In Focus

Red-figure patera with Atlas handle

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art_._

This _patera _is the first example of Greek ceramics from the city-states of South Italy to enter the Dallas Museum of Art collections. It nicely complements the Museum's extensive collection of gold jewelry from South Italy, especially since the figures depicted inside the bowl are wearing types of ornament from the fourth century B.C.E. The Greek cities of Italy were often wealthier than the older states on the mainland and thus were able to commission lavish decorative arts.

This handsome patera, or offering bowl, is unusual because the handle is terracotta instead of bronze. The handle was mold-made in two parts, from front and back molds. The two halves were then joined with clay and fired, after which they were attached to the bowl, possibly with bronze pins. The two pairs of holes for the attachment match and include identical cementlike material, though there are no metal traces.

Such vessels were used for pouring libations to the dead. The scene in the interior of the bowl shows a seated woman holding a "phiale," a libation dish, in her left hand. She reclines against a tambourine on her right. On the right is a nude youth holding out a wreath in his right hand while supporting himself with a staff on his left. Between them is a laurel plant. Other flower motifs and bunches of grapes decorate the background. Around the rim of the tondo are an outer laurel wreath pattern and an inner wave decoration. The woman wears bracelets, a necklace, earrings, and a crown, while the youth wears a diadem. Such scenes have been interpreted as having Dionysiac or Orphic meaning, related to religious mystery cults popular in South Italy. Whatever the precise meaning of the figures, they probably do have funerary connotations as well as intimations of the revival of life, indicated by the plants. The association of the new growth of green plants in the springtime with personal immortality for initiates was common in Dionysiac cults.

The unusual handle is in the form of a mature, muscular nude man with a beard. He upholds the disk of the bowl in his upstretched hands. The figure probably refers to the mythological character Atlas, a giant who carries the heavens on his shoulders. In the stories of Heracles' labors, the giant Titan and the hero exchange roles, but Heracles tricks Atlas into taking over the burden of the sky again. In some versions of the myth, Atlas was turned to stone by looking at the Medusa head. The handle may refer to the great sculptural Atlantid figures that decorated the Temple of Zeus at Acragas (modern Agrigento) in Sicily. Only a handful of such Atlantid figures used as a "patera" handles have survived.

The piece is a handsome combination of figural sculpture in the handle and refined vase painting in the tondo scene. It provides an impressive glimpse into the sacrificial rites of Greek religion, as well as into the imaginative world of Greek mythology.

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 73.