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In Defense of Late Black-Figure Vase Painting: Our Stunning Black-Figure, White Ground Lekythos

This beautiful lekythos is one of the star pieces of pottery in the gallery and is a valuable resource for gaining an insight into the Early Classical pottery market, the popular myths of the day, and how vases fit into the fabric of Athenian life and society (Fig. 1).

A black-figure, white ground lekythos with a fighting scene depicted on the body. It has palmettes on the shoulders and black glaze on the neck and foot.
Figure 1. Our Black-Figure, White Ground Lekythos. Ca. 490-480 BC. £50,000.

The scene painted on the lekythos is a Centauromachy, a popular artistic motif that appears everywhere from the southern metopes of the Parthenon to vases such as this. It consists of a battle between centaurs and famous Greek heroes. This particular version shows a hoplite soldier on one knee, thrusting the point of his spear into his opponent's midsection. The centaur, rearing up on hind legs and armed with a large fir tree branch, takes hold of the hoplite by his helmet's high crest (Fig. 2). The inclusion of the large fir branch gives us a clue as to which specific battle this scene draws from, that is the famous battle of the Centaurs and the Lapiths, a legendary tribe from North Thessaly. The fight erupted at the wedding feast of Pirithous, king of the Lapiths, when the centaurs became intoxicated and attempted to carry off the women, including the bride Hippodameia. The myth later came to symbolise the human struggle between chaos and civilisation, an enduring concept in Greek art. The myth was also popular in the Renaissance, being immortalised by the painters such as Luca Giordano (1682).

A battle scene between a Greek warrior and a centaur.
Figure 2. The Centauromachy Scene, Featuring a Lapith Warrior and a Centaur.

The decorative scheme of this vase has been attributed to the Athena Painter, an Athenian Black-Figure vase painter, named as such by the esteemed Sir John Beazley due to his frequent inclusion of the goddess Athena in his designs.[1] He worked mostly on oinochoai and lekythoi and employed both black-figure or, more often, outline figures on white ground, as we can see here.

The traditions that Black-Figure lekythoi exemplified were more important than the innovation and experimentation associated with the new Red-Figure technique.

The Athena Painter stands out as one of the last great painters of the Black-Figure tradition, working at a time when the early Red-Figure masters were perfecting their technique (Ca. 500-475 BC). He is closely associated with the Theseus painter, both of whom took inspiration from the earlier Edinburgh painter in his use of white ground and depiction of five palmettes on the shoulders of his lekythoi.[2] The vases from these three painters are distinct from the other black-figure artists of the time, whose work is comparatively lower quality.

The Athena painter made certain innovations that help us to distinguish him from his peers, like the addition of thin, delicate tendrils with closed buds to the palmettes on the shoulders of his works (Fig. 3).[3] He also has a penchant for adding black glaze to the necks of his lekythoi (Fig. 4).

Shoulder of a lekytos, featuring five palmettes with ivy tendrils
Figure 3. The Shoulder of Our Lekythos, Decorated with Five Palmettes and Tendrils.

The top portion of a lekythos, featuring a meander band, palmettes, hatched decoraiton and a black-glazed neck and mouth.
Figure 4. The Neck and Shoulder Decoration of Our Lekythos.

This vase is especially interesting for what it tells us about Black-Figure painting in the early 5th century BC. We generally think of Greek vase painting as a linear, evolutionary process that strives to produce more and more naturalistic designs. This therefore explains the widespread movement to the Red-Figure technique, which allowed for more complex designs of higher quality.[4] However, our lekythos is a great resource for debunking this theory, as it shows that in special cases, the more abstract Black-Figure technique was still preferred.

This idea is best illustrated by the Marathon Tumulus, a contemporary grave monument for 192 dead Athenians who fought in the Battle of Marathon against invading Persian forces. Buried on the battlefield as a mark of extraordinary honour, excavations of the tumulus reveal that, amongst higher-quality Red-Figure pieces, 28 Black-Figure lekythoi of middling quality were placed in the grave.[5] We also see Black-Figure in use for Panathenaic amphorae, large vessels given as rewards for winning an event in the Panathenaic games, a highly regarded athletic event held every four years in Attica. Only the most prestigious workshops were given contracts to work on these amphorae, and even brilliant Red-Figure painters such as the Berlin Painter still chose to use Black-Figure for their decoration (Fig. 4).[6]

A Panathenaic Prize Amphora that features five nude running men.
Figure 5. A Panathenaic Prize Amphora Attributed to The Euphiletos Painter. Ca. 530 BC. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1914.

But why was the Black-Figure technique still the chosen style for such important vases? Surely the gravity of both of these contexts would warrant the use of “high quality” Red-Figure? The reason is connected to the function of both types of pottery. Lekythoi such as our one by the Athena painter are the funerary shape and style of choice in the 5th century BC, and lekythoi in general were the most common vessels in burials across Athens and beyond.[7] The choice to include such vessels in burials as important as the Marathon tumulus shows that they are essentially a ritual requirement, because the traditions that Black-Figure lekythoi exemplified were more important than the innovation and experimentation associated with the new Red-Figure technique.[8] The decoration of the Panathenaic amphorae, given their special place in Athenian society and athletic tradition, was likely done in Black-Figure for similar reasons.

Our beautiful Black-Figure, white-ground lekythos thus exemplifies how certain, highly skilled Black-Figure painters rose above the changing stylistic currents of the time to create beautiful works of art steeped in traditional values. It also helps us to dispel the prevailing theory that Black-Figure was considered lesser than its Red-Figure counterpart in the 5th century BC. The choice of style was not based on aesthetic, but rather on the context and function of the vessel, with Black-Figure being the preferred style for vases associated with the more conservative funerary sphere.

This piece comes with excellent provenance, having been owned by Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton, the 2nd Marquess of Northampton, among other discerning collectors. The Marquess was the former president of the Royal Society and the Geological Society of London during the 19th Century. An exceptionally learned man, his possession of our lekythos adds another layer of historical interest to this wonderful piece.


Boardman, J., 1974, Athenian Black Figure Vases. Thames and Hudson.

Beazley, J. D., 1956, Attic Black-figure Vase-painters. Clarendon Press.

Brendle, R., 2017, The Function and Significance of Late Attic Black-figure Vases. Johns Hopkins University.

[1] Beazley 1956, 522-524. [2] Boardman 1974, 147. [3] Boardman 1974, 148. [4] Brendle 2017, 83. [5] Thuc. 2.34.5; Brendle 2017, 84. [6] Boardman 1974, 113. [7] Brendle 2017, 87, 97. [8] Brendle 2017, 83.

Written by Ella Wakefield


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