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Heroics of Dress: Exekias and Ornament in Greek Vase Painting

The Athenian vase painter Exekias, on his gaming amphora in the Vatican (Musei Vaticani 16757), embellishes the cloaks of Achilles and Ajax with stars, rosettes, swastikas, and other motifs. Although long admired, these historiated textiles have been overlooked by scholars as merely decorative rather than iconographic. But analysis of Exekias’ textile decoration yields new insights on a well-known vase and offers a case study for a poetics of dress in vase painting that transforms our understanding of ornament and storytelling in Greek art. Mapping the place of the cloaks’ adornment within the genealogy and context of such imagery in epic poetry, elite traditions, magical practices, and Near Eastern and Italian art reveals how Exekias’ decorative idiom conveys meaning and enhances his portrait of the two heroes. This article explores how Exekias’ fictive dress ornament evokes epic traditions, appropriates the authority of Near Eastern luxury arts, reflects knowledge of textile traditions in Italy, activates knowledge of the cosmos, and conjures magical associations. Ultimately, Exekias employs the decoration of dress to expound on the characters and fates of Achilles and Ajax and to offer an exegesis on the nature of the hero.1