A first look at the lekythos: reconstructing palmette patterns

One of the objects I’m studying in the conservation lab this summer is an Athenian white-ground lekythos from approximately 430 BCE. A lekythos is a type of ancient Greek vase that was used to store oil. Lekythoi that were decorated with the familiar Greek black-figure or red-figure techniques stored oil for everything from cooking to cosmetics.

Kevin's black-figure lekythos

Oil Jug (lekythos), Cantor Arts Center collection, gift of Dr. Casey Wood, 1962.286. This is the black-figure Greek lekythos (480 BCE, attributed to the Haimon Group) that Kevin Chow, a former Cantor conservation lab intern, studied a few years ago. Click on this image to learn more about his project.

The piece that I’m studying is a white-ground lekythos attributed to the Reed Painter. White-ground lekythoi were used exclusively for funerary rituals and have a white slip fired onto the clay body instead of the quintessential black gloss. Vase painters applied a variety of pigments to the white ground, decorating the lekythoi with funeral scenes and patternwork. The shoulders of white-ground lekythoi were decorated with a patterns called palmettes. Palmette patternwork is very typical of lekythoi and other Greek pottery, so variations in design, intricacy, and brushstroke style can often be used to distinguish ancient painters and workshops. However, because the pigments were not fired onto the white ground, they are not as permanent as the black gloss. Over the centuries, most white-ground lekythoi have lost their bright colors and detailed decorations.

Oil Jug (lekythos), Cantor Arts Center collection

Oil Jug (lekythos), Cantor Arts Center collection, gift of Mrs. Philip N. Lilienthal, Jr., 1960.78. My lekythos is a good example of how abrasion can destroy the pigments and the ground.

Much of the pigment on my lekythos has flaked off or been abraded away, but the figures of a seated woman and a standing youth with a spear are still visible. The shoulder decoration has also suffered damage, so for my first mini-project this summer I decided to reconstruct the palmettes.

My first step was just to examine the shoulder of the lekythos and note all the different types of damage – efflorescence obscures the surface, some pigment has flaked cleanly off, and parts of the white ground appear to have been sanded off completely, leaving the red-orange terracotta visible (and leaving no trace of the design that was once painted on the ground). Although much of the black pigment that was used to paint on the palmettes has been lost, there are places where a faint gray stain is visible on the white ground. If you squint a little, you can match up the broken sections of the line and imagine how the curves must have connected.

The shoulder of my lekythos

The shoulder of my lekythos, with the black palmette pattern barely visible.

I started by drawing the front, left, and right sections of the shoulder individually, drawing only the gray lines that I saw rather than trying to extrapolate a complete design. This was harder than I thought – when there are two sections of line that almost connect, with just a small flake of pigment missing, it’s easy to imagine that you can see a shadow of the connecting piece on the white ground. There were several times where I was sure that two sections of line must connect, only to look at that spot under raking light and discover a grayish stain in an unexpected place, suggesting a totally different pattern.

I’ll admit, after I finished my initial drawing of the traces of pigment still visible on the shoulder, I was kind of stuck – a few lines on the front presented an obvious design, but most of the sides were so abraded that the pigment fragments seemed random. At this point, I came across a helpful resource – Donna Carol Kurtz’s Athenian White Lekythoi, which has a chapter about the Reed Painter that includes a discussion of the painter’s typical palmette patterns. According to Kurtz, “Reed patternwork varies little and is easily recognized” (61). She also notes that the Reed painter had an uncommonly “impressionistic” style and often used broken and incomplete lines. Looking at the example images in the book, I realized that the palmettes on my lekythos may have fragments of spirals, or smaller leaves and tendrils that may not in fact connect to the longer, sweeping lines of the palmette. Fascinating as this was, it also made my job harder, as I would now have to figure out which random lines and dots did connect.

Kurtz's Group R palmette

The Group R (the group of the Reed Painter) palmette from Athenian White Lekythoi by Donna Carol Kurtz (186).

I also looked through the object files in the Cantor’s archives and found a reference to an “identical” lekythos at the Seattle Art Museum. I obtained a picture of this lekythos, wondering if it was indeed painted the same as mine. Unfortunately, the Seattle lekythos does not appear to be truly identical, as it has different figures on the main body of the white ground. Although I don’t believe that the palmettes are identical either, the palmettes on the Seattle lekythos are much better preserved than mine, and they were clearly painted with two different pigments, alternating black and yellow leaves. This could mean that my lekythos also once had yellow portions in its palmettes, which would explain the large gaps between the black palmette leaves. I modified my drawing of the possible pattern to reflect this possibility, and I think the result is much closer to the typical Reed palmette that Kurtz describes.

Drawings from my lab notebook

A page from my lab notebook with several fragmental drawings of the Seattle lekythos (top), a potential design for my lekythos (middle) and a map of the pigment that is still visible on my lekythos (bottom).

The lekythos has suffered too much wear and tear for me to say for sure that any of my attempts are accurate. However, drawing what I see, piecing together potential designs based on my discoveries about the Reed painter’s work, and comparing my lekythos to other examples from the same era have given me a better understanding of the purpose of these decorations and the painter’s unique style. Hopefully I will be able to do some XRF on the shoulder pattern at some point this summer to see if there are trace amounts of pigment that might reveal more of the pattern!

2 responses to “A first look at the lekythos: reconstructing palmette patterns

  1. Pingback: Skimming the surface with RTI | Cross-Sections·

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