A Remarkable Fresco Depicting a Scene From Greek Mythology Has Been Found in Pompeii

The vibrant painting portrays siblings Phrixus and Helle as they flee from their stepmother

Phrixus and Helle Fresco
An ancient fresco depicting Helle reaching for her twin brother, Phrixus, after falling from a golden ram Pompeii Archaeological Park

Researchers in Pompeii have discovered a 2,000-year-old fresco depicting Phrixus and Helle, twin siblings from Greek mythology.

The vibrant, well-preserved work was unearthed at the House of Leda, an ancient mansion that archaeologists have been excavating since 2018.

“It is a beautiful fresco in an excellent state of conservation,” says Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of Pompeii Archaeological Park, per the Guardian’s Lorenzo Tondo.

As the story goes, a flying ram with a golden fleece saves Helle and Phrixus from their stepmother, who is plotting to have them killed. While Phrixus escapes, Helle falls off the ram while flying over the sea and drowns. The fresco portrays this moment: Helle is submerged in the water, reaching up toward her brother.

“The myth of Phrixus and Helle is widespread at Pompeii, but it is topical too,” adds Zuchtriegel. “They are two refugees at sea, a brother and sister, forced to flee because their stepmother wants rid of them, and she does so with deception and corruption.”

The work is painted “as if it were a framed picture, hung on a yellow wall,” reports Agence France-Presse.

Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 C.E. destroyed the ancient city and killed some 2,000 of its residents, though the total death toll was likely much higher. The disaster also coated Pompeii in a thick layer of ash and pumice, preserving it for thousands of years.

Archaeologists conducted preliminary excavations at the House of Leda in the 18th century, and work at the site resumed only in 2018. The house is named after a fresco in one of its rooms depicting a scene from the mythological story of Leda and the Swan

“This is one of the most critical areas of Pompeii,” said Massimo Osanna, the former director of Pompeii Archaeological Park, in a 2018 video, per a translation from the New York Times’ Elisabetta Povoledo.

The northern section of the House of Leda has six rooms; the southern section, where researchers found the Phrixus and Helle fresco, is still being excavated. Archaeologists are hoping to “clarify the full floorplan” of the structure, according to the History Blog. They are also cleaning the frescoes they discover, “liberating the vibrant pigment from volcanic residues and deposits and consolidating the surfaces to prevent deterioration now that they’ve been exposed.”

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pompeii is Italy’s second most frequented tourist destination, surpassed only by the Colosseum in Rome. According to the Guardian, Zuchtriegel hopes sites connected to the House of Leda will eventually open to the public.

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