Wine and Furies: Bringing Directed Studies to the art gallery

Students examining an ancient bell krater.
Students examine the scene of Orestes pursued by the Furies. (Photos by Jessica Smolinski)

On a rainy fall afternoon, nearly a dozen first-year undergraduates gathered in the Isabel B. and Wallace S. Wilson Gallery of Ancient Art in the Yale University Art Gallery, unfolding stools in front of a table cushioned by a thickly padded blue blanket. On top rested a 4th-century BCE terracotta bell krater, a large, pedestaled black urn adorned with intricately rendered red figures.

Behind the krater stood Susan Matheson, the gallery’s Molly and Walter Bareiss Curator of Ancient Art and an expert on vase painters in the ancient world. As she has done each year since 1994, when the museum acquired the krater, Matheson was here to introduce the vessel — what she has called “the most important South Italian vase in the Yale collection”— to the students, all of whom are enrolled in the Directed Studies program, an intensive program for first-year students in foundational Western and Near Eastern philosophy, historical and political thought, and literature.

Welcome back to in-person Directed Studies,” Matheson began, noting that last year’s gallery talks had to be held virtually. “We had some really wonderful technological experiences, but it’s just not the same.”

Undergraduates in Directed Studies haven’t just registered for a demanding set of courses: they’ve assumed a lifestyle. Hundreds of pages of reading. Weekly lectures in each subject, as well as small discussion sessions. An essay a week. Film screenings. Colloquia. Beinecke Library study sessions. Gallery talks. Engagement with even more texts outside the program’s curricular focus, through the student-run initiative, “ReDirected Studies.” (Even, rumor has it, a toga party.)

Fittingly, on this day they were here to study what might be called a lifestyle object: a little bit highbrow (in its artistic form), a little bit lowbrow (in its use as a vessel for serving wine during symposia, or Greek social gatherings).

The wine would be diluted with water, as much or as little as the host chose, depending on what kind of a party it was going to be,” Matheson said, turning the vase to show the toga-clad symposium guests on one side. Surveying the students, she added, “The stools are good because you are the same level as the reclining diner would have been.”

An artist known as the Hoppin Painter created this krater around 375 BCE, in Apulia, after a plague had driven vase painters from Greece to Southern Italy, Matheson explained. The painter used a wash or slip to mimic the distinctive red and black hues that characterize Athenian pottery, a result of the local clay’s high iron content.

The vase depicts a scene from the Oresteia, the three plays written by Aeschylus that tell the story of the House of Atreus, including Orestes, who avenged the murder of his father, Agamemnon, by killing his mother, Clytemnestra. The krater depicts two Furies advancing upon a distressed Orestes. “I thought there were three Furies?” a student asked. “Sometimes,” Matheson told her. “Vase painters had artistic license – they could add or subtract Furies at will.”

An ancient bell krater depicting the character Orestes’ assault by Furies.
Curator Susan Matheson presents the 4th-century bell krater, which she calls “the most important South Italian vase in the Yale collection.”

The students pondered how this visual scene related to the plays and concluded that it wasn’t a direct representation, but a moment between the close of “The Libation Bearers,” with Orestes fleeing the murder scene, and the opening of “The Eumenides,” when the Furies, tamed by Apollo, sleep in the temple of Delphi.

What’s distinctive about the figure of Orestes?” Matheson asked the group, urging them to lean in closer to the krater. “What’s the relationship here to the passion that Greek red-figure vase painters had for bodies twisting in space?”

The students looked intently at the object but seemed hesitant to venture a guess. Matheson noted that the krater had been photographed in high-resolution for last year’s Zoom sessions, and two iPads were produced to allow the students to scrutinize the figures even more closely: Orestes’ transparent tunic swirling around him as he skidded to a stop in the Delphic temple, the nearly invisible snake twisting around one Fury’s arm, ready to strike.

Look at his face,” Matheson said, pointing to Orestes. “Is he happy? Is he at peace with his world?” The students all agreed that he was not. “What would be the reason for that?” prodded Matheson. “He’s tortured by his guilt,” one student volunteered. “Yes, exactly,” Matheson. “So can we bring out some Furies here?”

Matheson eagerly pointed out the new details the photography had revealed, including a spear in the hand of one Fury, and a snakeskin belt encircling the waist of the other. “It was absolutely so exciting when we found these,” she said. “It’s hard to thank a pandemic, but this is new information for the scholarly world.”

The students turned from the screen back to the physicality of the vase, a rare opportunity to view it not behind glass but as a practical, living object, to connect with the hands that had shaped its form and used it, the scrape marks from the wine ladle still visible in its well.

Matheson pressed the students to think about those real people.

What is the possible reason for putting this in someone’s symposium?” she asked. “You can be creative, there’s no right answer.”

The Directed Studies program often considers the way in which texts exist in conversation with each other. So it was apt that Anne Gross ’25 answered by way of reference to another work the class had studied. “It makes me think of a line in the Bacchae, that wine is the eraser of all suffering,” she said. She imagined the partygoers observing Orestes’s anguish, “and then taking the wine, which encourages us to forget our own furies and our own suffering.”

The gallery is about to close, but you can take a last look,” Matheson told the group. The students pressed close. Not even the sound of sirens and traffic filtering in from the street could interrupt the communion across 25 centuries.

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,