fig. 1
Greece, Attica

In 1980 the National Gallery of Victoria acquired a very fine Attic red-figure lekythos by the Achilles Painter (fig. 1). It was listed by Beazley in his great catalogue of Attic Red-figure Vase-painters and has been briefly mentioned in several studies discussing the iconography of Oedipus and the Sphinx.1 Beazley ARV 2, p. 993, no. 90; Moret 1984, no. 80, pl. 46, 2; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 23. It is also listed in Oakley 1997, no. 130, pl. 80A. The vase, formerly in the collection of Dr Schweitzer at Arlesheim, has been repaired, with some re-painting over the repaired fractures.

A lekythos is a tall, slender-bodied vessel designed to hold oil.2 In this case the lekythos does not have the false base of those often designed for funerary gifts with a small interior cup holding the precious oil, leaving the rest of the vessel empty. The firing hole, which this would necessitate on the lower body, is not present. So, the owner/purchaser of this vase planned to fill it with a large amount of expensive oil. Oakley has identified the work of ‘Potter A’, who also worked for the Achilles Painter’s probable teacher, the Berlin Painter. (Oakley 1997, p. 73, figs 1–4, demonstrating the ‘gently curving underside’ favoured by this potter). It provides only a narrow field for figurative decoration. The quiet, two-figure composition chosen by the Achilles Painter is most suitable and typical of the ‘sober beauty’ which is the painter’s compositional hallmark.3 Beazley ARV 2, p. 986. The subject is Oedipus solving the riddle posed by the Theban Sphinx (fig. 2). The myth behind this is one of the better-known Greek myths because of Sophocles’ version of it in his tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus, the production of which, however, post-dated this vase. Oedipus had been exposed on the mountainside as a baby by his parents, Laius, king of Thebes, and his mother, Jocasta, as any son of theirs was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. The baby was picked up by the shepherd of Polybus, king of Corinth, and brought up as the prince of Corinth until someone cast doubts on his parentage, whereupon he consulted the Delphic oracle. On hearing of his fate, presuming Polybus to be his father, he fled Corinth. On the road he was pushed out of the way by the carriage of Laius and in a fit of rage killed the king. For some time the Theban Sphinx had been ravaging the city of Thebes and posing a riddle which none could answer.

The Sphinx sat on Mount Phikion and asked the Thebans the following riddle: ‘What is it which has one voice and is four-footed, two-footed and three-footed?’ 4 Apollodorus, Bibliotheke, III, 5. 8. The ‘Library’ of Apollodorus was a handbook of Greek mythology, attributed to the Athenian grammarian Apollodorus (180–120/110 BC). Although his name remains attached to the work, most scholars agree that it belongs to a later period, probably the first century AD.

At some stage in his journey, Oedipus confronted the Sphinx and solved the riddle, the answer being Man. The grateful Thebans, now rid of the Sphinx, awarded him the vacant throne and Jocasta as his queen, so the oracle was fulfilled. Sophocles’ tragedy is about Oedipus’ later discovery of what he is and what he has done, but the majority of vase-painters of the fifth century BC, able to abstract only one scene, chose the riddle scene, which encapsulates all that has happened and will happen to Oedipus.

On the lekythos the Sphinx, on the left, confronts Oedipus, on the right. The Sphinx, depicted as having a female head, wings and the body of a lion, sits on a low rock, or rather squats, as her haunches are not at rest. Her lioness limbs are portrayed realistically, with lean ribs and big, knuckly paws. Just visible on the underside of her chest is a semicircle of painted red dots, probably portraying a lioness’s teat.5 The Sphinx was not portrayed at this period with female breasts. Later, beginning in the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods, she developed prominent women’s breasts. The assumed teat is positioned where a breast would be. To my knowledge this feature cannot be seen on other contemporary renderings of the scene. Her beautiful human face is in profile, with the lips slightly parted, as though she is speaking. Her hair is a mass of wild, untidy curls. Her wings are raised, with the tips overlapping the top border, making her appear taller in relation to Oedipus, even though his head is well above hers. He stands with his face in profile towards her but his body turned away, as though to leave quickly. He is dressed in traveller’s garb, a petasos or brimmed hat tied behind his neck and a chlamys or cloak with a simple dark border fastened on his right shoulder and covering his left arm and hand. In his right hand he grasps the shafts of two lances, identified as such by the slight thickening towards the top, although the actual points are obscured by the top border.6 The line dividing the lances is very uneven, which is unusual for the Achilles Painter and may be the result of some clumsy re-painting. These strongly vertical lines divide the scene very sharply, isolating each of the two figures and highlighting the contrast between the wild-haired monster and the civilized, draped, two-legged man, the answer to the riddle.

The subsidiary decoration of the vase is conventional, elegant and simple. On the sharply-angled shoulder are three black-figure palmettes, connected with entwined tendrils, below a band of tongues on the narrow neck.7 Oakley 1997, p. 181, identifies this particular pattern as belonging to the painter’s Middle IIB phase, c.440 BC. Below the figured scene, forming the floor for the figures, is a simple band of zigzag meander and above it, below the edge of the shoulder, a key meander band, punctuated at regular intervals by a saltire square, which is the signature of the Achilles Painter’s workshop.8 On the painter’s use of this motif, see Oakley 1997, p. 178. Apart from these discreet patterns, the narrative figures seem to float in the lustrous black glaze covering the rest of the vase.

The Achilles Painter is best known for his masterly work in the white-ground technique, an example of which the NGV acquired in 1971.9 Accession no. D93-1971, featuring another quiet, two-figure scene of mistress and maid bearing offerings for the dead. See A. D. Trendall, ‘Additions to the Greek Vase Collection 1971–72’, in Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1973, pp. 7–9. These white-ground vases were destined for funerary use. The painter’s output of red-figure vases was also prolific however, and his name derives from a red-figure amphora in the Vatican featuring the warrior Achilles.

The Melbourne vase is one of four surviving versions of the Oedipus/Sphinx scene by the Achilles Painter, more than have survived from any other single painter, which reflects his considerable interest in this myth. As well as these four, he also painted a single-figure scene on an amphora of a shepherd/servant carrying a baby, with the inscription OIDIPOUS and EUPHORBOS identifying this as a unique portrayal of the exposure or rescue of the baby Oedipus.10 Cabinet de Médailles, inv. no. 372, Beazley ARV2, p. 987, no. 4; para p. 437; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 3. It is not certain whether ‘Euphorbos’ is exposing the baby or rescuing him. The reverse side of the vase shows an elderly, regal figure sometimes interpreted as Polybos, king of Corinth and adoptive father of the baby. Another scene, on a squat lekythos in Nicosia, shows the Sphinx being attacked with a spear by an armour-clad hero, usually identified as Oedipus.11 Nicosia, Cyprus Museum C6294; Beazley ARV2, p. 1677, no. 104 bis; Moret 1984, no. 104, pl. 62, 2–3; I. Krauskopf, Edipo nell’arte antica, in B. Gentili & R. Pretagostini (eds), Edipo – il teatro Greco e la cultura europea, Rome, 1986, p. 328, fig. 1.; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 76. This scene represents an alternative version of the myth, in which Oedipus overcomes the Sphinx by force. So his interest in and knowledge of the myth was wide-ranging.

Of the four riddle scenes by the Achilles Painter, only the Melbourne scene is on a lekythos. Two others are on the wider field afforded by small table amphorae, one in Boston12 Boston, inv. no. 06.2447; Beazley ARV 2, p. 989, no. 26; Moret 1984, no. 77, pl. 45: 1; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 14. and one in Munich.13 Munich, inv. no. SL 474, Moret 1984, no. 78, pl. 45: 2. The third, in Berlin,14 Berlin, inv. no. F 2355; Beazley ARV 2, p. 990, no. 49; Moret 1984, no. 79, pl. 46: 1; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 22. is on a two-handled table jar called a pelike. They are alike in composition but certainly not identical and seem to reflect the painter’s conception of slightly different stages in the confrontation. In all of them, Oedipus is dressed similarly in travelling clothes and is barefooted. On the Boston amphora (fig. 3), he holds a single staff or lance harmlessly in his left hand and extends his right hand towards the Sphinx, as though in the act of explaining the answer to the riddle. On the Munich amphora he is not so engaged but stands almost frontally with his head turned in profile to the Sphinx, with an air of attention. His lance, positioned point down, is held in his right hand between them. On the Berlin pelike he holds his single staff at a slight diagonal while he bends his head towards the Sphinx, apparently listening to her. On the Melbourne lekythos the out-turned left foot and right leg leaning away from the Sphinx give the distinct impression that he is about to leave, having solved the riddle. This impression is reinforced by his gaze, directed not at the face of the Sphinx, as in other versions, but above her head.

Another, stranger variation, can be seen not only within the oeuvre of the Achilles Painter himself but also in other painters’ versions of the riddle scene. On two of his vases, the Sphinx stands on a column or an architectural feature; on two others, including the Melbourne lekythos, she squats on a rock. The late scholar Carl Robert had no problem with deciding that the Sphinx-on-the-column was located in the Theban agora and the Sphinx-on-a-rock was on Mount Phikion, source of her name.15 C. Robert, Oidipus. Geschichte eines poetischen Stoffs im griechischen Altertum, I, 1915, pp. 52–3. Phix was the old Boeotian name of the Sphinx: Krauskopf, 1986 (see n. 11), p. 328. The surviving texts do not say where she was when she was interrogating the Thebans, so there were obviously several independent versions. The Bibliotheke of Apollodorus has her sitting on the Phikion but later throwing herself from the Acropolis.16 Apollodorus. For the vase-painters it may have been more of a conditioned design choice than an understanding of the story. The column raises the Sphinx higher than her opponent and gives her a kind of gravity and ‘sacralité’ associated with religious architecture.17 See Moret 1984, p. 70. Indeed, the Sphinx was a familiar figure in Attic sculpture perched on votive and grave monuments. Some of those on Archaic gravestones (stelai) in the sixth century BC were very tall.18 See G. M. A. Richter, The Archaic Gravestones of Attica, London, 1961. Monuments at sanctuaries, such as the famous Sphinx of the Naxians at Delphi and the sphinxes at Delos, may have conditioned the vase-painters to associate sphinx with column.

The Sphinx-on-a-rock makes more sense from literary sources. Hesiod places her seat on Mount Phikion, north-west of Thebes, a name which incorporates the old Boeotian name of Phix, for the Sphinx.19 Hesiod, Theogony p. 326. Other (later) attestations of the rock-sitting, without specific geographic location, are Pausanias IX, 26, 2; Plutarch, Brut. rat. uti 4, 988A; Malalas, Chron. II, p. 50 (ed. Bonn); and the scholiast on Euripides’ Phoenissae p. 806. The painters who showed her thus probably also had in mind the version of the myth that had her throwing herself off the rock after being defeated by Oedipus. The rock, being a natural element, contributes to the concept of the Sphinx as living in the wild, a savage and ferocious monster, who may spring out from her rock and devour passers-by.20 Lions, centaurs and Cyclopes are also rock-dwellers in Greek myth. Indeed, of the two versions, the rock-sitting Sphinx looks more dangerous. Another aspect of the rock has been suggested by Moret: that it has mantic associations with, for example, the oracular rock at Delphi21 Moret 1984, p. 73, n. 3.

There are some perhaps more significant differences between the Achilles Painter’s riddle scenes and those by other painters in the same period, between 470 and 440 BC. First, all the Achilles Painter’s sphinxes have wild, untidy curly hair.22 On the Melbourne lekythos he has gone to the trouble of leaving a small reserved area of the red background around the top curls to separate them from the black glaze into which they would otherwise merge. Most others have coiffed female hairstyles and/or caps or headbands, such as would be worn by ordinary Athenian women of the fifth century BC, as seen on the cup of the Oedipus Painter (fig. 4). Why did the Achilles Painter favour the wild look? Perhaps his concept of the Sphinx as a monster to be defeated by rationality led him to choose this version. Second, in all the scenes by the Achilles Painter, Oedipus is taller than the seated Sphinx, whereas most other painters showed the participants either as equal in height or with the Sphinx elevated above Oedipus on a high column, threatening him, as it were. By choosing this relative tallness for the human figure, the Achilles Painter seems to have emphasised the victory and superiority of Oedipus’ humanity and intellect in solving the riddle. This may have been his fascination with the myth in a period which celebrated, as seen on the Parthenon sculptures and in contemporary philosophies, the victory of human reason and order over primitive barbarity.

The myth is poorly represented in either sixth- or fifth-century vase-painting. In the sixth and early fifth centuries the more violent scene of the Sphinx killing a young man was favoured over the riddle scene.23 This scene appeared also on early shield-bands and gems and was carved into the legs of the throne of Zeus at Olympia, according to Pausanias (5.11. 2). In fact, the few examples of the riddle scene we have are limited to a very short period, between 470 and 440 BC, well before the production of Sophocles’ Theban plays. Why this sudden surge of interest? A clue may be afforded by the iconography of a cup in the Vatican, the name vase of the Oedipus Painter.24 Vatican 16541; Beazley ARV 2, p. 451, no. 1; Moret 1984, no. 87, pls 50–1; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 19. In the interior of the cup the Sphinx dominates, looming over a bearded Oedipus, seated very much in the attitude of a thinker. This cup is rather earlier than the Achilles Painter’s scenes, dating to the decade 470–460 BC. It is one of the earliest to concentrate on the riddle scene. Around the exterior dances a chorus of satyrs. Aeschylus wrote a satyr play called Sphinx which was performed at the end of his Theban trilogy produced in 467 BC.25 The only extant play is Seven against Thebes, the last in the trilogy. The other two titles were Laius and Oedipus. Its popularity may account for the association of satyrs and the Oedipus scene on the Vatican cup, although the seriousness of the interior scene does not seem to reflect the comic capers of a satyr play.26 E. Simon, Der Satyrspiel des Aischylos, Heidelberg, 1981, p. 5. Nevertheless, the obvious dialogue between the two characters in the painted riddle scene is charged with drama and there may well have been other dramatic performances of the Theban myth to influence Athenian painters and their potential customers.

The intellectual climate of this Classical period in Athens, with its fondness for rhetoric, sophistry and debate, may have been particularly receptive of an image depicting a battle of the mind and wit, in contrast to the very physical and violent battles between men and monsters favoured in the Archaic period. Herakles and Theseus civilized the Greek world by killing monsters and were suitably celebrated in Archaic vase-painting and sculpture. Oedipus won the word battle by cleverness and saved the city of Thebes. It is interesting that the relatively rare pictorial representation of the Oedipus myth concentrates, in the democratic period, on the riddle-solving, while its dire consequences, the workings of fate and Oedipus’ self-discovery, were what fascinated Sophocles, his audience and subsequent generations.

Heather Jackson, Australian Post-Doctoral Fellow, School of Art History, Cinema, Classical Studies and Archaeology, University of Melbourne (in 2006).

Notes

Abbreviations of frequently cited works: Beazley ARV 2: J. D. Beazley, Attic Red-figure Vase-painters, 2nd ed., vol. II, Oxford, 1968. Moret 1984: J-M. Moret, Oedipe, La Sphinx et les Thébains – essai de mythologie iconographique, Rome, 1984. LIMC VII, 1996: Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae. Oakley 1997: J. H. Oakley, The Achilles Painter, Mainz-am-Rhein, 1997.

1     Beazley ARV 2, p. 993, no. 90; Moret 1984, no. 80, pl. 46, 2; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 23. It is also listed in Oakley 1997, no. 130, pl. 80A. 

2     In this case the lekythos does not have the false base of those often designed for funerary gifts with a small interior cup holding the precious oil, leaving the rest of the vessel empty. The firing hole, which this would necessitate on the lower body, is not present. So, the owner/purchaser of this vase planned to fill it with a large amount of expensive oil. Oakley has identified the work of ‘Potter A’, who also worked for the Achilles Painter’s probable teacher, the Berlin Painter. (Oakley 1997, p. 73, figs 1–4, demonstrating the ‘gently curving underside’ favoured by this potter).

3     Beazley ARV 2, p. 986.

4     Apollodorus, Bibliotheke, III, 5. 8. The ‘Library’ of Apollodorus was a handbook of Greek mythology, attributed to the Athenian grammarian Apollodorus (180–120/110 BC). Although his name remains attached to the work, most scholars agree that it belongs to a later period, probably the first century AD.

5     The Sphinx was not portrayed at this period with female breasts. Later, beginning in the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods, she developed prominent women’s breasts. The assumed teat is positioned where a breast would be. To my knowledge this feature cannot be seen on other contemporary renderings of the scene.

6     The line dividing the lances is very uneven, which is unusual for the Achilles Painter and may be the result of some clumsy re-painting.

7     Oakley 1997, p. 181, identifies this particular pattern as belonging to the painter’s Middle IIB phase, c.440 BC.

8     On the painter’s use of this motif, see Oakley 1997, p. 178.

9     Accession no. D93-1971, featuring another quiet, two-figure scene of mistress and maid bearing offerings for the dead. See A. D. Trendall, ‘Additions to the Greek Vase Collection 1971–72’, in Art Bulletin of Victoria, 1973, pp. 7–9.

10     Cabinet de Médailles, inv. no. 372, Beazley ARV2, p. 987, no. 4; para p. 437; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 3. It is not certain whether ‘Euphorbos’ is exposing the baby or rescuing him. The reverse side of the vase shows an elderly, regal figure sometimes interpreted as Polybos, king of Corinth and adoptive father of the baby.

11     Nicosia, Cyprus Museum C6294; Beazley ARV2, p. 1677, no. 104 bis; Moret 1984, no. 104, pl. 62, 2–3; I. Krauskopf, Edipo nell’arte antica, in B. Gentili & R. Pretagostini (eds), Edipo – il teatro Greco e la cultura europea, Rome, 1986, p. 328, fig. 1.; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 76. This scene represents an alternative version of the myth, in which Oedipus overcomes the Sphinx by force.

12     Boston, inv. no. 06.2447; Beazley ARV 2, p. 989, no. 26; Moret 1984, no. 77, pl. 45: 1; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 14.

13     Munich, inv. no. SL 474, Moret 1984, no. 78, pl. 45: 2.

14     Berlin, inv. no.  F 2355; Beazley ARV 2, p. 990, no. 49; Moret 1984, no. 79, pl. 46: 1; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 22.

15     C. Robert, Oidipus. Geschichte eines poetischen Stoffs im griechischen Altertum, I, 1915, pp. 52–3. Phix was the old Boeotian name of the Sphinx: Krauskopf, 1986 (see n. 11), p. 328.

16     Apollodorus.

17     See Moret 1984, p. 70.

18     See G. M. A. Richter, The Archaic Gravestones of Attica, London, 1961.

19     Hesiod, Theogony, p. 326. Other (later) attestations of the rock-sitting, without specific geographic location, are Pausanias IX, 26, 2; Plutarch, Brut. rat. uti 4, 988A; Malalas, Chron. II, p. 50 (ed. Bonn); and the scholiast on Euripides’ Phoenissae p. 806.

20     Lions, centaurs and Cyclopes are also rock-dwellers in Greek myth.

21     Moret 1984, p. 73, n. 3.

22     On the Melbourne lekythos he has gone to the trouble of leaving a small reserved area of the red background around the top curls to separate them from the black glaze into which they would otherwise merge.

23     This scene appeared also on early shield-bands and gems and was carved into the legs of the throne of Zeus at Olympia, according to Pausanias (5.11. 2).

24     Vatican 16541; Beazley ARV 2, p. 451, no. 1; Moret 1984, no. 87, pls 50–1; LIMC VII, s.v. Oidipous, no. 19.

25     The only extant play is Seven against Thebes, the last in the trilogy. The other two titles were Laius and Oedipus.

26     E. Simon, Der Satyrspiel des Aischylos, Heidelberg, 1981, p. 5.