The Athenian potter and painter Exekias was an innovator in both of the fields in which he worked. He was instrumental in developing the shape of the Type A amphora, the eye-cup, and the standard variant neck-amphora of the last decades of the sixth century BC. As a painter, he introduced new compositions, sensitively exploiting the possibilities the black-figure technique in combination with the vase shapes and ornament.
The talents of Exekias have resulted in vast scholarly attention and scholars continue to study his work and (re- )interpret his images.1 Exekias’s vases also have lasting appeal for modern viewers, which was the inspiration for Elizabeth Moignard to explore how the images speak to the viewer about a set of shared interests and universal values, such as family, home, and loss.
Moignard’s book began as a series of performance pieces for academic conferences and seminars for staff and students at the University of Glasgow. Early versions of chapters 1 and 5 were published in the Classical Association Newsletter in 1996 and 1997. The five central chapters of the present volume are polished versions of the scripts for lectures. They are a series of case studies treating Exekias’s most significant vases as “objects which were designed to be handled, used and enjoyed, and are still able to command a passionate response now” (5). The Introduction, Epilogue and Bibliographical Notes outline the current academic debate and provide readers with information for further reading.
Chapter One (“Portrait of a Loser”) explores the character of Ajax through Exekias’s images, as well as in the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aithiopis and later tragedians: valued comrade, stout fighter, but not a winner and in need of support and respect from his friends. Moignard’s argument starts with Exekias’s famous image of Ajax and Achilles playing a board game on a Type A amphora now in the Vatican. Ajax is losing the game, and before long he will also lose his friend, his sanity and eventually his life. Pointing out details that are easily overlooked, citing relevant texts and noting the visual tradition with well-chosen and good quality illustrations, Moignard works up to a climax: Exekias’ powerful image of Ajax on an amphora in the Musée de Boulogne-sur-Mer, preparing for his suicide, the nude hero about to die alone in a foreign country.
The reverse of the famous Vatican amphora is the subject of chapter two (“Homecomings and Departures”). Moignard argues that Exekias creatively used a stock composition for arming or departing warriors for his image of the Dioskouroi: Kastor is standing behind his horse, between his mother Leda and his twin brother Polydeukes greeting a dog on the left, with Leda’s husband Tyndareus stroking the horse’s nose and a nude boy carrying a stool with a cloth and an aryballos on the right. At first glance it seems to be a quiet family scene, but one with a number of elements depending on more than one visual tradition and also on early Greek literature. Moignard suggests that these elements, closely associated with the concept of home and family, link the two sides of the amphora: the board game takes place during a time of war, which means isolation from family and home, and the scene of the Dioskouroi shows what’s at stake.
Chapter Three (“The Eye of the Beholder”) shows how Exekias used vase shape to make his figural compositions more dramatic. Two neck-amphoras by Exekias are compared: an earlier vase with a hoplite attacking an Amazon (London B 209) and the later amphora with Achilles killing the Amazon queen Penthesileia (London B 210). Whereas the first uses a standard composition for encounters between Greeks and Amazons, the composition of the latter puts Penthesileia in a more submissive position, looking up into the fierce eye of Achilles. His eye is placed on the curve of the shoulder of the amphora so that the viewer of the vase will follow its stare downwards along the line of his spear into the throat of the unfortunate queen.
In the next chapter (“The Long Goodbye”) Moignard explores Exekias’s contribution to a particular genre scene: the imagery of mourning in funerary contexts. Two sets of funerary plaques by his hand are known.2 These plaques were made to decorate tombs and depicted the formal laying-out of the dead with mourners and chariots prepared to carry the dead to the cemetery in procession. Moignard shows that Exekias uses the same image bank to express the emotions of the mourners as used on Geometric grave-markers (some of which may still have been visible in the Kerameikos cemetery in Exekias’ time), which employed elements related to home, family, and departure. Moignard concludes with a fragmentary scene on an amphora by Exekias, on which the poignant moment of an old man bending down towards a small boy may indicate that we are not looking at a young boy distressed by his father’s departure to war, but at a grandfather comforting his grandson for the loss of his father.
The subject of chapter Five (“Masks”) is an eye-cup with one of the most famous images of Exekias in its interior, Dionysos reclining in a boat sailing in a coral-red sea between leaping dolphins. The exterior shows a nose between large eyes on each side and a fighting scene around each handle. In this chapter Moignard builds on the often-repeated concept of the drinker’s transformation when lifting the cup to his lips by showing a mask, associated with Dionysian imagery, to his fellow drinkers at the symposion. Here, with the position of the ship’s prow pointing into the drinker’s mouth, he is metaphorically swallowing the god when he drinks. Moignard links the fighting scenes on the exterior with the world of drinking and Dionysos by noting that the Homeric hero not only fights, but also feasts.3
Like the multi-layered images of Exekias, this well-produced book can be read on different levels. A general-interest reader can enjoy Moignard’s personal approach and clear style (a glossary at the end of the book further explains technical or Greek terms, e.g., bilingual, echinus, peplos). Others might want to dig deeper and read about the scholarly debate in the notes, or go even further to study the literature in the bibliography. For university students this book could be an excellent teaching tool: one can imagine small groups of students, each working on a case study and its background literature, to promote further exploration of one or another theory or further discussion regarding the method and choices made by Moignard. But no matter how this book is read, every reader will be enthused to discover how these images still speak to us.
1. The most complete study of Exekias’ vases is the monograph by E.A. Mackay, Tradition and Originality: A Study of Exekias, Oxford 2010. Apart from the book reviewed here, additional relevant literature on Exekias’ vases was published in the past 12 months: V. Dasen, “Achille et Ajax: quand l’ agon s’allie à l’ alea,” Revue du Mauss 46 (2015), 81-98; H. Mommsen, “Pferde des Exekias,” in C. Lang-Auinger and E. Trinkl (eds.), ΦΥΤΑ ΚΑΙ ΖΩΙΑ. Pflanzen und Tiere auf Griechischen Vasen, CVA Österreich Beiheft 2, Vienna 2016, 97-104; E.A. Mackay, “Exekias & Co. Evidence of Cooperative Work in the Workshop of Exekias, Group E and their Associates,” in N. Eschbach and S. Schmidt (eds.) Töpfer - Maler - Werkstatt. Zuschreibungen in der griechischen Vasenmalerei und die Organisation antiker Keramikproduktion, CVA Beiheft 7, Munich 2016, 87-95.
2. For an excellent, complete study of the sets of funerary plaques made by Exekias, see H. Mommsen, Exekias I. Die Grabtafeln, Mainz 1997.
3. In a recent article, Sheramy Bundrick shows that a meaning for the eye-cup tied exclusively to the Athenian symposion is hard to sustain and that the Etruscan context, in which many first-generation eye-cups have been found, should be considered. S.D. Bundrick, “Athenian Eye Cups in Context,” AJA 119.3 (2015), 295-341. (with a new interpretation for the scenes on Exekias’ cup based on the Etruscan context in which it was found, pp. 333-334).