Online Review: Book

Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum. Germany 87. Munich, Antikensammlungen ehemals Museum Antiker Kleinkunst 15: Attisch Wiessgrundige Lekythen

Timothy J. McNiven

115.4

By Erika Kunze-Götte (Union Académique Internationale). Pp. 156, figs. 57, Beilagen 23, color pls. 85. C.H. Beck, Munich 2010. €98. ISBN 978-3-406-60170-5 (cloth).

This volume provides a thorough description of the white-ground lekythoi in the Munich Antikensammlungen. The catalogue entries are remarkably complete, carefully describing condition, shape, decoration, and iconography for each lekythos or fragment. Every extant piece is illustrated in color, usually with details, and there are drawings and old black-and-white photographs to help where the color photographs do not tell enough or the condition has changed. All suitable vessels also have profile drawings. The minutiae of drawing, subsidiary decoration, type of paint, and details of shape—on which chronology, attribution to hands, and placement in workshops depend—are all recorded. Apart from the actual objects, it is difficult to imagine a better resource for studying these vases, which is the ultimate goal of the CVA.

The only problem here is with the interpretation of the images. Reading the catalogue as a whole, it becomes apparent that the author assumes that almost every image displays a deceased individual, usually with one or more mourners. The funereal context of white-ground lekythoi, of course, means that this is often the case. Typically, a figure weeps or brings grave offerings to a tomb, on the other side of which is another figure, who can be understood as the recently departed. However, genre scenes that have nothing to do with burial practices are also interpreted in this way. So, for example, a depiction of a woman tying her belt while holding the overfold of her peplos in her teeth (Munich 7663 [fig. 17]) is viewed as a dead woman dressing. The hydria on a base before her becomes a grave monument, despite the snood hanging in the background, which places the scene at home. While Sabetai (V. Sabetai, “Aspects of Nuptial and Genre Imagery in Fifth-Century Athens,” in J. Oakley, W. Coulson, and O. Palagia, eds, Athenian Potters and Painters [Oxford, 1997] 321–23) has connected these dressing figures with brides (as the author also notes), and marriage was often connected with death in Greek culture, the leap to assuming that the woman is deceased seems tenuous (48). Likewise, images that show two women together may be simply generic. As on the Stele of Hegeso, to which the author (61) compares the scene on Munich SS 79 (pl. 31), the women are shown at home on lekythoi as they were when alive. Since we do not know the age (or even the sex) of the person to whom this vessel was dedicated, it is impossible to assume that either figure was supposed to be the deceased. Indeed, if this lekythos came from the grave of a man, we might see the painting as an image of the family he left behind, or his wife’s reference to her wedding day.

The need to identify a dead person in each image becomes most obvious in the case of Munich SS 80 (pl. 33), the famous lekythos labeled “Helikon.” One woman is shown standing, and the other is seated on a rock, playing a phorminx. Although the copious literature on this image discusses these figures as Muses, Kunze-Götte sees them as mortals, with the seated figure indicated as deceased by being placed on a rock, isolated in the background, and cut off from the viewer by facing left and thus only showing her instrument from the back. One could praise the artist for choosing the more difficult pose. One could admire the use of “Polygnotan” space. The author chooses to see all of this as a transfiguration of the dead woman into a Muse.

Later in the fifth century B.C.E., generic and mythological images all but disappear, and the grave becomes the focus of almost every image. Even then, it is difficult to pinpoint who is dead and who is not. On Munich 6027 (pl. 63), both figures touch their hands to their heads, a traditional gesture of mourning. Neither should be the deceased. Likewise, on Munich 2785A (pl. 80), both a man and a woman bring grave offerings to the cemetery, so neither can be dead (136). On Munich 7634 (pl. 70), the author admits that, according to her criteria, either figure (or both) could be dead (120). It would seem that there is more ambiguity in these images than this volume allows, as is true with contemporary and later relief stelae. Often, the dead person whose name is inscribed does not match the person one expects to be the subject of the stele. Ambiguity may have been a smart commercial strategy with lekythoi, when there would have been no time for special commissions in the two days between death and burial in ancient Athens.

A CVA fascicle is not the place for extensive discussion of general interpretations, so Kunze-Götte has given us those arguments in an article published in CVA Beiheft 4 (“Beobachtungen zur Darstellungsweise sepulkraler Thematik auf weißgrundigen Lekythen,” in S. Schmidt and J. Oakley, eds., Hermeneutik der Bilder: Beiträge zur Ikonographie und Interpretation griechischer Vasenmalerei [Munich 2009] 53–64). In that article, the author treats us to a broad view of the interpretation of white-ground lekythoi examined through the lens of a few of the best Munich examples. Her essay is as evocative as the CVA entries are factual, which makes problematic the transferral of the generalities of the former to the particularities of the latter. Unwary scholars who consult the CVA entry about a single lekythos may logically assume that the section on interpretation has the same concrete basis as the descriptive passages. They will have the opinion of a great scholar, but not, perhaps, the view of the consensus, which is better reflected in Oakley’s Picturing Death in Classical Athens (Cambridge 2004).

These reservations aside, Kunze-Götte and the Munich Antikensammlungen are to be congratulated on the publication of a wonderful volume: thorough and precise in the text and illustrated in glorious color. As a final note, all of the vases were in the collection or have a known provenance before 1970, and most of them have recorded findspots.

Timothy J. McNiven
Department of Greek and Latin and Department of History of Art
Ohio State University
1465 Mt. Vernon Avenue
Marion, Ohio 43302
mcniven.1@osu.edu

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.McNiven

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