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Work Attic Red-Figure Calyx Krater known as the "Niobid Krater"

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Attic Red-Figure Calyx Krater known as the "Niobid Krater"

© 1994 RMN / Hervé Lewandowski

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Classical Greek Art (5th-4th centuries BC)

Sophie Padel-Imbaud

The Niobid Painter, probably inspired by the large frescoes produced in Athens and Delphi, decorated this exceptional krater with two scenes in which the many figures rise in tiers on lines of ground that evoke an undulating landscape. On one side, Apollo and Artemis are shown decimating the children of Niobe with their arrows; on the other side is Heracles surrounded by Athena and heroes in arms, in a composition whose serenity is already classical, and whose meaning is still uncertain.

A Mysterious Gathering

The main side of the vase shows eleven figures placed at different levels. Only two of them are recognizable: Heracles, in the center, holding his club and bow, with his lion skin over his left arm, and Athena on the left. Around them several warriors are represented in varying poses.
Many questions have been asked about the meaning of this image. Two hypotheses frequently crop up: the Argonauts awaiting favorable winds in Iolcos, and the episode of Heracles descending into Hades to rescue Theseus and Pirithous, who were guilty of trying to carry off Persephone.

Heracles and the Warriors of Marathon

A final, more recent, hypothesis looks at the obvious emphasis given to Heracles – crowned with laurels, wrinkled and standing on a stepped base almost invisible to the naked eye. It is thought to be a statue of the deified hero, after he had completed his exploits. We know from ancient sources that Heracles was thought to have helped Marathon to victory and was subsequently the object of a cult in Athens. We may therefore be seeing, in this image, the warriors of Marathon, come to place themselves under the protection of the hero before battle.
The B side of the vase illustrates a legend that is rarely represented, and gave the painter his name. Here we see the massacre of the children of Niobe by Apollo and Artemis. Niobe, the mother of seven girls and seven boys, had bragged that she was superior to the goddess Leto, who only had two children. These two children, Apollo and Artemis, hastened to avenge the honor of their mother by killing all the children of the unfortunate mortal. This is the moment that the painter has chosen to represent – the divine archers shooting down the Niobids with their arrows. Half of them are already lying dead on the ground.

The Influence of Sculpture and Large-Scale Paintings

The stylistic characteristics of this krater owe much to contemporary sculpture and wall paintings. The poses of the key figures – Artemis, Apollo and Heracles – are reminiscent of those in Severe style statues, which can be seen in Olympia. However, by bringing in elements of wall paintings, the painter has given this vase its exceptional character. Wall painting was a major art form that developed considerably during the late fifth century BC, and is now only known to us through written accounts. Complex compositions were perfected, which involved numerous figures placed at different levels. This is the technique we find here where, for the first time on a vase, the traditional isocephalia of the figures has been abandoned.


Martine Denoyelle, Chefs-d’œuvre de la céramique grecque, 1995, p. 138, Ed. de la Réunion des musées nationaux, n° 64.
M. Denoyelle, Le Cratère des Niobides, 1997.

Technical description

  • NIOBID PAINTER (attributed to)

    Attic Red-Figure Calyx Krater known as the "Niobid Krater"

    Circa 460-450 BC

    Orvieto, Italy


  • Clay, red-figure technique (white highlights)

    H. 54 cm; Diam. 56 cm

  • Purchased 1883

    G 341

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    1st floor
    Galerie Campana IV
    Room 652

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