Untimely death: the symbolism of the imagery on a black-glaze pyxis from the Benaki Museum collection

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2013 (EN)
Άωρος θάνατος: η συμβολική του απεικόνιση σε μια μελαμβαφή πυξίδα από τις συλλογές του Μουσείου Μπενάκη (EL)
Untimely death: the symbolism of the imagery on a black-glaze pyxis from the Benaki Museum collection (EN)

Ζήβα, Αγγελική

Δεν παρατίθεται περίληψη. (EL)
The black-glaze pyxis in question was donated to the Benaki Museum by Eleni Martinou in October 1991. It belongs to the class of black-glaze clay vessels with gilded decoration from the fourth century BC. Though there are no excavation details, an analysis of the clay by the Demokritos Institute of Materials Science (NCSR) has confirmed that the vessel was made in an Attic workshop. The pyxis is of the type B variety and on the basis of the typology proposed by Z. Kotitsa it can be dated to the second half of the fourth century BC and more specifically to the transitional phase from Group 1 to Group 2, i.e. ca. 330-320 BC. On the domed part of the lid are two bands, one with foliage and closed myrtle flower buds and the other with a vine and bunches of grapes. One side of the cylindrical lid is decorated with a necklace of spear-head pendants while the other has a second necklace with fourteen amulets: at the outer edges are two amulet holders and, more or less in the centre, a dolphin. In between are depicted: a grasshopper, two trefoils and a crescent-shaped one, the palm of a hand, a double-headed axe, a water-borne insect, a cicada, an eye, a ship’s ram and an unidentifiable object which may represent an animal head. On either side at the ends of the necklaces clasps earrings have been fashioned; each made up of a disc and hanging chains with spear-head pendants. The vase is decorated with delicate added-clay ornament; at some points the original gilding has been preserved. According to tests carried out at the Demokritos Institute of Materials Science (NCSR) the reddish colour covering the ground colour of the clay comes from cinnabar, the main mineral in mercury. Pyxides were usually part of the personal belongings of women and were used in everyday life to keep jewellery and cosmetics in. The necklaces which decorate the cylindrical part of the pyxis lid and the earrings undoubtedly imitate corresponding pieces of real jewellery made of precious metal and reflecting the fashions prevailing from the late fourth to the second century BC. Both types of necklaces are often seen decorating the sides of the same vase, whether as part of the gilded decoration or ornamenting the later “West Slope” ware. Of particular importance in the interpretation of the figurative decoration of the vessel is the presence of the necklace with the amulets. It resembles a coded message, most probably relating to the identity of the dead person the object once accompanied and the message the vessel was supposed to convey to the gods of the underworld. The choice of the insects among the amulets is most probably due to the observation of their methods of reproduction by the Ancient Greeks, who related them to death and rebirth, seeing the emergence of the chrysalis from the earth at regular intervals as a kind of immortality. The double-headed axe, the crescent moon and the palm should also be interpreted as symbols of rebirth but also as apotropaic symbols, while the trefoils are more reminiscent of a stylized depiction of a flower. The more general symbolism of the dolphin as a psychopompos, which guides the soul of the deceased, may account for its presence among the amulets, while the ship’s ram might be connected with a female divinity and refer to the desire to ensure a propitious journey to the other world for the dead person. Pieces of gold jewellery such as those depicted on the pyxis were not worn everyday but only on special occasions, such as on a wedding day. The decking out of the bride, conducted under a special ceremony, prepared the young girl for the transition from adolescence to maturity. In this case death represented her journey into another world. The necklace with the spear-head pendants and the earrings were perhaps a reference to a marriage that was not consummated in life, expressing the devout wish that it might yet be celebrated with Hades, while the amulets on the second necklace would offer her protection and help in the after life. (EN)


Μουσείο Μπενάκη (EL)
Benaki Museum (EN)

Περιοδικό Μουσείο Μπενάκη



Μουσείο Μπενάκη / Benaki Museum (EL)

Μουσείο Μπενάκη; Vol 9 (2009); 21-43 (EL)
Mouseio Benaki Journal; Vol 9 (2009); 21-43 (EN)

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