top of the pots
Previous Choices on Top of the Pots
Harvard 1959.193 - a red-figure lekythos from Gela in Sicily, dating from around 470 BC and said to be in a style near that of the well-known painter Douris.
A full description, bibliography, and explanation of technical terms is available.
The discussion below is entirely mine!
At first glance this seems a very dull and ordinary vase - hardly worth a second look. But if, like me, you are obsessed with the notion of concocting an explanation for any vase painting, here is rich material for flights of fancy!
The vase is a lekythos - that is a container for oil. Presumably this wasn't for culinary oil (too small) - and would therefore have been a container for probably perfumed oil, which would have been used for "anointing". But anointing what and when? One explanation is that the lady is about to make an offering at a tomb, which will include oil and maybe ribbons from the box beside her - she is herself holding an oil-bottle in her hand. The scene would be one illustrating dull, boring 'everyday life'. But why should a painter, especially one perhaps associated with the workshop of Douris (famous for his sexy symposium scenes, and Satyrs disporting themselves - as in London E 768, the psykter in the British Museum) choose something so mundane?
Let us suppose that the woman is looking at someone 'offstage'. The artist has apparently tried to show her turning round (at any rate her feet are facing in the opposite direction!). Has she been sent to fetch something? And if so, presumably it is the alabastron which she is extending to her 'visitor'. The presence of an alabastron in a painting (as convincingly argued by Eva Keuls in The Reign of the Phallus) is an indicator of the female's function as sex-object (just as the equally prevalent kalathos [wool-basket] indicates her other function). Is she then a shy, or perhaps reluctant young bride, or, more interestingly, a tease - anticipating Kallonike in the Lysistrata?
The consumers of Athenian vases were - especially in the Archaic period - predominantly men. Men were unlikely to be interested in genre scenes from women's everyday life. This was something in which they had little if any interest. Far more probably this lekythos shows a scene of subtle and ambiguous sexual innuendo. Is she a wife or a hetaira? Who is the man offstage? What's in the box? Is she randy or reluctant? Will she or won't she?
For further exploration of this theme, I would strongly recommend Eva Keuls : especially chapter 9 (The Sex Appeal of Female Toil). Compare also Berlin 2289 by Douris, which shows a most attractive young lady in theory rolling out a skein of wool (roving), but in fact providing a tantalising glimpse of the hidden world of the womens' quarters, as well as an equally exciting glimpse of leg and upper thigh as she rests her leg on a small stool. Significantly, this is on a drinking cup for exclusive male use. For the boxes and containers as symbolic of a woman's privacy - see the essay in Pandora, the catalogue for the current exhibition of painting and sculpture illustrating the woman's world in ancient Greece.
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