‘Underworld: Imaging the Afterlife’ at Getty

Gold Tablet with Instructions for the Deceased in the Underworld. Greek, 350–300 BC
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection.

Getty Villa Exhibit Takes Peek into Underworld


Special to Circling the News

We don’t know what happens to us after we die, and perhaps it’s only as the end nears that we begin to think about what’s next. Does the body disintegrate, leaving only a tombstone, or does the spirit, the soul, the non-corporeal you, live on? And if so, where, and what could it be like?

The Greeks and Romans too, pondered the afterlife, imagining a variety of scenarios that they so artfully illustrated on funereal pottery produced for graves.

An exhibition of ceramic funerary vessels, organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in collaboration with the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, explores depictions of the Underworld in the art of Ancient Greece and southern Italy.

The centerpiece of “Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife,” is the monumental krater made around the middle of the fourth century BC and found in fragments in 1847 in Altamura in the Apulia, in southern Italy. Two years of conservation treatment with Getty conservators in collaboration with colleagues in Naples helped to undo old repairs and stabilize the vase’s structure.

While the Underworld or Hades was a rare subject for Athenian vase painters of the sixth century BC, in south Italian vase painting, a tradition of detailed Underworld scenes developed. Some 40 Apulian funerary vessels have been identified in a number of European collections.

Terracotta Funerary Vessel with an Underworld Scene (detail) (pre-conservation). Note Hades and Persephone sitting under the Greek pavilion.
South Italian (Apulian), 360–340 BC

“The big kraters were buried in the grave as part of a whole array of funerary goods, including jewelry,” says exhibition curator David Saunders, who is also curator of antiquities at the Getty. “These were intended to accompany the deceased and to be displayed during the funeral. It was a way for the family to show off their resources; the bigger the vessel, the more well-healed the family.”

While we are led to believe that the Underworld is down as the body is buried in the ground, some Greeks proffered the idea that the body returns to the earth but that each soul is allotted to a star.

The focus of the exhibition is the question: Is there an afterlife? The objects in the galleries flesh out the idea that there may be something better after we die, and if there is, how do we get there?

There was not really much weight placed on how virtuous a person was in life as a down payment on a happy afterlife, baring only a few who were so exceptional or heroic they were guaranteed a pleasant plane of existence.

There were also exceptions, however, of people who were condemned for having tested the gods. Sisyphus was made to roll a large boulder up a hill endlessly for his hubristic belief that his cleverness surpassed that of Zeus.

But this did not necessarily mean that ordinary folks were destined for misery.

Religious cults dedicated to certain occupants of the underworld, including Persephone, Orpheus and Dionysus, offered devotees a better existence after death.

Initiation in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual festival in Greece based on the story of Persephone, ensured participants a good harvest and also a blessed afterlife.

“Individuals played the system to guarantee their VIP parking if you will,” Saunders says.

Another avenue thought to improve the deceased prospects in the Underworld were the Orphic tablets, so named because Orpheus was one of few whose descent and return from the Underworld allowed him knowledge of the afterlife. The Orphic tablets are Greek inscriptions written on thin sheets of gold that not only attest to the deceased’s distinguished status, but also provide guidance for his or her journey in the Underworld. These were buried with the dead.

Terracotta Storage Jar with Sisyphus and the Uninitiated
Greek (Attic), about 525 BC
State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek Munich
Photograph by Renate Kuhling

The vases often display the main actors in the Underworld. The krater from Altamuraintroduces us to more than 20 mythological figures, including Hades, who reigns supreme with his wife Persephone; the musician Orpheus, who attempted unsuccessfully to retrieve his wife Eurydice from the Underworld, and the hero Herakles (Hercules in Roman mythology), who was tasked to go down into the Underworld and capture the ferocious three-headed dog Kerberos who guarded the gates.

To accompany the exhibition, Saunders has chosen a number of other ancient works, including mixing vessels, funerary monuments, marble reliefs and three of the gold tablets to highlight the famous inhabitants of Hades.

For some, the afterlife offered a consolation that in this other place we’ll be okay. But, according to Homer, others like Achilles, the great hero of the Iliad, would rather “live working as a wage-laborer for hire by some other man, one who had no land and not much in the way of livelihood, than lord it over all the wasted dead.”

“Underworld: Imaging the Afterlife” continues on view through March 18 at the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.

Marble Relief with Hermes, Eurydike, and Orpheus
Roman, 100 BC–AD 100
National Archaeological Museum of Naples

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