This large, Attic red-figured pelike — just over 10½ inches, or 27 centimetres, high — is a significant addition to the ever-growing list of vases attributed to the Carpenter Painter, a highly gifted artist active in Athens between 510 and 490 BC.
‘It represents the events of the pentathlon, which was part of the Olympic Games,’ explains Antiquities specialist Laetitia Delaloye. ‘Athletes were heroes in society, and pentathletes were thought to be the most complete athletes — as well as the most beautiful.’
The pentathlon comprised five events contested over the course of one day: a foot race over approximately 200 yards (180-190m); the javelin throw; discus throw; long jump; and wrestling. This vessel is finely decorated with scenes of athletes exercising in the gymnasium, and shows on one side an athlete preparing to throw the javelin (acontion) and an African youth, also nude and of smaller size, holding the jumping weights (halteres). On the other side are two pentathletes in profile, one raising a discus and the other holding two halteres. Athletes competed completely naked.
‘What is so unusual about this vase is the representation of the African boy actively taking part in the training,’ says Delaloye. Participating as an athlete in a public space was a privilege normally restricted to Athenian citizens only. ‘Perhaps he was the son of an African dignitary or a high-rankling official, and that high status might have allowed him to be granted access,’ she suggests.
‘This vase is really special — it is not only a piece of history, but also a work of art,’ says the specialist. ‘The artist has given much thought and attention to creating a beautiful representation of athletes.’