This extraordinary vase is a unique depiction of the arrival of Herakles in the Garden of the Hesperides. As his Eleventh Labour, Herakles was tasked with retrieving the golden apples that grew on the trees in the Garden. These coveted fruit were guarded by Ladon, a monstrous serpent, and the Hesperides, beautiful nymphs who were the daughters Atlas. The Garden was imagined by the Greeks to be at the very edge of the world, beyond the Straights of Gibraltar, named the Straights of Herakles in honour of this Labour. Here, we see the hero make his approach in the Bowl of the Sun, a loan from Helios the sun god and the only conveyance capable of making the treacherous journey. Notably, Herakles is shown beardless. This is a growing convention in this period, when even traditionally mature heroes are reimagined as ideally youthful. A panoply of characters are included in the scene; for the avoidance of doubt, their names are included in large white letters. Athena, goddess of war and wisdom and traditional champion of Herakles, seems to be assisting his advance. Atlas, the Titan who perhaps sired the Hesperides, is seen at his perpetual task of holding up the vault of the sky; this faraway place beyond the Straights was believed to be where he stood. Next we see a Hesperid, here given the generic name Hesperis, lounging at the foot of a tree heavy with golden fruits. Lastly, to the far right, is Hermes. The messenger god looks on in amazement, eager to witness the incredible feat to come.
Depictions of Herakles and his Eleventh Labour begin in the early 6th Century, but are more frequently found at the end of the 5th Century. Only a few vases show Herakles in the Bowl of the Sun - for example, a cup in the Vatican Museums, and these do not show his eventual destination. Such images of Herakles in his cauldron-like boat have previously been interpreted as Herakles en route to Erytheia to steal the cattle of Geryon, his Tenth Labour. However, this krater, which is the first to combine the arrival of the hero at the Garden and the motif of the Bowl, demonstrates that in at least one version of the myth, Herakles used this transport for his Eleventh Labour.
The busy scene, bristling with energy and anticipation, is packed with detail and executed with verve. The Nikias Painter was a contemporary of the Pronomos Painter and the Kadmos Painter, and worked at the end of the 5th Century B.C. (see J. D. Beazley, Attich Red-figure Vase-Painters, vol. II, Oxford, 1963, p. 1333ff). He is known for his fluid, sketchy style, which echoes the 'Rich' style of the late 5th Century, as well as executing figures with elaborate hairstyles, clingy drapery and patterned garments, all in evidence on the present lot. Cf. a calyx-krater by the Nikias Painter in the Virginia Museum (acc. no. 81.70) for a comparably excessively rich narrative tableau, here of the birth of Erichthonios. Here also, white slip is used to name the protagonists.
The reverse shows three beardless youths with accessories of the palaestra: strigil, aryballos and jumping weights (halteres). The simplicity of this side is to be expected on bell-kraters of this period, despite the masterful rendering on the obverse.