From an early period, the amphora, a two-handled vessel designed for storing and transporting oil and wine, was a favored shape among Athenian black-figure vase painters. Generic scenes of battle, athletics, and courtship were popular subjects, as were episodes drawn from Greek mythology. The Art Museum’s amphora features an unusual scene depicting the struggle between the Greek hero Herakles (Hercules) and Busiris, legendary king of Egypt. According to the myth, in an effort to protect his land against impending plague, adopted the custom of sacrificing foreign visitors to the god Zeus. Herakles, determined to put an end to this inhuman practice, disguised himself as a commoner and allowed himself to be seized for sacrifice by the Egyptian king. At the altar, he revealed himself. As portrayed on the Art Museum’s vessel, Herakles turns the tables on his captors and slays Busiris. Having dispatched the malevolent king, whose lifeless body is shown slumped over the altar, Herakles then attacks two attending white-robed Egyptian priests, one of whom he brandishes in place of the club that he usually carries.
Numerous decorative touches enliven the composition on this vase, such as the elaborate painted patterns that ornament the Egyptian priest’s garments and the altar itself. The amphora is a work of the Swing Painter, an Athenian black-figure mannerist whose work is marked by a distinctive, often whimsical style.