Home > Lekythoi and the Emergence of the White Ground and Polychrome Techniques

Lekythoi and the Emergence of the White Ground and Polychrome Techniques

The ancient Greek lekythos is an oil or perfume container. Lekythoi come in a variety of shapes and sizes throughout time from its first emergence in the sub-Mycenaean Period (ca. 1100-1020 BC) through the vessels’ lifespan continuing into the Late Classical Period as large grave markers, reaching up to one meter high. There are three primary types of lekythoi: Deianeira, shoulder, and squat. All three categories share two common elements: figural decoration and their single-handled form. By 530 BCE, the shoulder style lekythos transformed into a cylindrical shape, the shape which Life, Death, and Lekythoi examines. 

During the Classical Period (ca. 500-323 BCE), the cultural function of the cylindrical lekythos changed in Athens. Lekythoi with a white ground and polychrome decoration became very popular grave goods during this period, appearing in approximately 25% of known Classical Athenian graves (cf. Oakley, J. 2004 Picturing Death in Classical Athens. Cambridge, p. 9). While their function as oil containers remained the same, lekythoi served a new function within funerary rites. The interior of the vessels follow this logic, remaining often with only very shallow interiors, allowing for very little liquid to be held inside. Thus polychrome white ground lekythoi transformed from primarily functional to primarily symbolic objects with respect to use. 

Life, Death, and Lekythoi focuses on Athenian polychrome white ground lekythoi. The white ground technique is achieved by painting a white ground onto a fired ceramic vessel and next adding figural and ornamental decoration. This method of decoration appeared around 530/525 BCE with black-figure images. The earliest known preserved white ground lekythos dates to 510 BCE by the artist Psiax. Around 480 BCE, the drawing technique on lekythoi shifted from black-figure images to figures in outline. Black-figure decoration on lekythoi died out completely immediately after the end of the Persian Wars (480-479 BCE). Outline figural decoration dominated until around 470 BCE, when various washes of slip began to color the garments of figures; women’s skin developed into a brighter hue of white, whereas the skin color of men developed into a deep tan color. Thus the polychrome technique on white ground lekythoi was born and remained the dominate style of lekythos until about 410 BCE.