Ancient Mediterranean

Attic black-figure kylix, ca. 530 BCE
Follower of Exekias (Greece, active ca. 550–525 BCE)
Earthenware, slip
4 1/2 x 14 1/2 inches (including handles)
Gift of Theresa E. and Harlan E. Moore 1970-8-1

Beginning in the mid-sixth century BCE, Athens was the center of ceramic production and decoration in Greece. A wide variety of Athenian vessels have been found at sites throughout the Mediterranean, pointing to extensive exportation of these works. The signatures of the potter and sometimes the painter on these vessels indicate that several hands were involved in the production process. Even though these vessels were generally manufactured for everyday household use, the desirability of a vessel was to some degree determined by its association with an artist or group of artists.

Black-figure is the earliest of the three main Attic decoration techniques. Wheel-thrown vessels were covered with slip, a watered-down clay, which rendered a glossy reddish surface. The decoration was then painted in silhouette against the red ground with some additional incised and painted details, mainly in red and white. After the decoration had dried, the vessels were fired.

The interior of this kylix, or drinking cup, depicts a triton—a mythical beast with human torso and head and serpent body. On the outer face of the cup, four apotropaic eyes, believed to ward off evil, are shown in the spaced between two narrative scenes depicting Athena, the warrior goddess of wisdom, battling the Giants. This mythological episode is one that enjoyed widespread popularity in Athenian art during this period because it symbolized both the military prowess of Athens and the role of Athena as patroness and protectress of the city.

Although the name of the painter of this kylix is not known, it is thought that he worked near or within the workshop of Exekias, a potter and painter of the black-figure style who signed some of his works. Because of the existence of a few signed works among thousands of anonymous examples, early scholars and collectors established a hierarchy of objects. Greek vases by known artists such as Exekias became more desirable than those whose artists remained unknown. It is possible that the original owner of this piece may have associated it with Exekias in order to increase its market value. Although such an association is perhaps appealing, it may be more appropriate to appreciate this piece as a vehicle for glimpsing everyday life and aesthetics in sixth-century Athens.

Text by Christine Zitrides, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008

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