Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.60

Erika Kunze-Götte, Attisch weissgrundige Lekythen. Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum Deutsch-land, Bd. 87; München, Antikensammlungen ehemals Museum Antiker Kleinkunst, Bd. 15.   München:  Verlag C. H. Beck, 2010.  Pp. 156; 23 p. of figs., 85 p. of plates.  ISBN 9783406601705.  €98.00.  



Reviewed by Mary B. Moore, Hunter College, CUNY (mbmoore@mindspring.com)

White-ground lekythoi are products of the classical period and flourished from about 470 B.C. until the end of the century, and they were traditional grave offerings in Attica, especially at Athens, in Eretria, and occasionally at a few other sites. Several well-known Attic painters specialized in white-ground lekythoi, among them the Achilles Painter and his pupil, the Phiale Painter, artists active in the third quarter of the fifth century; also some of their contemporaries and successors, such as Sabouroff Painter, the Thanatos Painter, the Woman Painter and the Reed Painter, as well as others, some of whom are represented in the Munich collection. Although fairly small compared with the big amphorae and kraters, white-ground lekythoi more than make up for their lesser size by the sheer poignancy of the images painted on them. Unlike their red-figured counterparts, white-ground lekythoi do not depict scenes from myth which often focus on the tragedies of war, the lives of the gods or the deeds of heroes; on red-figure lekythoi figures are lively with strong gestures and rapid movement. By contrast, the scenes on white-ground lekythoi are funerary, usually people grieving at a stele. These are touching pictures that communicate deep feelings about the loss of loved ones experienced by those they left behind and the images provide our most important visual evidence for how the Greeks viewed death and the afterlife. Subtle gestures, quiet postures, and downward glances express emotions of grief, mourning, and sorrow. Action is greatly restrained and the figures are more expressive simply by being motionless.

White-ground lekythoi occupy a very special place in the collection of vases in the Munich Antikensammlungen and this new CVA publishes all of them for the first time. In her Foreword (pp. 7-11), Kunze-Götte provides an interesting history of the white-ground lekythoi in Munich. The first one came from Athens in 1834. This famous lekythos, attributed to the Thanatos Painter by Ernst Buschor, shows Hermes Psychopompos leading a woman to Charon who will ferry her across the Styx to the Underworld (2777: pp. 71-73, pls. 40, 1-3; 41). The greater number of lekythoi entered the collection between 1897 and 1914, many of them from Athenian collections. Buschor took a lively interest in white-ground lekythoi beginning in 1925 with his seminal article, “Attische Lekythen der Parthenonzeit,” MüJb. N.F. 2, 1925, pp. 167-198, and in 1930 he made a major purchase of lekythoi in the Athens Art Market, many of them by the Tymbos Painter or artists in his workshop. In 1964, ten outstanding lekythoi were given to the museum by the diplomat and collector Baron Hans von Schoen. Others came as singletons. Buschor planned a CVA fascicule of the Munich white-ground lekythoi, but there were many delays and his untimely death in 1961 ended the project until recently.

White-ground lekythoi are particularly fragile vases and often the drawing has faded causing the figures to be difficult to observe today and some have even disappeared entirely. Buschor recognized this problem and in the early 1950s engaged the services of Kimon Grundmann who made 20 drawings that help to clarify otherwise pale images, and Stefanie Czogalla produced 24 additional drawings for Kunze-Götte. These appear throughout the text and greatly improve our understanding of these remarkable vases. Jürgen Schilbach was responsible for the profile drawings (Beilagen 1-20). Renate Kühling took the splendid state-of-the-art digital color images of every extant vase which account for the enormous subtlety and nuance in the illustrations not possible in earlier photographic techniques and this change is most welcome. Only lately has a fascicule illustrated one or two vases in color (e.g., CVA, Munich 13, color plates 1-4); otherwise, the images were black and white photographs that sometimes varied greatly in quality. The new Munich fascicule breaks completely with this tradition and the reviewer hopes color illustrations will become the norm for future fascicules. It is a great strength of this one.

In her catalogue, Kunze-Götte uses Beazley’s attribution system for painters, groups and classes, as well as his terminology for lekythoi: ‘secondary’ and ‘standard’. She presents the former first because it is the earlier of the two. Each entry follows the same format. First comes the basic information: accession number; provenance (if known) and measurements. The reviewer was pleased to see that the author included the Beazley attributions on a separate line at the beginning of the bibliography and did not incorporate them chronologically into the references which makes them difficult to find if there are many citations. Thus, the reader learns at once if Beazley knew the vase. Next: the state of preservation; physical characteristics of the colors and drawing; shape; ornament; composition; attribution and date. The comparanda fall into three rubrics: painter or workshop; color and painting technique, if relevant; iconography. All are as full and as lucid as one could hope for and a pleasure to read. Not only is the presentation of each vase excellently organized, but also the reader easily finds sections of individual interest. In short, this is a superb CVA.

Several of the Munich lekythoi have been published many times and are very wellknown. In addition to the one by the Thanatos Painter, mentioned above, two stand out. The Achilles Painter depicted a Muse with her lyre sitting on Mt. Helikon and a woman standing on the ground before her, either the deceased or another Muse (SS 80: pp. 61-64; pls. 33-34). A nightingale accompanies them. The Phiale Painter chose a rocky landscape where Hermes Psychopompos awaits the deceased woman; his extended right hand indicates it is time to leave this world and she adjusts her crown, head lowered in sadness. Her tumulus and stele adorned with fillets stand in the background (6248: pp. 67-69; pls. 37, 1-2; 38).

Other lekythoi in the collection are less well-known, but taken together, they offer an excellent picture of the ways in which members of families saddened by the loss of a loved one expressed their grief. Most often mourners stand at the side of the stele, sometimes with the deceased ‘present’ as a kind of memory picture. These are just a few examples among many. An unnamed artist painted a woman, probably kneeling on the ground (the lower part of her body is lost), her face in three-quarter view, left hand to head and right arm extended, the pain of her loss obvious; a man leaning on a stick faces her (7708: pp. 56-57, pl. 29 and p. 57, fig. 19). On another lekythos, a youth extends a myrtle wreath to a woman holding a grave basket. He looks especially forlorn and sad (7706: pp. 105-106, pl. 61). Sometimes the departed is a youthful warrior, his armor indicating how he met his demise. In one composition by the Painter of Berlin 2459, visible mainly in the Grundmann drawing, a woman stands at the right of the tomb holding out a grave basket as she looks down at a mantled youth sitting on a rock clasping his spear (7688: pp. 112-114, pl. 67 and p. 113, fig. 44). Above his head is part of his round shield and the end of a scabbard. This and the next are striking examples of the numerous lekythoi produced during the time of the Peloponnesian War in which so many lost their lives. Figures on a lekythos by an unnamed painter continue around the vase which is unusual (SS 83 pp. 126-129, pls. 75, 1-2; 76-77 and p. 127, fig. 50). A youth armed with a spear and a sheathed sword sits on the steps of a stele that has a fluted, column-like shaft, topped by a floral. With right hand to chin, he looks up at bearded man who gazes down at him and a woman behind the man cradles the youth’s helmet, her sadness palpable. At the right, two women look on, the right one holding a grave basket that contains a pomegranate and perhaps cakes. An unusual feature is that the youth has down on his cheek (pl. 77, 3). Sometimes it is not possible to discern how a youth met his demise, e.g., the departing youth on a lekythos once of high quality; today he is best observed in the Grundmann drawing (7672: pp. 98-101, pl. 58, p. 100, fig. 38). The young man, who holds two spears and wears a broad-brimmed petasos and chlamys, reaches toward a woman at the other side of the stele.

The deaths of children are particularly tragic and remind us of how precious the life of a child is. On a lekythos perhaps by the Thanatos Painter, Charon, dressed in an exomis and a pilos, stands in his ferry boat gesturing to a child who runs across a rocky landscape pulling his go-cart, a favorite toy (6221: pp. 75-77; pl. 43 and p. 76, fig. 29). In an unforgettable scene by the Bird Painter, a small child crawls on the steps of a huge stele as his mother reaches toward him with open hands, a gesture of helplessness at the loss of her son (7619: pp. 79-81; pl. 45). This recalls similar examples from the late fifth century (pp. 80-81). On a lekythos by an artist near the Quadrate Painter, a young child grasps the shaft of a stele in the presence of two women. One holds an exaleiptron in the palm of her left hand; the other has her right hand pressed to her head and balances a grave basket with hanging taenia on her left hand and forearm (2779: pp. 88-90, pl. 53 and p. 89, fig. 33). On the steps of the stele lies a broken hydria, probably used to pour a libation (p. 90 with bibl.)

Sometimes the setting is a domestic one. The Achilles Painter depicted a woman holding a chest as she approaches one sitting on a klismos clasping a floral object (SS 79: pp. 59-61, pls. 31-32 and p. 60, fig. 20). Two oinochoai and a snood hanging on the wall indicate an interior location.

Scenes on other lekythoi in Munich are unusual and deserve mention. Both figures on one by the Woman Painter wear mourning garments: the youth in a large mantle, the woman in an ependytes over a long chiton (6027: pp. 106-108, pls. 62, 1-2; 63 and p. 107, fig. 42). The youth holds his forehead with his left hand, his right reaching toward the stele; the woman clasps her breast with her right hand and her left hand touches the back of her head. The mourned is not present. The same artist painted a woman with a grave basket standing at the right of the tomb looking sadly at a youth seated at the left, looking down (2783 (pp. 110-111, pl. 65). An eidolon hovers to right and left of the tomb. The Reed Painter drew two overlapping stelae, one smaller than the other, flanked by a youth and a woman (7668: pp. 120-121, pl. 71). An unattributed lekythos presents a most peculiar grave monument, clear only in the Grundmann drawing (8329: pp. 129-131, pl. 78 and p. 130, fig. 51). The monument consists of three stepped sections, one above the other: the lowest part has eight vertical elements capped by a narrow entablature; on top of this, below a slightly thicker entablature, is a large oval that has an arch-like opening with half palmettes in each spandrel; the topmost part recalls a naiskos, complete with architrave, geison and pediment. This is an imaginative combination discussed on p. 131. The Reed Painter showed a woman at the left of a stele facing a youth standing beside a horse, reminiscent of their counterparts on the West Frieze of the Parthenon (7620: pp. 123-124, pl. 73, 1-3, 5-6). On a lekythos by an artist near the Triglyph Painter, a bearded man leaning on a stick and dressed in a mantle holds out a bird towards a woman with a grave basket (2785: pp. 134-136, pl. 80 and p. 135, fig. 53). He recalls some of the elders on the East Frieze of the Parthenon.

The breadth and depth of the compositions depicted by a large number of artists on the Munich white-ground lekythoi make this CVA fascicule an important contribution to the series and to the study of Greek funerary practices. The author’s compassion for her subject and her attention to detail not only increases our sensitivity to a subject that will affect every one of us, but also it vividly reminds us how fleeting human life can be.

A few typographical errors:

p. 7: re: 6085: pl. 27, not pl. 26; 6048 should be 6248; 6054 should be 6254

p. 10: re: 7663: pl. 21, 7-8, not pl. 21, 9-10

p. 92: re: 530 B.C. should be 430 B.C.; also p. 106

p. 128, re: SS 83: the volume for AM is 99, not 91

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