The ancient Greeks pioneered decorating vases
in such a way that the composition of the design
reflected the architectonic shape of the vessel.
This aesthetic concern is seen to best advantage
in this cup in which the black glaze emphasizes
the bottom and top of the vessel and frames the
continuous band of figural decoration which
unfolds around the body of the vessel. That
figural band is treated as if it were a Greek Ionic
frieze which continually wraps itself around the
vessel in an uninterrupted manner. The principal
subject is Dionysos, god of wine and the revel,
who is depicted as a bearded figure, luxuriously
draped in a himation, with his long hair
decorated with a wreath of ivy leaves. In his
outstretched left hand he holds a rhyton, a
deluxe cup for drinking wine. To the left and
right are figures of Maenads who frame Dionysos
by moving in opposite directions. They turn their
heads back and cast their glance at the god.
Each Maenad wears a long chiton and has her
arranged in a sakkos, a kind of Greek snood.
Maenads, as the female companions of Dionysos,
personified release from earthly cares brought
about by wine. They were often depicted, as
here, dancing in ecstasy. To that end the Maenad
to the right is playing krotala, an ancient form of
This trio of figures is balanced by a second group
of three figures, all satyrs. Satyrs are composite
beasts who, as here, were often depicted nude
with full beards, tails, horse-legs for feet, and
pointed, animal ears. In Greek art, satyrs are
often depicted as companions of Dionysos, and
symbolize passion, not reason. The first of the
satyrs moves to the left, holding another wine-
drinking vessel, in his outstretched right hand.
He turns his head back and gestures to one of
the Maenads with his extended left hand. His two
companions, moving to the right, dance
energetically with feet and arms raised in the air.
Such a vessel was doubtless used at symposia,
or drinking parties. The complete lack of handles
doubtless made it easier for its owner to hold
this cup at random and easily direct it to his
mouth by means of the subtle stripe of red
around the vessel’s lip.
Participants at such symposia not only drank to
excess but also engaged in sexual activities with
hatairai, versatile and often highly-educated
women. The shape of this wine-drinking cup
alludes to such trysts. Its shape is derived from
earlier cups created by Corinthian potters which
imitated the shape of a woman’s breast. And it is
for that reason that the Greeks called such a cup
Provenance Oscar Blum Gentilomo (1903-1975).