previous next

St. Louis WU 3284

Attic Kantharos Class G: London Class of Head Vases Early Fifth Century B.C.

Lent by the Washington University Gallery of Art; gift of Messers. Brookings and Parsons, donated after the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair (WU 3284).

The Vase: h. 17.5 cm; d. of mouth 12.5 cm. Mended and restored, small repairs. Portions of cup and right side of head restored. Surface worn and chipped in several places, particularly on the foot.

Decoration: This vase is formed of a wheel-made lip attached to a mold-formed lower portion in the shape of the head of a black female. She is depicted with her mouth partially open and her hair, wrapped in a sakkos, protrudes in a roll over her forehead. The whole vase is covered with a shiny black glaze of good quality, with the exception of the lips which are reserved. Incision was used to indicate the pupils of the eyes, the ears, and, by parallel undulating lines, the forehead hair. Added white: now mostly faded or partially missing, was used for the whites of the eyes, the outline of the sakkos behind the forehead hair and the teeth. The lip is encircled by a white wreath made of long leaves (perhaps a myrtle wreath shown tied in front). Added red: preserved only in traces on the tongue between the teeth, and probably applied in the nostrils as well. Although no traces survive, the lips may also have been red.

Attic plastic head-vases of the sixth and fifth centuries have been classified by Beazley on the basis of their molded portions. This example belongs to the London Class, named after a kantharos in London in the form of white women's heads. The class also includes oinochoai and mugs. Dionysos is a common subject, as well as both black and white women, sometimes arranged back to back (janiform).

The significance of the subjects chosen by the artist for a head-vase is still unclear despite numerous suggestions. The religious significance of the vessel type is now generally de-emphasized and the popularity of Dionysos and his female followers is seen as appropriate rather than cultic. There were relatively few head-vases and they were no doubt novelty and luxury items, probably of some snob value. The use of the head of a black for the body of many of these plastic vessels may be have no more significance than that of a topical reference, as souvenir-mugs in the form of human faces have today. There is no doubt, however, that, as Beazley pointed out, the nature of the Attic black glaze was particularly suited to the rendering of this subject.

Head-vases represent a marriage of the technique of the potter to that of the clay modeller, or coroplast. Although apparently never a truly successful union, it was tried out in this form throughout history in many different cultures.


FR, 243; Beardsley 1929, 28, no. 48; J. D. Beazley, "Charinos," JHS 49 (1929) 49, no. 11; Mylonas 1940, 202, fig. 18; ARV2, 1534, no. 19; K. Herbert & S. Symeonoglou, Ancient Collections in Washington University (St. Louis 1973) 24, fig. 31.

William Biers, University of Missouri-Columbia

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: