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Attic Black-Figure Chalcidising Eye-Cup

Provenance: N. Koutoulakis (1910-1996), Geneva.
Private Collection, New York, acquired in 1987 from the above.

 

One of the most compelling and mysterious of popular motifs on Greek pottery is the iconographical innovation of a large pair of eyes. Eyes appear first in black-figure on the exteriors of cups in the third quarter of the sixth century BC, and throughout the fifty-odd years this ornamentation style remained in fashion, such pairs of eyes make their appearance on almost every vase shape from Athens, especially those that functioned around the symposium – with their use on the kylix being far more prevalent than any other shape. In fact, from approximately 530-510 BC, the preponderance of kylikes manufactured in Athens were eye-cups. An obvious conclusion to their pervasiveness on wine drinking cups is that their meaning has a direct connection to the wine god, Dionysos, and his cortege.  

There has been a plethora of scholarly hypotheses in the modern era that seek to explain this ornamenting phenomenon. The eyes have been interpreted as being apotropaic, warding off evil, even protecting the user from the evils brought on by inebriation. It has been postulated that eyes on Greek vases relate to the similar depictions of eyes that appear on the prows of ships, which are also considered apotropaic, and are thought to foresee the dangers that lie ahead in the seas. These conclusions seem to be inherently flawed, as the grave dangers of the deep surely cannot be compared to the frolicking revelry of the symposium. Why would such a serious charm be required in a light-hearted environment?

Likely, the merriment related to the use of the eye cup would indicate a more whimsical interpretation. In one sense, the eyes are pars pro toto of a face. That is, even if only the eyes are depicted, they are meant to represent the entire face. While most cups only depict eyes, some, such as the present example, indicate the nose and ears, as well as the shape of the cheeks. The anthropomorphic nature of the motif may actually represent a mask, for Dionysos is not only associated with wine, but also with the theatre. In addition, the ears that are found on some vases, including this one, are those of animals, identifying the eyes therein, and the mask as a whole, as likely belonging to a satyr or pan.

The eyes in the form represented on this cup, and most others, are considered to be masculine, based on the shape of the tear ducts, while feminine eyes are depicted softer and almond shaped. Other than female entertainers and escorts, the guests at a symposium would have been exclusively male. So, it would be natural to assume that the faces depicted on drinking cups would be exclusively male as well. Much of the current scholarship encourages interpretations to take into account that they may be pure whimsy and humour – for, if one is drinking from an eye-cup, the face painted thereon becomes like a mask worn by the celebrant when the cup is tilted back for imbibing. In fact, the handles and the open base of the foot can be seen as his ears and a mouth. Furthermore, by displaying identical eyes on both sides of the cup, both the bearer of the cup and his companions are exposed to the same view throughout the banquet, connecting them all in the iconography and the story it tells.

The present example belongs to a class of eye-cups known as Chalcidising. This group is made in an Attic workshop but bears the characteristics of the so-called Chalcidian type eye-cup, incorporating a nose and zoomorphic ears, as well as a short foot. The Chalcidian eye-cups were created for the South Italian market, while the Chalcidising kylikes were Athenian in fabric for the Athenian market. It has been suggested that these emulated eye-cup forms came from the prolific and highly esteemed Attic workshop of Nikosthenes and Pamphaios, who were known for their attention to the tastes of the Hellenized west.

This finely-potted eye-cup is a superb example, fastidiously painted by a skilled draughtsman with an astute symmetry and thin delicate lines. The eyes have white-filled sclerae, red irises surrounded by a black ring, and a black pupil. The interior exhibits a tondo with a Gorgoneion, the motif found in the bowl of a great percentage of eye-cups. The Gorgon face would be obscured while the cup was filled with wine. As the dark liquid was slowly imbibed, the monster’s face would gradually be revealed, a sure sign that it was either time for a refill, or was time to conclude the banquet for the evening. The thrill and humour of the subject matter on this eye-cup continues to titillate the modern viewer as it did the ancient participant in the symposium who slowly sipped wine from this elegant bowl.

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