Attic Red-Figure Bell-Krater

SKU: TT14-C005 Tag:

Third quarter of the fifth century BCE
Height: 34 cm
Rim: 35 cm
Foot: 17 cm
Recovered by the Guardia di Finanza in 2001
Photo: Foto Boys di Riccardi Ragazzi –  courtesy by DeBooks llc

The most ancient type of krater, the “bell-shaped” (Type 1) because it reminds one of an upside down bell, is not known before the emergence of the red-figure technique. According to some scholars, its form is derived from the traditional wooden tubs employed probably for grape-stomping, as can be seen from some representations on other vessels. The recovered object has a pair of arched handles that are attached under the rim, which is bent outwards and forms, with respect to the body, a slight bulge. The lip is bifurcated while the foot is formed by two concave curves and presents a rounded bottom, and the upper part is separated by an unglazed strip in relief. Recomposed from various fragments and with many restorations, especially at the height of the rim, the external surface of the recovered object is in a poor state of preservation, and although in its entirety the figurative repertory represented is legible, the detail of the figures is compromised and often illegible. In certain points, the black paint is tenuous, often translucent, and with reddish-brown reflections that are concentrated mostly at the height of the handles. The secondary decorations are composed of two bands of egg-and-dart motifs, both on the lower lip and on the molding slightly above the body. A floral theme occurs in the middle of the rim, composed of alternating and opposing pairs of palmettes. The palmettes incline toward the right and are separated by a pair of volutes. Beneath the figures, a frieze with a meander pattern continues.

Side A
The decoration reintroduces the classical scheme of three characters: the god, placed in the central position, observes without taking part in the dance or procession executed by the figures flanking him, namely a satyr and a maenad (generally one per side). In this example, Dionysius advances from left to right and is shown in a three-quarters view, with his torso rotated to the right, so as to offer an almost frontal view. His right arm is extended backwards and away from his body. He holds a kantharos in his hand. The left hand holds a thyrsus, a staff topped with a pine cone. The god is enveloped in an ample robe. His cloak is draped from his left shoulder around his back to the front of his body, where it falls on his chest and arms. Dionysius is represented as bearded and looking backward, his head ringed with a diadem that cascades down the nape of his neck and encircles a full head of soft curls that falls to his shoulders. On the left, a satyr advances from left to right with a barbiton. The barbiton is a stringed instrument, similar to the lyre but without its tension mechanism, made up of an oblong-shaped resonant box (smaller than the lyre’s), onto which the strings (generally seven) are attached; at the box’s sides are two long, lateral arms, gently arched at the top and held together by a straight yoke, onto which the strings are attached. In this representation, however, the yoke is preceded by an ample unglazed space that is not in keeping with the rules of proportion or functionality that normally characterize the figurative reproduction of this instrument. In the Dionysian scenes of red-figure vessels, the barbiton is the most widely represented musical instrument, especially beginning in the fifth century BCE; it always accompanies representations in which the presence of wine is placed in particular relief, particularly through the presence of wine containers like water bags and the kantharos, in this case emphasized by the fact that it is in the divinity’s hands. To the right of Dionysius, a female character solemnly advances from left to right, looks backward, and holds in her hand a timpanon, a percussion instrument, similar to the modern tambourine, made of animal skin stretched over a circle of wood with a diameter of about forty centimeters, judging by the proportions of the figure. The figure is identifiable as a maenad; she is wearing a chiton, an ample tunic that envelopes the body, and a leopard belt, according to typical iconography. The timpanon appears prevalently in red-figure representations beginning in the second half of the fifth century BCE: its use was associated with the progressive infiltration of the cult of Cybele, and Oriental cults in general, into the Greek world to the frequency in which it is seen in the vessels of this period, and from the literary tradition, it is the musical instrument that animates the dances and the ceremonies dedicated to the cult of Dionysius, and for that reason, appears almost exclusively in the hand of women or satyrs, almost always animated dance scenes; the rhythmic din of the tambourines and the consumption of wine allowed the maenads to reach a progressive sensorial excitement, accompanied by a mystical dance, culminating in a sacrifice to Dionysius. Regarding the musical context depicted on red-figure vases, the association between the barbiton and percussion instruments is very rare: in fact, the barbiton is normally accompanied by the double aulos.

Side B
Three cloaked male figures, the first two are facing out from the left, and the third stays on the left. The central figure holds in his hand a rectangular object, interpreted as a writing tablet, that hangs from a string, while a bag, shaped like a lozenge, hangs between the first and second figures; in this section, the surface of the vessel presents various pictorial lacunae, owing to the detachment of the black paint, probably indicative of a poor dilatrometric fitting between the ceramic body and the sheathing. From the formal point of view, the artifact in question presents a rare typology of the bifurcated lip, though another bell-shaped krater is conserved in the National Archeological Museum of Ferrara.
The recovered artifact could be attributed to the production of the Cleophon Painter, a member of the group of Polygnotus, active circa 430 BCE. The Dionysius on this artifact, especially his face and diadem, as well as some details of the drum-holding maenad’s posture, would need to be compared to those represented on a pélike conserved in the State Collections of Antiquities in Munich.

Tiziano Cinti – Mauro Lo Castro

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