Lekythos with Nike

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A classical-form lekythos with a pyriform body above a disk-form base, a strip handle and a long neck ending in a trumpet-form mouth. The vase made by the red-figure technique on a black background. The body of the vase is covered by black slip, as is half of the neck up to the mouth and also the upper section of the foot or base. The shoulder, the figurative scene and the outer surface of the base display the natural colour of the clay.

The shoulder of the vase is decorated with black palmettes. The figurative decoration is on the body of the vessel. Above this, circling just below the shoulder, there is a band of meander painted in black. The iconography of the principal motif of the vase is a winged Nike flying and fluttering in the air and dressed in a sumptuous pleated chiton. Her hair is tied back with a ribbon in a bun. The goddess is seen in profile, approaching a podium or an altar with her arms extended forward. The right arm is lower than the left and she is holding a phiale or plate in her hand. In her raised left hand, she seems to be holding a red circle, perhaps something edible.

The wings of the goddess Nike, who personifies military victory and triumph in athletic and musical competition, probably indicate her capacity to achieve a rapid victory. As in the case of Eros, Nike was a familiar figure in Greek art. Scenes which depicted a flying Nike became popular at the beginning of the 5th century BCE and were probably related to the victory of the Greeks over the Persians in the battle of Marathon (490 BCE).

In Greek mythology, Nike or Niké was the goddess of victory. She was frequently depicted as a small winged sculpture in the hand of a more important god such as Zeus or Athena, her ally, with whom it was considered that she had been brought up in childhood. She presided over athletic competitions and military disputes. Her counterpart in Roman mythology was Victoria. Her temple on the Acropolis in Athens is of great note. She is usually depicted with wings and carrying a palm leaf or a laurel wreath. Well-known representations of Nike include the Winged Victory of Samothrace, prominently displayed in the Louvre in Paris, the small statue in the hand of Zeus at Olympia, and other works of the Renaissance.

A lekythos is a type of Greek pottery used to store perfumed oil to be used to anoint the body. This sort of vessel was also used for funerary purposes. It is characterized by its elongated form, narrow neck and wide mouth which facilitates application of the oil while controlling the flow.

Red-figure pottery was one of the most important figurative styles of Greek production. It developed in Athens around 530 BCE and was used until the 3rd Century AD. In the space of a few decades it took over the place of the previous dominant style of black-figure pottery. The technical base was the same in both cases but in red-figure pottery the colouring is reversed so that the figures stand out on a dark background as if they were lit up in a more natural way. The painters who did black-figure work were forced to keep the motifs they painted well apart one from the other and to limit their complexity. In contrast, the red-figure technique gave much greater liberty. Each figure was silhouetted against a black background, allowing the painters to portray anatomical details with greater accuracy and variety.

The technique consisted of painting the motifs on the vessels while they were still unfired using a transparent slip, which when fired took on a black coloration. In this manner the motifs were invisible before firing so that the painters had to work from memory without seeing their earlier work. Once the piece had been fired the zones which had not been covered by the slip retained the red colouring of the clay while the glossy areas, those that had been painted, acquired a dense, brilliant black colour.

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