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

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

By John H. Oakley. Pp. ix + 268, figs. 175, pls. 8. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2004. $90. ISBN 0-521-82016-2 (cloth).

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Perhaps the more “generic” rather than mythological subject matter on white-ground lekythoi makes their interpretation appear to be simple. Yet this is a deceptive assumption, and the lack of a systematic study of their iconography has been a considerable gap in the field. Oakley’s monograph addresses this lacuna, presenting an iconographical and iconological study that pays attention to individual painters and whose aim is to be useful to students and scholars. He has succeeded in that goal and indeed puts forth material and ideas that will allow a richer and broader exploration of this material by scholars.

The opening chapter is a model review of the literature and state of knowledge of white-ground lekythoi, including what is known of their archaeological context, painting technique, major painters, and chronology.

The next four chapters examine the iconographic elements according to major scene type, beginning first with scenes that are labeled “domestic,” referring broadly to the household and its activities, in contrast to scenes involving prothesis, mythology, or grave site. The domestic scenes are divided into groups based on the number and gender of major figures. For each, there is a list of vases grouped by painter, a nicely varied selection of illustrations (though the legibility of some photographs is difficult due to the condition of the vases, and figs. 100 and 101 further on are misnumbered), and discussion of the major activities, objects, features, and variations. For scenes with two female figures, Oakley uses the label “two women” rather than “mistress and maid/slave” and avoids the identification offered for some female figures as hetairai (to this bibliography should be added S. Lewis, Athenian Women: An Iconographic Handbook [London 2002]). In doing so, he rightly recognizes that there is an inherent ambiguity in the subject matter, and recognizes that it allows a certain freedom of interpretation by the viewer and, one might add, broader appeal for sale by a workshop. Some shortcomings with the lists are that they are subdivided by artist without indicating the type of activity, and several lists are labeled as “some” while others seem more complete, making it difficult to compare directly the relative frequency of subject matter and details.

The next chapter examines prothesis scenes, which are relatively few in number. Oakley nicely summarizes the prothesis and its part in funerary ritual. He argues that the pictures are meant to be a pastiche rather than illustrations of actual practice, encompassing multiple stages of the funeral action into a single image. Chapter 4 treats mythological figures and narrative scenes, which are relatively uncommon and mostly early. Scenes with conductors of the soul are especially interesting and more frequent: Charon, Hypnos and Thanatos, and Hermes. Charon’s depiction is not one-dimensional but can be reassuring, commanding, or even ugly.

The final iconographic chapter looks at graveside scenes. Oakley argues that these scenes are also a pastiche, drawing upon elements of domestic scenes, burial, and visits to the grave. One of the older debates about these scenes has been identifying a dead figure, but Oakley argues for the existence of ambiguity in the identity of the figures. There are clearly some vases that include the dead, but on many it is impossible to be certain based on the visual evidence as to which, if any, of the figures are the living or the deceased. Again, ambiguity leaves the potential for interpretation to the viewer. Oakley also notes that there is not a strong connection of the subjects of lekythoi to the iconography of gravestones. Regarding the gravestones represented on the vases, he again avoids a literal interpretation, suggesting that they are neither pure fantasy nor simply illustrations of existing stelae but artistic elaborations. Finally, he reviews the range of offerings found in graveside scenes, including baskets, ribbons, wreaths, lekythoi and other vases, food, pets, and birds. There are no lists provided for most of these objects, and it should be noted that the lists here are more selective and do not include some of the illustrated vases.

In the concluding iconological chapter, Oakley quickly makes a number of suggestions regarding the context of the lekythoi. He suggests that they were used for both public and private burial, noting the discovery of lekythoi in the cemetery at Salaminos Street. He further suggests that the form might have been sparked by public funerals but notes that both their origin and demise are probably complex and multifaceted. Domestic scenes dominate the earlier lekythoi but are replaced by visits to the grave after mid-century; children become more popular in the later fifth century, perhaps reflecting the more dire circumstances of Athens. In contrast to earlier funerary art that emphasized the ethos of aristocratic males, the lekythoi give prominence to women and the oikos as a pendant to men and the polis. Oakley also ties the three main subjects of the lekythoi—domestic scenes, ministers of death, and visits to the grave—to three states in rites of passage: initial state (with rites of separation), liminal state (rites of transition), and final state (rites of incorporation). He likens this change from earlier funerary imagery to the democratization of Athens, but perhaps one should think of it as a more universalizing approach to subject matter—one that would have a broad appeal not only in Attica but also in Eretria where many of the lekythoi have been found.

The ideas in the iconological chapter are briefly stated and sensible but sometimes raise more questions than they answer. Oakley is surely correct in arguing for ambiguity and pastiche as principles of subject selection, but it would be helpful to know more about the selection of scenes and objects within them by studying their numbers and proportions and then factoring what is known about dating, findspot, and other elements. How often, for example, do children appear as a proportion of the known vases, and do all of these come from Attica when the findspot is known? To be fair, the kinds of questions that need to be addressed are beyond the bounds of an iconographic approach. Oakley’s book allows students and scholars to begin approaching them with a solid foundation upon which to build.

Mark D. Stansbury-O’Donnell
Department of Art History
University of St. Thomas
2115 Summit Avenue
St. Paul, Minnesota 55105

Book Review of Picturing Death in Classical Athens: The Evidence of the White Lekythoi, by John H. Oakley

Reviewed by Mark D. Stansbury-O’Donnell

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 2 (April 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1112.Stansbury

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