All entries for Tuesday 25 October 2022

October 25, 2022

Ismene in the wrong family? The tomb scene on the ‘Exeter vase’ by Danchen Zhang

My interest in the theatrical space in the three ‘Electra’ plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides led me to read about the representation of the homecoming and revenge of Orestes in vase paintings. This is how I came across an Attic red-figure pelike that presents an extremely intriguing case.

Dating from 390-380 BCE, the pelike (Figures 1 and 2) was discovered in a cardboard box in the Royal Albert Museum in 1950 and is now held by the University of Exeter. On its front side, this vase depicts the tomb of Agamemnon (inscription [ΑΓ]ΑΜΕΜΝΟΝΟΣ on the base), which is decorated with funerary offerings. Among the figures surrounding it, the inscription ΗΛΕΚΤΡΑ above the head of the short-haired girl on the right side of the tomb clearly indicates that she is Electra. She holds her right hand in front of her face, and in her left hand she carries a hydria. She is followed by another girl with a similar hairstyle and gesture, who is presumably an attendant. Closer to the tomb, on the same side as the women carrying libations, sits a young man at the steps of the tomb. On the left side another young man, with a cloak and a petasos hanging on his back, is cutting his hair. They are easily identifiable as Orestes offering a lock of hair to his father’s tomb, and his companion Pylades. Above Orestes, another male figure is painted in a reclining pose, his position indicating that he might be a divine figure as he is relatively detached from the scene. On the far left is another female figure, facing towards the tomb and probably kneeling. Above her head there are faint traces of letters ΙΣΜ.

1 Fig. 1 Front side of the ‘Exeter pelike’ (image from Coo 2013, 68).
2 Fig. 2 Detail of the woman on the left, and the inscription ΙΣΜ[ΗΝΗ] (Image from Coo 2013, 70).

Ismene? Why would she appear in a scene where Agamemnon’s children are visiting his tomb? This interesting oddity is noticed by Brian Shefton, who first discovered this vase, but seems to be quite ignored by later discussions on the vase until recent years (LIMC Supplement Elektra I 1; Coo 2013). The scholars who address this inscription agree that the girl on the left side of the tomb should have been labeled as Chrysothemis, another daughter of Agamemnon, who appears in Sophocles’ Electra. The painter, however, confuses her with another mythological character, Ismene, the daughter of Oedipus and sister of Antigone, whom we also see in plays by Sophocles. Considering that the painting might have been informed by Sophoclean tragedy, it seems to be a likely mistake. In fact, Shefton calls it ‘one of those slips we are all liable to make’ (1982, 178): in Sophocles, the representations of the two pairs of sisters do have a number of things in common.

Both the story told in Sophocles’ Antigone and the one in his Electra concern the death of a close family member and the issues about mourning for the dead. In each case, the different decisions taken by the sisters reflect their distinctive personalities. In the Antigone, the issue of burial is presented at the beginning of the play as Antigone and Ismene debate about how to react towards Creon’s prohibition on the burial of Polyneices, who is their brother and at the same time one of the Argive leaders in the battle against his native city. While Ismene chooses to obey the order of the ruler, Antigone insists on honoring her brother and is later sentenced to death by Creon. The story in Sophocles’ Electra is set years after the death of Agamemnon, when Electra and Chrysothemis have both settled on their own ways of coping with the family disaster. Chrysothemis tends to yield under the power of Agamemnon’s murderers, Clytemnestra and Aigisthos, and therefore manages to live a more comfortable life in the house, while Electra indulges herself in a never-ending mourning for her father, longing for Orestes to return and take his vengeance. In both plays, Ismene and Chrysothemis have a similar dramatic role, as they are depicted as a weaker character compared to their defiant sisters. Sophocles’ characterization of the sisters is unique in extant tragedy. It may even be possible that there was a performance tradition that would represent both pairs of the sisters with different costumes, masks and hair, thus giving them opposite roles. Therefore, it is natural to think that the painter is informed by Sophocles’ plays, having the other pair of siblings in mind when working on the tomb scene involving Agamemnon’s children.

The details of the painting itself also seem to show the knowledge of the difference in the characters of the sisters. Electra’s hair is cropped, an indication of mourning, while 'Ismene’ has long hair and wears jewellery—differences in hair and dresses are also mentioned in Sophocles’ play (Electra, 359-64, 448-52). However, here on the vase, as Electra’s hydria indicates that she comes with a libation, ‘Ismene’ is also bringing her offering to the tomb. As Coo (2013) points out, the visible leaves between her and Orestes should have been part of the funerary wreath that she is offering to her dead father. Therefore, different from the popular iconography that depicts Chrysothemis merely as a weak figure fleeing from, or at least not participating in, the vengeance of Orestes (e. g. Figure 3), this vase shows the sister actively engaged with the mourning. This can reflect the painter’s more detailed understanding of the dramatic role of Ismene/Chrysothemis, as both ‘weaker’ sisters do sympathize with the heroines and try to support them. In the Antigone, Ismene shows her readiness to admit the burial and die with her sister, while in Sophocles’ Electra, Chrysothemis visits the tomb on behalf of Electra and returns with joyful excitement after seeing Orestes’ offerings.

3 Fig. 3 Chrysothemis (labeled, on the left) flees in fear, as Orestes about to kill Aigisthos, Attic red-figure pelike attributed to the Berlin Painter, 510-490 BCE, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Image from Boardman 1975, fig. 143).

Indeed, Sophocles’ Electra never herself visits the tomb during the play. The play is set in front of the palace at Mycenae, and the tomb of Agamemnon is an off-stage place which the characters refer to verbally. Therefore, the painting of the tomb scene is of course not a ‘faithful’ depiction of any moment in Sophocles’ Electra. In fact, without particular attention to the ΙΣΜ[ΗΝΗ] inscription, this vase has been broadly thought to be related exclusively to Aeschylus’ Choephori, where the siblings Orestes and Electra reunite at Agamemnon’s tomb, and where the tomb is presented physically on stage. On the other hand, it is also common for vase paintings to depict off-stage scenes. During Sophocles’ play, Orestes, Pylades and Chrysothemis all leave the stage to visit the tomb of Agamemnon and re-enter with news or actions that shape the progress of the play. The tomb thus functions as a prominent conceptual presence throughout the play that is no less worth visualizing. Moreover, in an actual play, the stories would happen in a sequence: Orestes cuts his hair at Agamemnon’s tomb, before Chrysothemis comes to the tomb to decorate it, and Electra would reunite with her brother later in front of the palace. In this painting, different spaces and moments are brought together in the same composition. The painter is certainly not under any obligation to create a careful replica of a specific scene from Electra or Choephori. As a result, the viewers of the vase would also be able to appreciate the tension in this painting that recalls different crucial moments in the story, and even to make their own account of the curious presence of Ismene.

While the relationships between pots and plays are never straightforward, and it is hard to attribute this vase to a specific tragic scene, the interesting dynamic in this painting and the mislabelled sister make it certain that it draws on different tragic elements and merges together different stages of narrative. More than merely a forgivable slip made by the painter, it also reminds us about the various and 'slippery’ manners in which tragic performance and vase painting interact with each other.


Beazley, J. D., Attic red-figure vase-painters, 2nd edition (Oxford, 1963)

Boardman, J. Athenian red-figure vases, the archaic period (London 1975)

Boardman, J. Athenian red-figure vases, the classical period (London 1989)

Coo, L. ‘A Sophoclean slip: mistaken identity and tragic allusion on the Exeter pelike’, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 56-1 (2013), 67-88.

Csapo, E. Actors and icons of the ancient theater (Chichester 2010)

Madsen, E. A., ‘Celebrating the pot-feast in the company of Aeschylus: an approach to an interpretation of the Exeter Pelike Beazley, ARV² 1516, 80. fig. 1A & B’, Classica et Mediaevalia 48 (1997) 53-73.

Shefton, B. ‘The krater from Baksy’, in The eye of Greece: studies in the art of Athens, eds D. Kurtz and B. Sparkes (Cambridge 1982) 149-81.

Taplin, O., Pots and plays: interaction between tragedy and Greek vase-painting of the fourth century B. C. (Los Angeles, 2007)

Trendall, A. D. and Webster, T. B. L., Illustrations of Greek drama (London 1971)

Wiseman, T. P., ‘Brian Shefton 1919-2012’, Pegasus 55 (2012), 48.


This blog was written by Danchen Zhang, PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Her research interests are in the images and ideas of space and nature in Greek drama, and more specifically ‘winds’ in tragedy.

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