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Work Minotaur

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Archaic Greek Art (7th-6th centuries BC)

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Minotaure

© 1999 Photo RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Archaic Greek Art (7th-6th centuries BC)

Author(s):
Marie-Bénédicte Astier

This figure of a man with a bull's head was part of the decoration of a studded tripod cauldron - an ex-voto made more precious by the rarity of bronze in the Geometric Era. Standing on the lip of the cauldron, the creature held one of its handles in its hands, thus also serving as a support. The statuette, easily identified as the Minotaur, was probably linked with a male figure in the National Museum at Athens. If so, it would be the earliest known depiction of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Decoration for the handle of a studded tripod cauldron

In the eighth century BC - the Geometric Era - studded bronze tripod cauldrons were prestigious offerings, dedicated to the gods by aristocratic worshippers at great sanctuaries such as Olympia, Delphi or the Acropolis in Athens. Originally used as cooking utensils, these votive cauldrons (made particularly precious by the scarcity of bronze) rapidly shed their everyday status. They grew taller, and their decoration became more profuse and enriched with stamped and engraved lines and geometric patterns. From the mid-eighth century, the handles were decorated with small animal and human figures - horsemen, warriors and horses, signs of the donor's social rank, or birds - cast separately and then riveted on. The bronze now in the Louvre formed part of the decoration of one of these tripods. The position of the hands, pierced by holes for rivets, and the fixing arrangement visible under the Minotaur's feet, indicate that the figure was attached to the lip of the cauldron and also served as a support for one of the tripod's handles, which it held between its hands.

An Attic work from the Geometric Era

Whatever they depict, both objects are probably from the same Attic workshop, and testify to the changes that took place in small bronze statuary in the late eighth century BC. The bronzesmith has broken free from the prevailing Geometric restrictions on the human figure. The Minotaur's stance, with the body in profile and the head viewed from the front, is still stiff, admittedly, but the figure's supple and sinuous silhouette nevertheless displays more naturalism in the treatment of the body's curves. The contours of the long, tapering legs are also very accurately rendered.

The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur?

This arrangement is identical to that of a male figure discovered at Olympia, now in the collections of the National Museum in Athens. The dimensions and proportions of the latter - very close to those of the Louvre's statuette - and its mirror-image composition suggest that the two objects formed a pair, decorating the same ex-voto and arranged on either side of the handle. The figure with the body of a man and a bull's head can readily be identified as the Minotaur, the monster born of the union between Pasiphaë and the bull sent to Crete by Poseidon. The statuette from Olympia is thus probably a representation of Theseus, the Athenian hero who slew the beast in the labyrinth constructed by Daedalus on the orders of King Minos. Although no contemporary text enables us to identify this scene with certainty, the two figures probably represent this mythical combat. If so, this would be the oldest known artistic representation of this legend.

Bibliography

B. Holtzmann, A. Pasquier, L'Art grec, Paris, La Documentation française, "Manuels de l'Ecole du Louvre", Paris, 1998, pp. 68-9
Cl. Rolley, La sculpture grecque. 1- Des origines au milieu du Ve siècle, Paris, Picard, 1994, pp. 94 and 103, fig. 77

Technical description

  • Minotaure

    Fin du VIIIe siècle avant J.-C.

    Provenance : Olympie ?

    Style attique

  • Bronze

    H. : 18,40 cm.

  • Collection Campana, 1861

    Decoration for a studded tripod cauldron

    Br 104

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Bronzes room
    Room 32, temporarily closed to the public, works n
    Vitrine M1 : Grèce, époque géométrique (IXe - VIIIe siècles avant J.-C.)

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