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Lekythos with Satyrs dancing with Goats, 490–460 BCE 

Published onSep 09, 2020

Lekythos with Satyrs dancing with Goats490–460 BCE 

The Athena Painter of Athens 

Red-ground, black-figure  

Gift of M. Burton Drexler. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 


This vessel is referred to as a lekythos in Ancient Greek. Lekythos meant “oil or perfume vessel” although today archaeologists and art historians use this term to describe a particular shape that was produced in a wide-range of sizes and used to contain and carry perfumed oil. The vessels seem to be products of painters working in the heart of Classical vase painting, Athens. In ancient Athens, there were numerous pottery workshops consisting of groups of potters and painters; many painters and their workshops have become known to us either because they signed their work or because they repeatedly used idiomatic design elements that allow us to recognize their work or that of their students. Since the surviving signatures of painters are men’s names, scholars tend to refer to all vase painters as “he.” Where signatures are absent, identified painters have been given names that are based on repeated themes in their work, modern places names where their work was first identified.

Lekythoi were produced in the main painting styles in which vases were decorated with figures and/or ornaments in ancient Athens: black figure, where the majority of each decorative element was painted on and fired black, while the background was unpainted and left the natural reddish color of the clay (as in UM2013.651, exhibited here); white ground, created by adding a thin layer of white clay, really more of a cream color, to the surface of the vase, on top of which additional decoration was painted, usually in black (as in 2.1.4, exhibited in this exhibition); and red figure, where the figures and ornaments were primarily the reddish color of the clay and the background was painted in and fired black. By early in the 5th century BCE, red-figure vase painting had largely replaced the black-figure technique as the most popular, but production of black-figure cylindrical lekythoi nevertheless continued to be very strong. This may have been in part because many black-figure cylindrical lekythoi, and all white-ground lekythoi, were used in funerary activities, apparently mostly by women, and the vast majority have been found in burials as grave offerings.

Smallish cylindrical lekythoi made in Athens during the first half of the 5th century BCE, like the two on exhibit, were exported across Greece, around the Mediterranean Sea, and even to regions of the Black Sea, where demand remained high for these relatively inexpensive vessels from the most famous production center in the Greek world at this time. While demand was primarily driven by Greeks, including those (or their ancestors) who had colonized areas far from their homeland, non-Greeks were also consumers. As is often the case with goods in today’s globalized world, affordability and international markets spurred demand and large-scale production of these lekythoi and sustained the continuation of the more traditional black-figure technique.

This lekythos was decorated with imagery that is so far unique to this painter: a pair of satyrs each dancing with a goat that stands on its hind legs and flanks a central satyr, toward whom the goats and other satyrs all look. Both dancing satyrs have placed their drinking horns on the ground at their feet, while the third satyr is in the center front of the vase and plays the pipes (double aulos). Satyrs, imaginary creatures who in 5th century BCE Greece were represented as amalgams of human men and horses, were companions and followers of the god Dionysus, the god of wine and intoxication. Satyrs were usually pictured in contexts relating to Dionysus, who was also concerned with the theater and closely associated with the development of Greek comedy and tragedy. Perhaps as a result, satyrs played a key role in ancient theater, too. In Classical Athens, tragic performances were followed by what was called a satyr play because the members of its chorus dressed like satyrs. These satyric dramas often included low-brow humor and irreverence and it is possible that the scene on this lekythos references one from a lost satyr play.

The work of the Athena Painter has been identified by the addition of tendrils to the palmettes—five in number around the shoulder—and a completely black neck; he often depicted original subjects in the main scene and this is one such example. The Athena painter began painting in the black-figure style (on a reddish-clay ground), as seen here, and moved to the white-ground technique later; as a result, this would likely be one of the painter’s earlier works. Based on the shape of this lekythos and the style in which it is decorated, it can be dated to 490–460 BCE. The main scene is very similar to a white-ground lekythos that is also attributed to the Athena Painter in the collection at the Archaeolgical Institute of the Universtiy of Zurich.

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