In Focus

Red-figure pyxis with lid: women's quarters

The following essay is from the 1996 publication Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Six figures occupy the scene, which is wrapped around the concave body of this elegant container. A woman sits at ease in a chair, facing right with a pet bird in her lap. Before her another woman holds out a box or chest in her right hand, offering it to her seated companion. She holds a bowl or basket in her left hand as she rapidly moves off to the right while looking back. A wicker wool basket (kalathos) stands on the floor below a cloth hung on the wall by pegs. Next, a nude young boy with outstretched arms runs toward a woman, his mother or nurse, who holds a hoop or basket against her right thigh. Behind her stands another woman in quiet tranquility, a pet bird resting on her extended right arm. Last is a woman who rushes toward a closed door with a box or small chest at her side. She holds up part of her drapery with her right hand to facilitate her rapid motion and swings her head about as if to catch a fleeting glimpse or spoken word from behind.

The gynaikeia, or women's quarters, was a subject growing in popularity among Athenian vase painters during the last half of the fifth century BCE. Indeed, the subject of women in Athenian art and literature during this period has a much greater profile than ever before in Greek culture. That the artist, like several others decorating this vase shape, has depicted a domestic scene of women interacting on a pyxis is certainly appropriate, since this shape functioned as a container for jewelry, incense, medicine, and cosmetics. The composition of the figures in this scene is deceivingly casual. In fact, the artist has carefully arranged the figures into three pairs, each focused inward and containing both animated and tranquil characters.

The closed door might signify only that this scene takes place inside, an interpretation supported by the presence of the cloth on the wall. The role of women in fifth-century-BCE. Athens was largely indoors. Yet the door may have one or more symbolic meanings worthy of note. The pyxis was commonly decorated with scenes relating to and focusing on marriage. The seated woman depicted on the Dallas Museum of Art vase here may be a bride about to receive a chest from which she will take items to prepare herself for the marriage ceremony. A seated figure among the other standing ones often denotes special importance in Classical Greek art, and the artist responsible for this scene has bestowed on her a contemplative mood befitting one about to engage in marriage. The presence of the young boy in this scene also alludes to marriage and family life. Socrates is quoted as stating that the procreation of children was the primary purpose of marriage (Xenophon, "Memorabilia" 2.2.4).

Wedding processions represented on sixth-century-BCE Greek vases make their way toward the house of the bridegroom, where the newlyweds will reside. By the middle of the 5th century BCE, depictions of the wedding party show that the bridegroom's house has been reduced to double doors symbolizing not only the threshold of the family homestead, but the portal of transition for the bride from maid to matron. Contemporary Athenian literature supports this interpretation. In the play by Euripides, "Alcestis" (914-25), Alcestis's husband, Admetus, addresses the door of their house after returning from her funeral. His lament includes references to their wedding day, when they first entered the house through the very same door out of which Alcestis was carried to her grave. Euripides' double meaning was intentional. The joys of life are always only one step away from death. That pyxides were frequent grave offerings reminds us that the closed doors on this vase may also allude to the portal separating this work from the next, a symbol found elsewhere in Greek and Etruscan art.

This pyxis is unusual in that it has a fluted ring handle instead of the canonical disk knob with crowning button. Examples with ring handles are rare and later in date, perhaps imitating ceramic pyxides with bronze ring handles from the later fifth century B.C.E. Hoffmann associated this vase with the style of the Aberdeen Painter (Hoffman 1970, no. 191), but this analogy does not appear to be correct. Closer in style is the work of another member of the Penthesilea Workshop whose pyxis in Manchester (Roberts 1978, 50, no. 16, pl. 31, fig. 2) is listed by Beazley as near the Painter of Brussels R 330 (Beazley 1963, 931, no. 2).

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 69-70.