Hermes, the Greek messenger god and guide to the Underworld, wears a broad-rimmed traveler’s cap (petasos) around his neck and a short cloak (chlamys) pinned on his right shoulder. The youthful god gathers his short garment (chitoniskos) in his right hand in a mannered gesture of motion as his left hand gently pulls at the wrist of a second, largely missing, figure wearing a more sumptuous costume.
This fragment reproduces part of one of the most celebrated works of Classical Greek sculpture, known as the Orpheus Relief. The larger, three-figured composition (illustrated below) depicts Hermes escorting Eurydice back to the Underworld during her final parting from Orpheus, the celebrated Thracian singer. Orpheus so mourned the premature death of his bride Eurydice that he sought her return by descending to the Underworld, where he charmed the gods with his music to grant him an exceptional favor: he could return with Eurydice to the land of the living provided that he did not look back at her during their long ascent. When he reached daylight near the boundary of the Underworld, Orpheus turned and lifted his bride’s veil to look at her face, seeing her and losing her at the same moment.
The Orpheus Relief is the earliest extant representation of this well-known myth. Six marble replicas from the Roman period survive, including three largely complete examples in Naples (pictured), Rome (Villa Albani), and Paris (Louvre). All appear to reproduce a lost masterpiece of Greek relief sculpture of the late fifth century BC, rendered in the High Classical style of the sculptures of the Parthenon. The origins of the Orpheus Relief’s composition are unknown, but a public monument in Athens from this period appears likely. In the Roman period, precise marble reproductions of celebrated “antique” works of Greek art were produced for display in the private luxury villas of the Roman elite. In this context of otium (the cultivated life of leisure), such Greek-themed sculpture created an appropriate milieu of Hellenic refinement while evoking a broader sacro-idyllic landscape of enhanced cultural and religious meaning.
This fragmentary relief is the only replica of the Orpheus Relief known to preserve vestiges of its ancient painting, including the readily visible red pigment on Hermes’ chitoniskos. This little-known replica and its ancient coloration are the subject of a current interdisciplinary art historical study in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences of the University of Georgia in collaboration with the Georgia Museum of Art. This research may be tracked by following this blog!