One of the most dramatic scenes from the myth of Odysseus’ return home is depicted on this drinking bowl (skyphos). The hero Odysseus is shown killing the suitors who beset his wife, Penelope, during his decades-long absence (Homer, Odyssey 22).
The painting on both sides of the bowl is continuous in both content and form, making it essentially a single frieze even if the palmettes and tendrils under the handles interrupt its continuity. On one side we see the bearded Odysseus, named with a painted inscription, still disguised as a slave in the short workman’s garment called the exomis. He is shown tensed to the utmost, gripping a bow in his left hand and pulling the bowstring taut with his right – the arrow is ready to fly. Two servant girls with short hair and Doric chitons stand behind him, anxiously watching the proceedings. The inscription kale (Greek for “beautiful”) appears twice over their heads.
The arrow’s target is shown on the opposite side: three suitors startled from their banquet by the arrows falling on and around their kline. All three men are nearly nude and wear the symposiast’s fillet around their heads. Their mantles have slid down and now hang loosely around their bodies, hindering their movements. The man at left, viewed from behind, kneels on the foot of the couch; he has been struck with an arrow in the back and is trying with both hands to pull it out. Meanwhile, the bearded suitor in the middle crouches in front of the kline and holds the dining table in front of him as a shield against the arrows. The third man, lying on the kline, seems to have just sat up, and holds out his hands in a helpless gesture of defense. Above his head too are the traces of an inscription, (k)alos.
The men are represented in poses that convey three phases of action simultaneously: the fright at the attack, the defense against it, and the pain after it. With this scene the anonymous vase painter – named the “Penelope Painter” after a skyphos in Chiusi that shows Penelope grieving – gives a window onto monumental painting in the high Classical period (also attested in textual sources). A lost wall painting by Polygnotos was likely the model for this vase. Yet the painter did not strive to copy the model exactly; rather, he used formal and compositional devices to condense the narrative.