sword with its sheath and leathern Balearic, and in return Ajax gave him a belt dyed with purple. Thus they parted, the one going to the host of the Achaeans, and the other to that of the Trojans, who rejoiced when they saw their hero come to them safe and unharmed from the strong hands of mighty Ajax. They led him, therefore, to the city as one that had been saved beyond their hopes. On the other side the Achaeans brought Ajax elated with victory to Agamemnon. [313] When they reached the quarters of the son of Atreus, Agamemnon sacrificed for them a five-year-old bull in honor of Zeus the son of Kronos. They flayed the carcass, made it ready, and divided it into joints; these they cut carefully up into smaller pieces, putting them on the spits, roasting them sufficiently, and then drawing them off. When they had done all this and had prepared the feast, they ate it, and every man had his full and equal share, so that all were satisfied, and King Agamemnon gave Ajax some slices cut lengthwise down the loin, as a mark of special honor. As soon as they had had enough to cat and drink, old Nestor whose counsel was ever truest began to speak; with all sincerity and goodwill,