Goddesses & Minotaurs

Highlights from the October Antiquities sale include this striking Roman marble statue of a goddess which has been exhibited at the Musée d’art et d’histoire in Geneva for the past two decades.This statue almost certainly represents Athena, the great ‘bright-eyed’ goddess, daughter of Zeus, warrior, protector of Athens, defender of heroes and the embodiment of wisdom, who was depicted in numerous guises throughout the ancient world.

Although both Athena and Artemis are usually depicted wearing the flowing peplos (dress), this peplos-clad statue finds its closest parallel with the statue of Athena now in the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt.The Frankfurt Athena is a Roman marble version of the Athena from the famous bronze sculptural group of 450 B.C. by the Greek sculptor, Myron. In the 2nd century B.C. the Greek traveller and geographer, Pausanias, noted that he had seen on the Acropolis in Athens ‘a statue of Athena striking Marsyas, the Seilenos, for taking up the flutes that the goddess wished to be cast away for good’. In the original bronze group, Marsyas was depicted in the act of picking up the double flutes (auloi) which Athena had cast down at his feet.The myth recalls that Athena had invented the aulos, but the other deities had mocked how her cheeks bulged out when she played, thus she threw the musical instrument away, cursing whoever should pick it up.

This famous Athena and Marsyas group is currently recreated in an exhibition at the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt until 21 September 2008, bringing together a Roman marble statue of Marsyas from the Vatican collections and the Frankfurt Athena which so closely mirrors the statue in the October sale.

The mythological story of the half-man half-bull Minotaur features in the second highlight from the sale,The Minotaur Stamnos.According to legend, following his victory over the Athenians, King Minos of Crete demanded tribute every nine years of seven young men and seven young women, to be devoured by his son, the Minotaur, who was housed in Daedalus’s labyrinth beneath the palace at Knossos. On the third such occasion,Theseus volunteered to be one of the youths. On his arrival in Crete, King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, fell in love with the Athenian prince.Appealing to Daedalus,Ariadne was advised to give Theseus a ball of thread to allow her lover to find his way out of the labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur.This enabled Theseus to escape and flee Crete with Ariadne, but he later betrayed and abandoned her on Naxos.

Dated to circa 510 B.C., and from the Athenian workshop of the Antimenes Painter, this Greek stamnos (vase) shows the bull-headed beast running from the pursuing Theseus, with Ariadne looking on. Each figure is named with painted inscriptions; and a dedication to the ‘Beautiful Arleades’ indicates that the stamnos was almost certainly a gift to a youth from an older man.

The Antimenes Painter and his workshop were active between 530-510 B.C., a time of transition from black-figure to red-figure painting. The Minotaur Stamnos is in a rare red-figure technique where the figures are painted in red over a black background, with details incised so that the black shows through.The technique is called ‘Six technique’ after the Dutch scholar, Jan Six, who first described it, in 1888.

A stamnos was used for storing or serving wine at symposiums (drinking parties). It usually had two side handles but handleless stamnoi, like the Minotaur Stamnos, are extremely rare. Only four other surviving examples are known. The Minotaur Stamnos was exhibited at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1980, and published in 1977 by Cornelia Isler-Kerényi, who highlighted the singularity of this particular vase in that ‘the three protagonists are placed in such a way that, on turning the stamnos around, only one figure is visible at a time: a threefold grouping made possible through the absence of the handles and which is therefore rare, if not unique’.

The myth of the Minotaur is one that has fascinated artists for centuries, including Picasso with his powerful images in La Suite Vollard.

Finally, the sale also offers a charming late 5th century B.C. Graeco-Persian chalcedony scaraboid seal, produced at a time when the ancient Greek and Persian worlds were linked in war and politics.The Persian wars dominated the 5th century B.C. leaving a legacy of a blend of Greek and Persian art and culture in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is not possible now to know whether Greek craftsmen were producing gems for Persian clientele or Persian gem-cutters were copying the Greek style.However, this fine gem represents the classic Graeco-Persian style of engraving, with typical convex-backed scaraboid shape and using the preferred semi-precious stone of the time – blue chalcedony. Finely cut, with drilled al globolo details to the jaw, knees and feet, the Bactrian camel stands with a leading rein hanging from his muzzle.The depiction of an every-day animal was a departure from more formal Persian subjects on seals and we find a close parallel for the camel on a virtually identical gem, now in the British Museum.

SALE: Antiquities, King Street, London, 13 October
ENQUIRIES: Sarah Hornsby + 44 (0) 20 7752 3002
EMAIL: sahornsby@christies.com

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Goddesses & Minotaurs