The ancient Greek pottery tradition is one of the most iconic genres in all of art history. Instantly recognizable and astounding in its endless variety, our graceful vessel fits neatly into a subgroup of Greek vases known as Black Glaze Ware. As one can clearly see, this technique allowed the form of the vase to take centre stage; in this case, that of the kantharos, a tall, stemmed, double-handled drinking cup with a dramatic silhouette. The cup is in excellent condition, and retains the delicate added white ivy garland decoration and rich black-brown glaze with which it was coated.
The Kantharos in Detail
This kantharos is generous in size and gracefully proportioned. The form is wheel made from very fine, buff coloured clay, with the bowl, stem, and foot thrown as a single piece. The arching strap handles that rise above the rim would have been fashioned separately and then attached before firing. The shape is standard with a thin everted rim, a ridge separating the slightly flared body of the cup from its offset convex base, and a tall stem with a ridge at the midway point and flaring foot.
The vase is well made with relatively thin walls and careful attention to symmetry. The black glaze has survived in good condition, still maintaining much of its original lustre. A delicate tendril of heart-shaped ivy leaves winds around the rim of the cup in added white pigment. The firing process left some areas of lighter reddish color, but the tan ring around the stem indicates that this area was covered when the cup was in the kiln and is original to the piece.
The kantharos shape in Greek pottery can be traced back to the eighth century BC, and it is believed to have mimicked the form of contemporary metal vessels, providing a less expensive, easier to produce version of similar cups in gold, silver, and bronze. In fact, the black glaze technique, which produced a glossy monochrome surface, is though to have been aimed at reproducing the surface effect of silver vessels. Judging from the shape, our piece appears to be a Type A kantharos, characterized by its tall stem and strap handles that arch above the rim of the cup. This shape was made and used throughout Greece, but the black glaze variants were a specialty of the region of Boeotia, just northeast of the Gulf of Corinth. Boeotian black glaze kantharoi seem to have enjoyed great popularity in the mid to late fifth century BC, and a number of close parallels for our cup exist.
Kantharoi were most often used as wine cups, both for ceremonial purposes and at banquets. The shape was closely associated with the cult of Dionysus, god of the vine, as he was said to possess a kantharos that was forever refilling itself with wine.
Private Collection, France.
Private Collection, New York, 1984.
with Acanthus, New York, 1999.