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Exhibitions and Projects
1 February–28 February 2018

Revelations, February 2018

Moritz Michael Daffinger: The daughters of Cecrops discovering the infant Erichthonius, after 1808

The motif of how the daughters of Cecrops discovered the infant Erichthonius, in our case presented on a porcelain plate, is very rare in the visual arts. It relates to one of the earliest myths about the city of Athens. When the goddess Athena went to fetch limestone rocks from the Pallene in Achaea to use in fortifying the Acropolis of Athens, she gave a wicker box to the three daughters of Cecrops, the first king of Athens, to take care of it, but warned them never to open it. The scene depicted on the plate shows the moment when the sisters Aglaurus, Herse and Pandrosus, overcome by curiosity, open the box despite the ban. They find a sweet infant boy inside, Erichthonius, who, to their horror, has two snakes instead of legs. In some variants of the myth a snake is coiled around his body that Athena has laid by the boy for protection.

The story was told by several ancient authors; the scene on this plate follows the account in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2.562‒565) which says that two sisters obeyed Athena’s order, but the third one opened the basket nevertheless. The news was brought to Athena by a crow which is perched on a branch of a tree in the present scene. Unlike other authors, Ovid does not report on the punishment of Cecrops’ daughters for their curiosity and disobedience; elsewhere it is said that, being terrified at the view of the infant, they went insane, threw themselves off the Acropolis and were killed. The snake fled from the basket and found shelter on the aegis of Athena.

The Greek scholar Apollodorus (c. 180 BC‒120 BC) tells the story of Athena visiting the smith-god Hephaestus to see how the making of her armour was going on. Hephaestus, lonely and deserted by Aphrodite, was overcome by desire and tried to rape her, but she managed to fight him off. His semen thus fell on the ground, or on Athena’s thigh from where, in disgust, she wiped it away by a scrap of wool and flung it to the earth. The Earth – Gaia then gave birth to Erichthonius, and Athena took care of the baby in secret, without the knowledge of other gods. She laid the boy in a wicker basket and handed it to one of Cecrops’ daughters. Apollodorus continues the story in the same way as it is described above and adds that after the death of the girls Athena took Erichthonius to her temple where he grew up. Later on, he took over the rule in Athens, made the sacred image of Athena, erected a temple to the goddess on the Acropolis, and founded the Panathenaia in her honour. Hyginus (Poetical Astronomy 2.13) and Virgil (Georgics, 3.13) add that Erichthonius invented the quadriga on which he competed at games. Zeus was greatly fascinated by his inventiveness of being the first human to harness horses to the four-in-hand, in which only the sun god Helios had succeeded before. Hence, after Erichthonius’ death Zeus turned him into the constellation of the Charioteer (Lat. Auriga).

Erichthonius was often identified with the mythical king of Athens Erechteus who was likewise believed to have been born from the earth and brought up by Athena. According to Homer, Athena housed him in the temple of Erechtheion which can still be admired on the Acropolis of Athens. There were tombs of mythical kings Cecrops and Erechtheus (Erechthonius) in the temple, the sacred olive tree used to grow by its side, Athena’s gift to the Athenians which she summoned from the earth when she competed against Poseidon for patronage of the Attica region. Athena was the winner, since Poseidon’s gift was a fresh spring he called from the ground, but whose water was salty and therefore useless for the inhabitants. The spring of water, also called the Sea of Erechtheus, is shown on the plate in the background, in the shade of trees.

The author of the plate, the Austrian miniature painter Moritz Michael Daffinger, transferred a now lost drawing by Franc Kavčič/Caucig (1755–1828) on it. In 1808, Kavčič became Head and Supervisor of the Painting Department of the Viennese porcelain factory which was the second oldest in Europe, preceded only by the Porcelain Manufactory of Meissen. Moritz Michael was the son of porcelain painter Johann Leopold Daffinger, and at the age of eleven he was accepted as an apprentice in the porcelain manufacture. He later studied at the Vienna Fine Arts Academy where in 1820 Kavčič was appointed Director of the Painting and Sculpture School. The scene on the plate demonstrates typical characteristics of Kavčič’s idiom; besides, Daffinger translated paintings by numerous other famous artists on porcelain, among them also Peter Paul Rubens and Angelika Kauffmann, for example.

Alenka Simončič

Translated by
Alenka Klemenc

1 February–28 February 2018
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana