Attic white-ground lekythoi

Museum replicas of Ancient Greek vases in the style of white ground lekythoi

White-ground lekythos depicting offerings at a tomb

The white-ground technique was well known from the archaic period and onwards.

The technique potentially developed as an alternative to black-figure, or as an attempt to replicate either more rarefied materials such as ivory, or more expensive materials such as marble. The white-ground technique was used primarily on lekythoi, but also appears on other vessels such as an oinochoe, alabastron, kylix and pyxis. It consisted of a vase being covered with a white slip of kaolinite. The painter would then use free-style drawing and brushstrokes, often in bold colours, to create an effect similar to wall paintings.

Museum replicas of Ancient Greek vases in the style of white ground lekythoi

White-ground lekythos depicting Hermes and Charon

Lekythoi also depict the deceased as tiny flying souls. For example; the lekythos attributed to the Sabouroff Painter (above) illustrates a scene common in ancient literature: Hermes, the messenger god and conductor of souls (‘psychopompos’), identified by his himation, petasos and kerykeion/caduceus, leads the soul of a woman to Charon the ferryman, who will take her across the river Styx. Above this intimate and telling scene flit a number of tiny winged souls, again reflecting the belief in the retention of one’s soul and identity after death. Moreover, this lekythos provides key evidence about how the ancient Greeks conceived the process after death itself.
Lekythoi also provide insight into the poignancy of death and the mourning of the deceased. The iconography surrounding the ‘Departure of a Warrior’ was frequently depicted on lekythoi. This stock image represents the loss of a loved one as well as the remembrance and celebration of the mourner’s relationship with the deceased. The lekythos attributed to the Achilles painter (above) dates to ca 440BC and depicts a warrior and his beloved. The scene is one of tender intimacy, demonstrated by the domestic surrounding of a marital home. The woman is seated, which implies comfort and a familiarity between the two persons. Although the exact meaning of the lekythos is unknown, it may be that the warrior, now deceased, is handing his helmet to his beloved in an act which is symbolic of what he was unable to do in life.

Museum replicas of Ancient Greek vases in the style of white ground lekythoi

White-gound lekythos picturing a warrior’s farewell

Funerary rights and mourning in antiquity were the responsibility of women, so it is not surprising that lekythoi provide vast amounts of evidence on this area, in a society where women had very clearly defined and often ‘subservient’ roles. Women on lekythoi are often depicted in scenes of ‘prothesis’: literally the ‘laying out’ of the deceased, accompanied by the ritual of mourning.

Author: Lauren Wager for It’s All Greek.

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