Red-Figure Cup Showing the Death of Pentheus (exterior) and a Maenad (interior)
Greek (active c. 500–460 B.C.)
Late Archaic period (500–480 B.C.)
c. 480 B.C.
H. 5 in. (12.7 cm); Diam. 11 1/2 in. (29.2 cm)
Currently On View
On the exterior of this cup, one of the finest surviving vases of the early Classical period, we witness the gruesome death of Pentheus, a mythical king of Thebes who had offended the god Dionysos by denying his divinity and forbidding his worship. The vengeful god—shown here seated with a wine cup in his hand and listening to a piping satyr (man-animal with horse’s tail and ears, and snub nose)—caused the wretched Pentheus to be attacked by a group of Theban women who had been worked into an ecstatic frenzy by the god. Coming upon Pentheus in the woods, they mistook him for a wild beast and, as the god had willed, tore him limb from limb. Two of the women are shown in the center of one scene grasping Pentheus’s head and twisted torso, his guts hanging out, his eyes staring blankly in the knowledge of death. Four other women wield aloft his dismembered legs, while a fifth, perhaps his mother, Agave, holds his garment and gazes skyward, oblivious for now to the identity of her victim. Another satyr completes the scene. The tondo on the interior of the cup shows a maenad (female follower of Dionysos) who grasps a young leopard by the tail with one hand and a thyrsos (magic wand) with the other. An inscription praises her charms: “The girl is beautiful.” She is shown turning her head,perhaps in response to the fearful events unfolding in the main scene. Working at the beginning of the Classical period, when Greek artists were preoccupied above all with the naturalistic representation of the human body, Douris is here seen grappling with many of the key developments that were to revolutionize Western art. He uses the naked satyrs in particular to display his talent with difficult three-quarter and frontal poses. The bodies of the women, on the other hand, are rendered more economically in outline through their diaphanous garments.