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HOME : Classical Antiquities : Miscellaneous : Attic Terracotta Black-Figure Lekythos
Attic Terracotta Black-Figure Lekythos - X.0293
Origin: Mediterranean
Circa: 6 th Century BC
Dimensions: 6.5" (16.5cm) high
Collection: Classical
Medium: Terracotta

Location: United States
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Before the modern advents of trains and automobiles, trade between civilizations concentrated around the Mediterranean moved foremost by sea. While many bulk commodities such as timber and stone could be loaded directly aboard a ship with little preparation, other commodities such as spices, wine, and grain needed to be packed in individual containers for transport both at sea and on land and to prolong their lifespan. Pottery was first created in order to fulfill these practical needs. Over time, the art form evolved from large, unadorned commercial transport vessels to refined, specialized works in elegant shapes used to hold precious substances such as perfume or oils.

An entire retinue of terracotta vessels dedicated to the rites of the dinner table began to appear. These pieces were based on the luxurious bronze and silver vessels that could only be afforded by the wealthy elite and were decorated with fanciful natural motifs and painted scenes of everyday life and celebrated myths. These wares were of such beauty that they themselves became prized commodities and were traded throughout the Mediterranean world; perhaps even for the very substances they were created to contain. These works are individually classified by their shapes and their form was inherently linked to their function, be it preparation, dispensation, or consumption.

Before the 6th Century B.C., the island of Corinth, with their distinctive black-figure wares that first appeared in the 7th Century, dominated the lucrative pottery export trade. However, by around 525 B.C., the city of Athens, with their varied styles of vessel shapes and painted scenes, had wrested control from the Corinthians and established a firm monopoly in luxury wares. Pottery production in Athens was concentrated in the northwestern area known as the Kerameikos. Here, artists created everything from roof tiles and architectural decorations, to votive figurines and fine vessels (as well as commercial coarse-ware). The majority of the pots were thrown on a manually driven potter’s wheel and fired in a wood-burning kiln where the artist could determine the color of the vessel by controlling the oxygen flow within. While many potters threw and painted their own works, certain potters excelled in producing specific shapes, and other artists specialized in painting. At first, the Attic painters emulated the black- figure style employed by the Corinthians. In black-figure technique, the vase surface was covered with a diluted wash of clay. A thicker solution of iron-rich clay formed the "glaze" used to paint on figures in solid silhouette. Intricate details were then incised onto the figures. Finally, painted red and white highlights were added before firing.

Lekythoi had both a functional and a ritual context for the ancient Greeks. Within daily life, they were used as flasks to hold precious ointments such as fragrant perfumes and sumptuous oils. They also used in funerary rites, specifically the white-ground varieties. These lekythoi, often decorated with scenes of mourning, would have been left on the grave as offerings or used to pour libations over the deceased. This gorgeous black-figure lekythos, however, was likely meant for the living and not for the dead. A painted scene depicting two warriors in the midst of a duel decorates the body. Armed with lances, they also each carry a shield and wear a crested helmet. They duelers are flanked by two youths clad in mantles surveying the competition. Each of these youths also holds a lance. - (X.0293)


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