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Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife in Ancient South Italian Vase Painting

Edited by David Saunders

Abundantly illustrated, this essential volume examines depictions of the Underworld in southern Italian vase painting and explores the religious and cultural beliefs behind them.

What happens to us when we die? What might the afterlife look like? For the ancient Greeks, the dead lived on, overseen by Hades in the Underworld. We read of famous sinners, such as Sisyphus, forever rolling his rock, and the fierce guard dog Kerberos, who was captured by Herakles. For mere mortals, ritual and religion offered possibilities for ensuring a happy existence in the beyond, and some of the richest evidence for beliefs about death comes from southern Italy, where the local Italic peoples engaged with Greek beliefs. Monumental funerary vases that accompanied the deceased were decorated with consolatory scenes from myth, and around forty preserve elaborate depictions of Hades’s domain.

For the first time in over four decades, these compelling vase paintings are brought together in one volume, with detailed commentaries and ample illustrations. The catalogue is accompanied by a series of essays by leading experts in the field, which provides a framework for understanding these intriguing scenes and their contexts. Topics include attitudes toward the afterlife in Greek ritual and myth, inscriptions on leaves of gold that provided guidance for the deceased, funerary practices and religious beliefs in Apulia, and the importance accorded to Orpheus and Dionysos. Drawing from a variety of textual and archaeological sources, this volume is an essential source for anyone interested in religion and belief in the ancient Mediterranean. 

David Saunders is associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum. He coedited The Restoration of Ancient Bronzes: Naples and Beyond (Getty, 2013) and Dangerous Perfection: Ancient Funerary Vases from Southern Italy (Getty, 2016). 

“[A] well-illustrated compendium.”
—Karina Wilhelm, ARLIS/NA

“Knowledgeably compiled and expertly edited.”
—Michael J. Carson, Midwest Book Review

“The essays are admirably clear and addressed to a general audience.”
—E. A. Dumser, CHOICE

"This handsome book explores Greek concepts of the afterlife as they are expressed in images of the Underworld on monumental funerary vases from Southern Italy. The corpus of some 40 vases is placed within its historical and archaeological context by a set of essays by prominent specialists. The book will join an earlier Getty publication, Oliver Taplin's Pots & Plays (2007), as an essential resource for the study of vase-painting in Greek South Italy."
—Alan Shapiro, Dietrich von Bothmer Research Scholar, Greek and Roman Department, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“This excellent and highly informative book guides us through the Underworld as conceived in Greek and Italic southern Italy and as visualized in South Italian vase-painting. Lavishly illustrated, it contains all the vases representing the kingdom of Hades and enables us to explore the many facets of this iconography, from the first known examples found in the Greek colony of Taranto to the complex tableaux of monumental volute-kraters belonging to members of the Italic elite. Under the surveillance of Hades and Persephone, we become familiar with the landscape of the world beyond. Here, we encounter those gods and heroes able to transcend the boundary between this world and the next (such as Dionysos, Orpheus, Herakles, and Theseus), as well as the mortals condemned to eternal punishment (such as Sisyphus and the Danaids). Far from static, the imagery of the Underworld is developed via various patterns; although the precise cultural reasons underlying such differentiation often escape us due to the absence of archaeological context, their variety reveals both the meaningful character of these representations, which were displayed during funeralsand the complex relationship between producers and consumers. Well-written and highly informative essays provide insight into the ancient Greek myths of the afterlife, the available evidence of the Mystery Cults, and the religious and funerary practices of ancient Puglia, reconstructing the wider context and enabling these vases to be better understood. Suitable for a broad readership, the volume explores the attitude of a specific ancient society towards universal concerns such as death and the afterlife via the powerful language of images, greatly enriching our perspective.”
Francesca Silvestrelli, University of the Salento

240 pages
8 1/2 x 10 1/2 inches
118 color illustrations, 1 map
ISBN 978-1-60606-734-5

Getty Publications
Imprint: J. Paul Getty Museum