As the first of his twelve Labors, the Greek hero Herakles had to slay the Nemean Lion, a monstrous beast with an impenetrable hide that was ravaging the countryside around the city of Nemea. Since weapons were of no use against the creature, Herakles' only option was to strangle it. Herakles battling the Nemean Lion was the most frequently depicted mythological scene in Greek art. In early depictions, Herakles stands facing the lion, but by the late 500s B.C., the combatants were depicted down on the ground, stretched out in opposite directions.
On this Athenian red-figure kalpis, a tree bends over Herakles and the lion, a rare example of landscape elements in Greek art. Throughout the Archaic period and into the early Classical, vase-painters focused so completely on the figures in their narrative scenes that they excluded almost all background elements. Scenes played out in a sort of visual vacuum without any setting at all. On this vase, for example, the tree serves only as a marker to indicate that the action takes place outdoors.
The kalpis is the rounded form of a hydria, or water vessel, favored by red-figure artists in this period. The three handles of the shape facilitated pouring and lifting.