Analysis of Theseus, Slayer of the Minotaur,

A secondary arrow, formed by the extended arm of the older man and the right arm of the woman next to him, points toward the face of the man at the front of the group of onlookers. To my mind, he is the most interesting figure in the painting and the most important one for interpreting the painting in a manner that goes beyond mere formal analysis.

How is our appreciation or understanding of the painting enhanced by concentrating on the older man? What does he do for us that Theseus does not?

We can partially answer the latter question by taking a closer look at Theseus.

He's totally zonked. He is dazed by what he has just done and cannot comprehend the enormity and the importance of his achievement. That is no surprise. He is a young man--the age of a college freshman--and he has just performed a dangerous and an heroic feat.

Let's take Theseus' dazed expression as a point of departure for a consideration of the levels of awareness of the figures within the painting. Let's connect everyone up to a consciousness meter and take some readings. The Minotaur registers zero: dead; no consciousness at all. Then come the Athenian children, happy not to be lunch, but capable only of a child's grasp of the situation. They knew that they have been delivered from something bad, but they cannot grasp the enormity of the event. The implications of the situation and the achievement of Theseus elude them. They register low on the consciousness meter. Theseus, himself, doesn't register much higher at the moment, but we can assume that his dazed state is temporary and caused in part by his awareness of how badly it might have turned out. Nonetheless, if you were a reporter at the scene you would not get the most coherent account by interviewing him.

Now we come to the older man, to the woman behind him, and to the other women in the group. The man and the woman behind him understand everything.

Compare their faces to Theseus.


The alert expressions, focused gazes, and expressive faces of the man and the woman allow us to identify with them and see the event through their eyes. Especially the older man, whose face is emphasized by the painter, is the one who could provide a full and a coherent account of the story. It is he who provides a formal as well as an analytical link between the onlookers group and the Minotaur. His gesture leads our eye downward to the dead Minotaur. His glance reinforces his gesture (or vice versa) and at an intellectual level--not just a compositional one--clearly links the observers and their comprehension of the event to the dead monster at the lower left.

The detailed treatment of the faces of the man and the woman suggest a portrait quality while all of the other figures are more generic representations of types, such as young hero, child, adult. Such specificity draws us to them and encourages us to identify with them.

The physical connections among the observers have been carefully expressed. The gesture of the woman in green links the whole group of women to the man while his left hand resting on the shoulder of the young boy links him to the child and by extension unites the boy to the group as a whole. These linkages and the compact grouping of the figures allow them to be read as a unit, an arch-shaped unit, whose role in the structure of the painting we have already discussed. At the same time, the gesture, gaze, and expression of the man reveal that he is far more than just a compositional device.

In spite of the care with which the man had been rendered, he is not essential for our basic reading of the scene or for our identification of the myth. This can be seen by looking at representations of this myth on two Greek vases that have been made available digitally by the Perseus Project. Here are the links:

Greek representations of the scene do not include our group of onlookers. The onlookers are the addition of the Pompeian painter who creatively added them, transforming the internal dynamics of the traditional depiction of the myth. The Pompeian painter is not a mere depictor of the myth, but a commentator on it. Through the vehicle of the older man the painter invites the viewer to go beyond a simple identification of the myth to consider the implications of what has happened. Via the older man the viewer is drawn into the painting.

The introduction of what I call an internal commentator appears to be a Roman creation that alters and adapts the Greek myth to a Roman, or Pompeian, setting. The result is a new work of art. Our painting is not a copy of a Greek work. It is unlike the Greek vase paintings in medium, composition, color, scale, viewer address, and ultimately in meaning for it explores not events, but states of consciousness; not deeds performed, but reflections on those deeds.

I avoid the term narrator because the older man does not tell the story to us. Whereas a narrator might stand to the side and gesture into the frame, revealing the action to us, the older man participates in it. Indeed, his presence so transforms the story that we might argue that the painting is about his reflections on events. In this transformed Roman painting, the Theseus myth, in truth, has become the vehicle by which the painter can explore states of consciousness.

The issues raised are important for they address the nature of creativity, and the way in which an artist looks to art to make art, and in the process produces something new from the raw material of earlier artistic production.

Who are these onlookers? Could the man and the woman in green be the patrons who commissioned the painting? Are the young woman behind the man and the child in front of him his children? These are possibilities, but the details of patronage and the evidence for including patron portraits in paintings are not ample enough to allow a definitive answer.

It is clear, however, that the group of onlookers is Roman and not Greek and constitute a Roman presence in the painting. For example, they are not Minos, his wife Pasiphae, and his daughter Ariadne added by the Pompeian painter to fill out the scene. The tunic and toga worn by the man and the boy indicate that they are definitively and selfconsciously Roman. The portrait quality of the man, the younger woman, and to a lesser extent the woman in green suggest that these figures, along with the boy, might represent the patrons who have been creatively incorporated into the painting. But here our evidence breaks down. This interpretation remains a tantalizing possibility.

What should we see through the older man's eyes? In addition to the full impact of the present scene we might think about the events that produced the Minotaur in the first place. A painting in the House of the Vettii takes up that very theme. Looking beyond our painting we see its sequel as Theseus sails from Crete, taking Ariadne back to Athens to be his bride, only to abandon her on the island of Naxos. In the same room in the House of the Vettii we find Ariadne abandoned on Naxos, a sure indication that the Pompeian painters themselves were attracted to the dramatic moments in the Minotaur/Theseus/Ariadne myths. We might not be far off course to conclude that our painting invited its viewers to speculate in this manner.

Go back to the beginning of the exercise.


Copyright 1998 by John J. Dobbins, all rights reserved
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Last Modified: Tuesday, 30-March-98 12:00:00 EDT