1. Apulian krater from Altamura, South Italy, circa 350 BC, attributed to the Circle of the Lycurgus Painter, circa 360–340 BC, terracotta. H. 114.3cm.

Entering the Underworld

What did Ancient Greeks believe happened to them when they died? Was there life after death? For most, the Underworld was a bleak, sombre place where none of life's pleasures could be enjoyed. This led some to seek a way to secure a more agreeable afterlife. Plato (circa 428–347 BC) wryly commented that individuals 'dismiss the stories told about what goes on in Hades' until they face death themselves.

Now, we can examine these stories at Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife, an exhibition on show at the Getty Villa, which examines some of the competing ideas and beliefs, as well as different strategies for ensuring everlasting bliss.

The exhibition explores different depictions of the Underworld in the art of ancient Greece and southern Italy. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a red figure krater (monumental funerary vessel) from Altamura – on loan from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

'Some of the richest evidence for ancient beliefs about the afterlife comes from southern Italy in the 4th century BC, and the magnificent Altamura krater exemplifies the monumental, elaborately decorated vases that were produced at that time,' says Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts.

'This important exhibition is the culmination of a two-year conservation project with the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples (MANN) to conserve and display this krater. Our continued partnership with MANN has resulted in several successful collaborative projects including three of their splendid bronze treasures, the Ephebe (Youth) in 2009, the Apollo Saettante in 2011, and the over-life-size sculpture of Tiberius in 2013.'

2. Greek sculptural group of a seated poet and two Sirens, 350–300 BC, terracotta, with white slip and polychromy.

Dating from around the middle of the 4th century BC, the krater was found in fragments in Altamura in the region of Apulia, south-east Italy, in 1847. The ancient inhabitants of that region buried their dead with pottery and other grave goods, and large vessels were produced for graves of the local elite. Although not Greek by blood, Apulians engaged closely with the culture of Greece, and many of their funerary vases are decorated with scenes taken from its myths. On the krater from Altamura the Underworld is shown populated by more than 20 mythological figures, including Hades and Persephone, the god and goddess of the Underworld, the musician Orpheus, the hero Herakles, the messenger-god Hermes, and Sisyphus, whose eternal punishment was having to roll a giant boulder up a hill. 

After its discovery in 1847, the krater was overpainted when it was reassembled in the workshop of the Neapolitan restorer Raffaele Gargiulo (1785–after 1870) in the early 1850s. By 2016, lots of the old repairs needed treatment. In collaboration with colleagues in Naples, Getty conservators have worked for two years to ensure the vase's structural soundness and future stability. They were also able to identify areas re-created in the 19th century, and the results are shown in the exhibition.

The Underworld (known as 'the House of Hades' or simply as 'Hades') is a rare subject in Greek art. Athenian 6th-century BC vase-painters usually focused on cursed, unfortunate individuals, like Sisyphus; it is only in South Italian vase-painting, from around 350 BC, that a tradition of richly populated Underworld scenes developed.
About 40 Apulian funerary vessels, in mostly European collections, bear detailed representations of the afterlife and the mythological figures associated with it.

3. A Lamella Orphica, Greek, second half of 4th century BC, gold. H. 2.2cm. W. 3.7cm.

'Around 35 other ancient works have been chosen to highlight the famous inhabitants of Hades and to explore the ways in which individuals sought to achieve a happier afterlife,' said David Saunders, curator of the exhibition and associate curator of Antiquities at the J Paul Getty Museum. 'Monumental funerary vessels, such as the krater from Altamura, are painted with elaborate depictions of Hades' realm, and rare gold plaques that were buried with the dead bear directions for where to go in the Underworld. These works, alongside funerary offerings, grave monuments, and representations of everlasting banquets, convey some of the ways in which the hereafter was imagined in the 5th and 4th centuries BC.'

Most ancient Greeks believed that the soul left the body at death and continued to exist in some form, but this did not mean that goodness would be rewarded and evil punished in the afterlife. Perpetual torment awaited only the most exceptional sinners, while a select few – heroes related to the Olympian gods – enjoyed eternal paradise. Yet, as this exhibition explores, individuals did seek ways to improve their lot. Initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual festival in Greece based on the story of Persephone, ensured a good harvest and also a blessed afterlife for participants.

Outside mainstream religious practice, devotion to the mythical poet-singer Orpheus and the god Dionysos also offered paths to a better existence after death. Their rites were shrouded in secrecy and remain little understood today. One of the richest sources of information about them is found on the Lamellae Orphicae, or 'Orphic tablets', Greek inscriptions written on thin sheets of gold, named by modern scholars after Orpheus, whose descent and return from the Underworld made him one of the few who could impart knowledge of the afterlife. Deposited in graves, the 'Orphic tablets' usually bear a short text proclaiming the deceased's distinguished status and providing guidance for his or her journey into the Underworld. Three examples are on view in this exhibition, including one from the Getty's collection.

• Underworld: Imagining the Afterlife is on show at the Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, CA (www.getty.edu) until 18 March 2019.

Lindsay Fulcher