BMCR 2006.06.37

Picturing Death in Classical Athens. The Evidence of the White Lekythoi

John Howard Oakley, Picturing death in classical Athens : the evidence of the white lekythoi. Cambridge studies in classical art and iconography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xxvi, 268 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 29 cm.. ISBN 0521820162 $90.00.

White-ground lekythoi form a uniquely coherent and uniquely gratifying class of archaeological material. They are produced within a generally restricted zone (Attica) and over a limited time period (the fifth century BC).1 Their funerary function is well documented archaeologically, iconographically and textually. Their decoration often (at least in the developed phases) reveals an explicit connection to their function. Yet despite their exemplary internal and archaeological coherence, and despite their beauty, no systematic modern study has been devoted to white-ground lekythoi. John Oakley now admirably fills the gap with a publication geared to the needs of many different kinds of readers.

Picturing Death focuses on the “polychromatic lekythoi” which form the most coherent corpus. The prior “outline” lekythoi, from which the polychrome tradition emerged, exhibit a more catholic decoration (possibly even a greater variety of function in view of their wider distribution in antiquity). Yet Oakley’s focus on polychrome lekythoi is no mere subdivision by technique for convenience: Oakley argues that they had a distinctive social and cultural niche. Six chapters of uneven length address the lekythoi from a variety of perspectives. Chapter 1 summarizes the historical development of white ground lekythoi and their archaeological character. Chapters 2-5 provide a series of iconographical studies (domestic; prothesis; myth; the grave) roughly in the order of their period of predominance over the course of the fifth century. The discussion within each chapter moves within a typological and then chronological perspective. Over time the iconography becomes more focused: whereas the outline lekythoi and early polychrome lekythoi rarely have explicit funerary imagery, in the second half of the fifth century, funerary subject matter becomes the norm. It also becomes more complex, with an increase in conflations between different scene-types. The last chapter turns to address the problems of interpretation by setting the corpus within its various historical and cultural contexts.

A great strength of the book is the delineation of the interplay between praxis, visual conventions and artistic personality. Author of two monographs on major classical pot-painters, Oakley is alert to the importance of the idiosyncrasies of individual painters in iconographic studies, an aspect that is often neglected, as he notes. In our (rightly) generalizing era, it is good to be reminded of the importance of the individual melodic strand in the symphony of iconographical and iconological studies.

The “Introduction” (ch. 1) equips the reader for the book, with succinct and informative surveys of (1) the history of the scholarship; (2) the evolution of the shape, clearly presented with examples from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (fig. 1); (3) technique, and its evolution over time (here especially the high quality of the illustrations and inclusion of a good array of colour plates gives strong visual support); (4) the archaeological evidence, essentially provenance studies providing clear indication of ancient context and function (especially noteworthy is the limited distribution within Athenian graves, which, in conjunction with the associated finds, testifies that this offering was beyond the reach of the majority of Athenians); (5) a summary of Athenian funerary ritual practice; and (6) a valuable chronological outline of the painters in the white-ground technique, their individual characters and interrelationships.

Oakley starts the iconographic analysis with the “Domestic Figures” (ch. 2) who dominate the subject matter of early polychrome painting. One of the longer chapters, it must have been among the most challenging to write as it deals with repetitive imagery whose social and ritual function is elusive. The mechanical subdivisions (one or two females; one or two males; one female and one male) support the argument that “polychrome” lekythoi continue the iconographic programmes of their predecessors (the outline lekythoi). Such “generic” domestic imagery tapers off later in the 5th c. when more ostensibly funerary subjects predominate. By far the largest group in polychrome is decorated with two women; 155 examples are listed, almost half of them painted by the Achilles Painter.

Despite its hoary antiquity in Greek iconographic traditions, the “Prothesis” (ch. 3) appears with comparative infrequency in the imagery of classical funerary lekythoi: only 33 (or perhaps 34) examples are known to Oakley and only a handful of painters show interest in the subject. Introduced from loutrophoroi by the Sabouroff Painter, the scene appears ca. 450 – 410. Examples range from precise delineation of one phase of funerary ritual (family mourning beside bier at home) to conflation with other aspects of funerary process: monumental lekythoi, even a stele, behind the kline evoke the cemetery or figures bearing the flat basket can foreshadow visits to the grave on future anniversaries. The consistent question of pictorial precision finds unexpected answers: although the painter of the white-ground technique had access to greater polychromy, red-figure loutrophoroi were found to be the more accurate in their coloration of funerary textiles, the white epiblema and dark mourning garments.

The fourth chapter, “Myth and Mythological Figures,” focuses on what Oakley terms the “conductors of the soul” — Charon, Hypnos and Thanatos, Hermes Psychopompos — and so fits naturally between prothesis and the tomb. Here also are examined the handful of mythological narratives and the random assortment of divinities, mostly feminine, that appear in the medium. Single mythological figures (set in no specific narrative context) cluster in the early period (some 45 are listed, dominated by the 16 with Amazons and 12 with Nike); they demonstratively carry over the non-funerary imagery of outline lekythoi and show close parallels with contemporary imagery in red figure.2 Scenes of mythical narrative are few: the 17 examples in outline and semi-outline cover the full range of contemporary subject matters from Theseus and the bull to Boreas and Oreithyia. In contrast, the four polychrome examples can be argued to bear some thematic link with death.

Among the “conductors of the soul” Charon predominates. In Greek art the figure of Charon is almost exclusively limited to Attic white ground lekythoi of the fifth century. His iconography is singular and variable: his banausic dress identifies him as a worker, although his physiognomy ranges between ideal and ugly, depending on the painter. The conflated scenes include such collocations as Charon’s boat and a funerary stele. He first appears on white-ground lekythoi in the decade 470-460, but he is most popular after mid-century. This is also the period when Hypnos and Thanatos are most popular, although in contrast they have a significant prior existence bearing the body of Sarpedon in red-figure (and black-figure) painting. Adapted to ordinary mortals, this schema implicitly heroizes the dead. The honour is first accorded to warriors, but later even to women. In two cases, the symbolic cluster two-winged-figures-raising-a-body is relegated to a decorative detail in the scene — stele finial, decoration on as pot on the tomb — in a more subtle implied narrative (fig. 96 and 98). Hermes usually appears in scenes together with Charon, first in outline lekythoi, again of about 460, but on four examples he alone attends the deceased. Oakley notes an interesting depiction of Hermes directing the passage of eidola through a pithos portal to the underworld (Jena V 225). As an extreme example of conflation (or is it interesting experimentation with continuous narrative?), one lekythos features all four conductors of the soul (Athens NM 1830, fig.95). Despite the manifest pertinence of these figures to the thematic of death, Oakley points out that they comprise only about 5% of funerary imagery.

The longest chapter addresses “Scenes at the Grave” (ch. 5), the most popular scene type from the mid-fifth century (on “the vast majority of the more than two thousand known lekythoi” xxiv). Visits to the tomb start on white ground lekythoi ca. 480-470, but from the beginning for both outline and polychrome lekythoi they are almost never monoscenic. This is a zone where the imagery is most challenging: the presence of a tumulus or grave stele would seem to localise the setting precisely at the tomb in a here-and-now space, but the different features of grave-side scenes show that a more metaphysical reading is almost always preferable. We are in the presence of polysemous image clusters: the figures at the tomb may or may not include an image to be read as the deceased; the cemetery is invaded by activities or personages that characterised the deceased in life. Oakley stresses the principle that the consumer selected from a range of open-ended imagery a lekythos that seemed appropriate for the situation: the purchaser did not go, photo in hand, to place a personalised order with precise indication of what family members or past activities should appear. In assessing the question of “archaeological accuracy” of the imagery — the tomb, the offerings — Oakley finds a fair degree of accuracy but also some fantastic elements. The eidola in the field are identified as markers of the liminal zone where living and dead may meet; indeed the lekythoi provide evidence that tombs were where the dead could easily be contacted (p.167), an observation which is supported by the importance of tombs in magical practice.

A full environmental (rather than strictly iconological) assessment in the final chapter, “Putting the Pictures into Context” (ch. 6), takes the form of a series of discussions, comprising: Historical context; Archaeological and iconographical context; Social context; Cultural context; and Literary context. Oakley links the start of polychrome production with the changes of funerary practice in Athens about 470, notably the establishment of the Demosion Sema, suggesting that the polychrome technique was first introduced at this public forum (note the use of stoichedon script by some lekythos painters, p. 224). The termination of the product line at the end of the fifth century may be partly due to the difficulty in acquiring raw materials for pigment manufacture in the economic disruption at the end of the Peloponnesian War. Moreover, the lekythoi were perhaps tainted during the oligarchic periods by their association with the hoplitic Demosion Sema. Their complex relationship with funerary reliefs and ceramic loutrophoroi comprises their artistic context: they share with funerary sculpture and loutrophoroi a thematic focus on the oikos and the polis, yet compositional parallels between classes of material are limited to one between the early “domestic scenes” and later classical funerary reliefs generations after.

The three major scene types are read as corresponding to van Gennep’s three stages of the typical “rite of passage:” the domestic scenes comprise the initial phase (separation), both the divine figures aiding the dead and the prothesis correlate to the liminal phase, and the visits to the grave represent the final phase of reintegration. The idea is interesting, though it is not clear whether it is the living or the dead (or both) who are perceived to be engaged in the passage, and “separation” in the domestic scenes is only implied by the absence of the deceased. In total, Oakley sees the social function of the iconography as a reassurance to the living that all “will turn out all right” both for the living and the dead. The dead will be given divine aid in their journey to the underworld; yet the dead are capable of being comforted by continued tendance of the grave. Oakley so effectively shows that the fluttering eidola serve as proof of the permeable boundary between living and dead that the most potent “reassurance” to the living would seem to be that death is not absolute. In the psychology of grief such reassurance is crucial; this is why visits to the tomb predominate in the repertoire of developed funerary imagery. The classical focus on ritual process contrasts starkly with archaic funerary iconography with its individualizing rhetoric about the arete of the deceased: it encapsulates the contrast between a residual aristocratic and an emergent democratic ideology. A comparison with literary treatments of death shows a recurrence of the same ideas — grief for the dead, reminiscence of the past, and perhaps mention of the passing.

Oakley “wears his learning lightly”. Unashamedly steeped in ceramic imagery, he gives much to his reader. His gathering and organisation of the evidence enables the reader to think through the material with him and so to gain personal insights. One such insight I gained relates to the artistic personality of Charon; and here it is a matter of drawing a different conclusion on the basis of the material meticulously presented. Oakley ascribes the popularity of Charon to his persona as a democratic figure: the ferryman appeals to this nation of sailors (p. 144, 218). Yet Oakley makes it clear, from the survival patterns of Athenian burials, that only the upper 25% of society typically could afford such burial offerings as figured white ground lekythoi (p. 9-10, 217); the estimate is corroborated by the presence of polychrome lekythoi in the hoplite burials of the Demosion Sema (the 1997 discovery reported p. 216). This profoundly important fact gives insight on that very problematic general question: who are the consumers? In the case of white ground lekythoi they are a social group of sufficient material standing to aspire to a life of domestic management of slaves for its women and absence on hoplite service for its men, just as is depicted on the pots.

The persistent, though by no means universal, readiness to depict Charon as a labourer (p. 115-125), fits such a social scenario. His thinned hair and beard, sometimes even ugly features, combined with his exomis, show his low standing: he is a sort of servant, whose value lies in his good tendance of the dead. The fact that he is a day-labourer is stressed by the passage he charges (the one obol, depicted on Athens NM 1757, fig. 87, is the earliest attestation of the fee according to Oakley). Charon fits into the same semantic category as the Thracian wet-nurse or aged paidagogos: a valued, even loved, member of the oikos, who shares in the grief of the oikos (Athens NM 19355, fig. 123), yet emphatically a social subordinate.

Picturing Death is a rich read. The book is packed full of information, yet presented in a manner that will engage the novice as well as inform the specialist. Oakley and CUP are to be congratulated for the fine balance between accessibility and information they manage in the presentation. Clever design decisions help give the scholarly book appeal to a wider market. Sets of “lists,” attractively offset from the main text in the pertinent sections, provide the raw data for the argument in a manner much more attractive and accessible than the conventional catalogue relegated to an Appendix or clumped at the ends of sections. The book is technically well produced; of the twenty odd minor errors, nothing would mar understanding except the occasional mishap in figure references.3 The illustrations are nearly uniformly excellent. The generous allocation of black and white figures, many at full page scale, are well selected to support the discussion; I have rarely wished that something mentioned was also illustrated. The 16 colour images are invaluable in exemplifying the technical evolution of white-ground painting. Only the general index does not well support the text; the index of vase-painters is useful.


1. Oakley points out some imitations in Corinth, Eretria, and Boeotia, p. 10-11.

2. For a convincing explanation of the puzzling image of Demeter and Persephone pouring libations (p. 93-98), see K. C. Patton’s concept of divine reflexivity, Religion of the Gods. Ritual, Paradox, and Reflexivity (Oxford forthcoming).

3. Figure references to be corrected: p. 15 and p. 212, reference to Fig. 68 should be Fig. 67; p. 16, reference to Fig. 105-6 should be Fig. 104-5; p. 132, reference to Fig. 100 should be Fig. 101 and p. 135, reference to Fig. 101 should be Fig. 100 (the confusion between figs. 100 and 101 would seem to arise from an alteration of layout for aesthetic reasons late in the process); p. 140, list 13, item 2, the reference to Fig. 104 should be Fig. 103.