The Death of Hippolytus or Fall of Phaeton

The Death of Hippolytus or Fall of Phaeton

16th century


(Italian, 1467-1528)


Diameter: 10.2 cm (4 in.)

Lawrence Hitchcock Fund 1969.17



This composition's drama comes from the horses' twisting bodies--rhythmically fitting in the circular frame--as well as their dynamic and individuated expressions. Many copies and variants of this popular design exist, some with architectural or wooded backgrounds. Yet, the subject matter is still being debated. The waves along the bottom edge recall two possible classical narratives that relate to bodies of water. First, Hippolytus, sent into exile for the false accusation that he was responsible for his stepmother's death, was killed when Poseidon sent monsters to drown the young man and his chariot in the sea. However, the plaquette has also been connected to Phaeton, the son of Apollo, who attempted to drive the sun god's chariot. Because Phaeton was unable to control the reins, Zeus struck the youth with a bolt of lightning-saving the earth, but hurtling the young boy and horses into the river Eridanos.

--Hannah Segrave (July 2013)

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