Ugly Object of the Month — February 2020

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Love is in the air, gentle readers. It’s February, and St. Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. Maybe you’re hoping to receive something special from your significant other, or maybe you’re hoping your love life will receive a boost this month. Either way, we’ve got the object for you: it’s Eros on a pyxis, and he’s bringing a gift. What could be better?

Clay pyxis with lid. Rim diameter 6.4 cm, height 7.8 cm. Ca. 5th–4th c. BCE. KM 1977.3.2.

Exactly what’s happening with Eros in this scene is a little unclear. You would think that the Greek God of Love and Sex would have it made, but on this pyxis it looks like that’s not the case. For one, he doesn’t have any feet. Granted, Eros does not actually need feet, because he has wings. But still. It just seems lazy on the painter’s part. You can paint giant wings and a truly freakish hipbone but you can’t bother to put ankles and feet on those legs? Come on.

Two, Eros appears to be holding a cushioned stool as he flies up on some poor, unsuspecting woman, and she really doesn’t look into it. Maybe she truly doesn’t want the stool, or maybe the painter hasn’t accurately captured the spirit of the moment.

The woman could be Psyche or, you know, not. The Eros / Pysche thing is complicated and — once again — the painter of this pyxis is not giving us a lot to go on. Why would Psyche / unknown woman want flown-in furniture? Maybe she ordered it on Amazon and instead of delivering it by drone, they sent Eros instead?

The woman is standing in front of what looks like a dovecote, which might mean something. Or not. My husband, who is 100% an expert (but not in this), says this could be some sort of guest / host situation. As in, the woman has come to visit — wandering through the wilderness and passing by a dovecote, as one so often does in the wilderness — and when she gets to Eros’ place, he’s like, “Heeeyyy, Psyche! Come on in! Have this stool. Get comfy!”

With her upraised arm, she could be saying, “Eros, thank god I made it through the insane wilderness where I was nearly pecked to death by half-domesticated doves! I seriously need that stool, and please bring wine.” Or she could be like, “Gah! Get back! Why is this crazy bird-person flying up on me?! I barely made it out of that dove situation alive!”

Who can say.

What I can say is that I love this object. If the Kelsey decided to hold an auction, I would buy this in a hot second. And then I would use it to serve candy hearts. “Will you be my Valentine?” I think this is what Eros is trying to say with his imperfectly painted body and odd, furniture-gifting situation. Let’s hope his lady love, whoever she is, is saying yes.

Curator Favorites

When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object. Here is the sixth in a series.

BY LAUREN E. TALALAY, Curator Emerita and Research Associate (retired Associate Director and Curator for Academic Outreach), Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Adjunct Associate Professor, The University of Michigan

 Favorite Artifact: Amphora by the Berlin Painter. Clay, Attic Red Figure (ca. 480 BC). Common Fund purchase 1977. KM 1977.7.1

Amphora by the Berlin Painter
Amphora by the Berlin Painter.

Why. The amphora’s aesthetics as well as its subject matter. The simple beauty, wonderful color, rich black background, and elegantly drawn people move me. I love the way the painter has given us two individuals focused only on each other. It’s a poignant moment frozen in time of a warrior going off to battle or returning from war. Although the topic’s roots go back to antiquity, we can still relate to the difficult issues of war in our time. While it is hard to see, there is also a shield behind the warrior that was incised by the artist but never painted. It makes me wonder why the artist never finished it.

About Artifact. The painter of this amphora, who like many other Athenian vase painters never signed his name, can be recognized by his style on more than 300 vessels, some of which are among the most beautiful surviving examples of red-figure pottery. He is called the “Berlin Painter” after his masterpiece now in Berlin (Antikensammlung). His simple, elegant composition often “spotlights” one or two figures against the dark background.

The scene on this side is most likely one of sacrifice, with the young warrior setting off to or returning from battle. Facing the youth is a woman who may be his wife. The warrior holds a spear; an incised, but never painted, shield is faintly visible behind and to the left of him. The reverse depicts an old man with a staff, perhaps the warrior’s father. The young man also holds a vessel, which, however, seems to be the wrong kind for a libation or sacrifice scene.

Background. In scenes of this nature, figures are more often painted holding a non-footed vessel called a phiale. The piece may have been incorrectly restored before it arrived at the Kelsey. The Kelsey Museum purchased the Berlin Painter amphora through Bruce McAlpine of Bruce and Ingrid McAlpine Ancient Art, London dealers. It was part of the ex-collection of Lord Belper of Nottingham, England.

Find It.  First, locate the ancient Greece exhibit case on the first floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. This exhibit case faces the wall of windows. While standing in front, look toward the right-hand end of the exhibit case where the artifact sits.

Two Talalay books — In the Field: Archaeological Expeditions by the Kelsey Museum, coauthored by Lauren E. Talalay, and Prehistorians Round the Pond, coedited by Lauren E. Talalay — are available in our gift shop.