Terracotta plaque

Period: Classical

Date: ca. 450 B.C.

Culture: Greek, Melian

Medium: Terracotta

Dimensions: Overall: 7 3/4 x 7 5/16 in. (19.7 x 18.6 cm)

Classification: Terracottas

Credit Line: Fletcher Fund, 1925

Accession Number: 25.78.26


This delicate terracotta plaque depicts a scene from the Odyssey that relates to Odysseus' return to his native Ithaca after twenty years of hardship and adventure. In keeping with the ancient Greek custom of offering hospitality to strangers, Penelope invites Odysseus, whom she does not recognize, into her home. Penelope stands to the right between the columns of the palace, and Telemachos stands beside her. Odysseus is seated at left; he stretches out his foot for a kneeling servant to wash in a basin on the floor. The servant is Eurykleia, the nurse who cared for him as a baby. One of the dramatic events in the account of Odysseus' return is the gradual revelation of his identity. When the old nurse sees the scar on his foot, she recognizes Odysseus and drops his foot in surprise. Eventually, Penelope recognizes Odysseus and the couple embrace as they had longed to do during the twenty years of his absence.
Melian reliefs are a class of terracotta sculpture generally datable to the second and third quarter of the fifth century B.C. They are named after the island of Melos, where several examples were found and where they are believed to have been made. The reliefs depict a considerable range of subjects, mostly narrative. Details would have been picked out in paint, which no longer survives. Most likely, the reliefs embellished small chests or caskets, since many have small holes for attachment.