There is an air of melancholy surrounding the Euphronios Krater, an imposing ceramic vessel made in Greece in the sixth century B.C. that has long been one of the Metropolitan Museum's prized possessions. Once used for the mixing of water and wine at symposia, it sits somewhat anonymously in a side room, peering like a forgotten child onto the new Classical Galleries down the hall. The krater's sense of exclusion is justified: It was caught up in the same kind of cultural property dispute with the Italian government that led the J. Paul Getty Museum last week to agree to return 40 of its antiquities. As a result, the krater will leave New York for good this January. So as the Met experiences its own Classical revival, the magnificent krater is saying goodbye (albeit quietly) to the city it has called home for the past 35 years.
The krater is named for its painter, Euphronios, an Athenian artist who worked at a time of great change. Scholars refer to Euphronios and his collaborators as "the Pioneers," a group of potters and painters regarded as among the first self-styled artistic schools in Western history. Working in the new red-figure technique -- which enabled them to depict the body in red hues, as opposed to the black paint that predominated early on -- they displayed a new sensitivity to human anatomy and a keen interest in creating a sense of depth in their paintings.
The krater was probably produced in 515 B.C., seven years before the establishment of democracy in the city of Athens. On one side of the vase, Euphronios depicted the death of the mythic hero Sarpedon, a scene plucked from Homer's "Iliad." On the opposite side, he captured an image of Athenian youths arming for battle. The two sides were undoubtedly planned as a couplet, and at a time when the common men of Athens were beginning to feel their democratic oats, Euphronios saw a parallel between the everyday heroism of his compatriots and that of Sarpedon generations before.
To contemporary eyes, Euphronios's comparison seems tragically flawed on one obvious count: If the men of Athens are modern-day Sarpedons, then aren't they rushing off to the same sad fate that befell their forebear? Our confusion is well-placed, but Euphronios thought differently.
There is a famous passage in Homer's "Iliad" that describes a hero's death, a passage that probably ran through Euphronios's head as he painted the krater: "Everything that befalls a young man killed in battle becomes his glory/Though dead he may be, he is beautiful, no matter what happens." Like most Greeks of his day, Euphronios interpreted the poetry of Homer much in the same way that Western cultures today read the Bible: as a moral vision and ethical compass. Homer's description of the felled warrior was a basic ideal in Greek culture -- every soldier aspired to that death.
Thus, to wish Sarpedon's fate on a warrior was no condemnation, but a commendation of the highest order.
There is a certain ambiguity in Homer's description of the fallen soldier. The word he used to describe the youth, "kala," denotes both physical beauty and moral virtue, as if to suggest that a soldier's sheer bravery -- though perhaps inadequate to save his life in battle -- endows him with unparalleled beauty in the throes of death. The basic message of Euphronios's krater thus becomes "Fight hard to earn a glorious death."
Euphronios cleverly conveys this lesson by contrasting the figures on either side of the krater. On the one hand, Sarpedon is painted in remarkable detail, his musculature vividly articulated through delicate brush strokes and a rudimentary sense of foreshortening. The scene is also imbued with a palpable sense of melancholy; among the side's touching details, the figure of Death -- the winged god on the right -- gently cups Sarpedon's head as it inclines sorrowfully toward the ground.
The Athenian youths, on the other hand, show none of this realism or emotion. They are depicted in unfeeling profile poses reminiscent of rigid Egyptian statues. They also lack Sarpedon's anatomical detail, and what little musculature they boast is outlined in faint, almost invisible lines. Altogether they look rather cartoonish, their smiles vacant and their bodies undeveloped.
Euphronios wasn't lazy when he painted the Athenian youths. The fact that they appear "embryonic" next to Sarpedon was Euphronios's way of visualizing what Homer meant when he said that "everything that befalls a young man killed in battle becomes his glory." Sarpedon is beautiful not because Euphronios spent more time on his portrait than others, but because he died a hero's death. The youths are not beautiful precisely because they have yet to fall gloriously in the battle that awaits them.
As a result, there is an undeniable sense of sadness when one looks at the young soldiers. It's difficult to look beyond the basic fact that their lives are soon to end. For most of us, at least, looking at the krater with 21st-century eyes, the laurels of a soldier's death do not trump the promise of a long life yet to be lived.
Sometime after Euphronios finished his work, the vase was shipped to Italy, where it was sealed inside an Etruscan tomb. Although the krater certainly won't be sealed up again when it goes back to Italy, come January it will be gone from America. Gone, but not forgotten by those lucky enough to have seen it at the Met.