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Friday, April 10, 2015

Achilles and Penthesilea

On this black-figure Athenian amphora dating to c. 540-530 BC is depicted an episode from the Trojan War: Achilles killing Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons who came to aid of the Trojans in their great war against the Greeks.  The figures are identified by inscriptions.  But what if there were no inscriptions?  Then we would have to look closely at the figures for distinguishing features, attributes.  The female figure is armed and wears a leopard skin—clues that she is an Amazon.  But what would allow us to guess that the undistinctive male warrior is Achilles?  And that the Amazon is Penthesilea?  The telling detail.  There was a tradition according to which—as preposterous as it may seem—Achilles and Penthesilea looked into each other’s eyes and fell in love at the very moment when he plunged his weapon into her chest!


Consider this rendition of the same scene on this Attic red-figure kylix dating to c. 470-460 BC.  The figures are usually identified as Achilles and Penthesilea because they are looking into each other’s eyes—the telling, identifying detail.  Note that there are no inscriptions to help the viewer this time.  Their absence means that the Greeks didn’t need them, either.

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