Electra and Orestes on a White-Ground Lekythos?

I visited the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for the first time yesterday, and kicked myself for waiting so long to go. What a marvelous collection of art in general and antiquities in particular. The sarcophagi alone are worth the visit. There’s a fine collection of vases, most in very good condition. One struck me in particular, the white-ground lekythos pictured below.

There are better pictures on-line at the Walters website, and on the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum section of the Beazley archive at Oxford.

According to the placard beneath the vase (and reproduced online), nobody in particular in depicted on the lekythos:

The women of the family were responsible for tending the graves of the dead and are frequently depicted on delicate “lekythoi,” or oil-containers, such as this one, carrying out this activity. A mourning woman bends over a tomb, as a youth approaches her unseen. He represents the deceased, whom the Greeks believed lingered near the tomb after death.

Many “lekythoi” intended for funerary use were decorated in the delicate white-ground technique, which used colorful pigments lightly painted on a white background. The pigments flake off easily, often leaving only the preliminary drawing, as on the woman’s dress here.

With all due respect to the Walters staff, though, I wonder if this is right. Might not the mourning woman and unseen youth be Electra and Orestes?

In the opening scene of Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, the middle play of the Oresteia trilogy first performed in 458 B.C., Orestes and his friend Pylades arrivein Argos to the tomb of Agamemnon, on which he leaves a lock of hair as an offering. They then notice a group of women approaching. As Aeschylus has Orestes say here (in Johnston’s online translation),

     What’s this I see?
What’s this crowd of women coming here,
all wearing black in public? What does it mean?
What new turn of fate? Has some fresh sorrow
struck the house? Or am I right to think
they bring libations here to honour you,
my father, to appease the dead below?
That must be it. I see my sister there,
Electra. That’s her approaching with them.
She’s grieving—in great pain—that’s obvious.
O Zeus, let me avenge my father’s death.
Support me as my ally in this fight.
Pylades, let’s stand over there and hide,
so I can find out what’s taking place,
what brings these suppliant women here.

The chorus of women who have come with Orestes’ sister to the tomb, the libation bearers for whom the play is named, sing a dirge in which Electra joins. She then notices the lock of hair and her brother’s foot-print, both of which she instantly recognizes. She traces the tracks back to her brother’s hiding place, and their reunion sets in motion the revenge plot that makes up the substance of the play.

The vase does not depict the libation-bearing women, nor is there any trace of the stalwart Pylades–this may be enough to militate against the identification I am suggesting. On the other hand, the heart of the Aeschylean scene lies in the intimate moment of recognition between the long-separated siblings, not an instant but a gradual identification.

You’ve come to see
the person you’ve been praying for all this time.

Then you know the man I was calling for?

I know your sympathies are with Orestes.

Yes, but how have my prayers been answered now?

I’m here. You need look no more for friends.
I’m the dearest one you have.

No, stranger.
You’re weaving a net, a trick to trap me.

If so, I plot against myself as well.

You just want to laugh at my distress.

If I laugh at you, I’m laughing at myself.

Orestes . . . is it truly you? Can I
call you Orestes?

Yes, you can.
You’re looking at Orestes in the flesh.
Why take so long to recognize the truth?

The composition on the vase perhaps imitates this same “slow dawning.” As my photos show, both figures are not entirely visible at once. Just as we cannot see both of them together, the figures themselves presumably are not meant to see one another fully. The scene unfolds not all at once but slowly, bit-by-bit, for both the figures in the scene and the viewer.

Perhaps it is special pleading, but I think the experience of looking at the vase suggests a gradual coming together of the mourning woman and the unseen youth, rather than a permanent estrangement that the Walters placard implies in indicating that he is a soul lingering near the tomb.

Of course, I don’t know much about the rest of the Thanatos Painter’s oeuvre. But there are indeed other vases that have been identified as the meeting of Electra and Orestes at Agamemnon’s tomb which might serve as comparanda (like the one below from the Getty museum).


About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Classics, Mythology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Electra and Orestes on a White-Ground Lekythos?

  1. William McKeachie says:

    So glad you finally got to the Walters, one of the seemingly lesser-known, visited, and celebrated world-class museums in, well, the world — but for those who know it, right up there with the top tier, with a tradition (as at least I recall from my Baltimore days years ago) of true scholar-curators; however, your text-related alternative interpretation in this instance compels my sympathy, psychologically and spiritually. But then, I’m much given to special pleading myself, especially when it involves connecting the dots between traditional art and literarature.

    • Hi William! Thanks for your note. Yes, the Walters is remarkable, and I’m glad I got to see it at long last. The Roman sarcophagi in particular are astounding. I shot off a short note to the staff about the identification–I’m certain I’m not the only one who sees Electra and Orestes on this lekythos, so there must be a reason NOT to make that identification. I’ll be interested to know what it is.

  2. Nicholas R Moschovakis says:

    Looking at these photos made me wonder… Chris, do you know of any good graphic novels of ancient Greek narrative or drama that are drawn in the spirit of one or another vase-painting style?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s