Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ajax Contemplating Suicide, Exekias

Ajax Contemplates Suicide, Exekias, around 540 BCE.

This is a deeply tragic scene, rendered with an exquisite sense of pain and loss, conveyed by every element of the figure. Ajax, whom last we met valiantly carrying the dead body of his great friend, Achilles, is preparing to take his own life. Here he is, having been rebuked, he feels, by his fellow Greeks, who have awarded the magnificent armor made for Achilles by Hephaestus to Odysseus instead of to him, thus rewarding brains over brawn; he is finding a way to fix his sword to the ground so that he can fall on it. His shield lies over to the side, abandoned. Even the palm tree looks dejected. Although the image works well seen close up, I think it is important to see how it fits within the entire frame of the amphora.

...[A]rtists began to explore the implications of conclusive action before it occurs. With sensitive foreboding worthy of a Solon, Exekias, the greatest black-figure vase painter, suggested the results of action not yet taken as well as the preparatory state of mind of the actor. On a famous vase of about 540 B.C., now in Boulogne, Exekias showed Ajax planning suicide, his energies entirely focused on fixing the sword into the ground prior to impaling himself; the heavy body perched precariously on tiny feet hints not only at the instability of Ajax’s mind but also at his imminent fall on the fatal blade (Richard Brilliant, Arts of the Ancient Greeks, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1973, p 73)